In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, hundreds of Indian men traveled to the US Gulf Coast to work as welders and pipe fitters on damaged oilrigs, lured by the promise of permanent US residency and a good job. Instead, they became trapped in what advocates are calling "one of the largest labor trafficking cases in US history."
The men paid between $10,000 and $20,000 each to their recruiter, some selling all their family's possessions to make the trip. But they never got the green cards promised to them and their families by the recruiter, and they traveled to the US on short-term "guest workers" visas instead.
Once in the US, they were separated from their employer's non-Indian workers and forced to live in isolated, guarded, and cramped labor camps — for which their paychecks were docked $1,050 each month.
On Wednesday, a federal jury awarded five of the men, who were employed at a Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard, $14 million in compensation after finding their employer — the Alabama-based firm Signal International, a New Orleans immigration lawyer, and an Indian recruiter guilty of labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination. Signa International was ordered to pay $12 million, while the two co-defendants were ordered to pay $915,000 each.
The jury also found that one of the men was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation — as the company responded to workers who complained and sought outside help with threatening deportation.
Signa International did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment. The office of Malvern Burnett, the immigration lawyer, also declined to comment. Sachin Dewan, the Indian recruiter, could not be reached for comment.
In addition to the five plaintiffs in the case, almost 500 others were victim of the same scheme and were subjected to the same treatment. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and other civil rights groups that took up their case tried to file the lawsuit as a class action — but this was denied by a New Orleans judge.
"We were seeking to represent the whole group in a class action because extremely similar tactics were used on everyone: everyone was promised a green card, everyone traveled on a temporary 10-month H-2B visa, everyone paid more than $10,000 in recruitment fees, everyone was sent to one of two signal labor camps — one in Pascagoula, Mississippi and one in Texas," Naomi Tsu, a senior attorney at the SPLC, told VICE News.
"Guest workers" on temporary visas are not allowed to change jobs, which would cause them to lose their visas — and the money they paid for them — if they quit.
"All the Indian workers were treated differently than Signal's non-Indian workers. All had to have $35 a day deducted from their paycheck in order to pay for the 'man camps,'" she added, referring to the cramped living quarters the men were forced to share — where guests were rarely allowed and the company regularly searched through workers' belongings. When some men sought housing outside, they were told they still had to pay the $35 per day fee — though the company told the men they were not required to live in the camps.
In 2007, some workers were detained as Signal's private security raided their residences overnight. Two of them were detained and threatened with deportation; following the incident one of the men attempted suicide, the SPLC said.
Still, a judge denied class action status on the grounds that separate cases would be required, because of different individuals' reliance on fraudulent promises and the emotional harm the discriminatory practices had on them.
"That left 400 people who had contacted us just out in the cold," Tsu said. The SPLC proceeded to reach out to "everyone we knew" Tsu added, and 12 more labor standards complaints were filed to represent 230 other workers bringing similar grievances against the company.
Lawyers in the case now hope the $14 million will be only the first in a series of settlements.
"The trial that just concluded is the very first of all those cases," Tsu said. "We think the evidence is powerful, everyone suffered the same harm, and we're hopeful that everyone will get the same kind of jury verdict that we got yesterday."
'All my expectations were shattered'
The workers, mostly from Kerala, started arriving in the US in 2006. Tsu declined to say whether any of them were deported, citing a protective order in the case.
The Indian Embassy in the US did not respond to VICE News' request for comment. However, while no criminal charges were brought forward in the case, Dewan, the recruiter, was investigated in India and had his license temporarily suspended.
Some of the men testified in court about the devastating impact of the scam on their lives.
"I had borrowed so much money to come here," said Sony Sulekha, one of the five workers. "And then if I am returned [to India], then my entire family would [be in] the streets."
"The time that I went into the camp and I looked, I was shocked. Where all my expectations and my happiness all got destroyed, that was the minute that it happened," he said. "That was the minute where all my expectations were shattered."
Conditions at Signal's camps were "unusually bad" — but the scheme to defraud foreign workers and lack of transparency in the recruitment process is "terribly common," Tsu said.
"We often see terrible conditions, but this was particularly bad in terms of people being rounded up, threatened with deportation, and the heavy fees that were extracted from people's paychecks," she said. "But the problem of a nontransparent recruitment process where the workers are charged recruitment fees is terribly common and shows why we need immigration reform, because we need to close the loopholes in the system that allow for this to happen."
"We run into people who weren't told what job they were going to go to, what state they were going to go to, how much they were going to be paid or if they were told how much they were going to be paid it was often a lie," she added. "People are lied to about how many hours they're going to work, so they make the decision to leave their families, to come to the US, being told that they will make $10 an hour working 50 hours a week, but when they get here and they're working maybe 20 hours a week, maybe making $7 an hour, and they're being charged for food, they're being charged for the recruitment cost, and so they end up in further debt here."
Migrant laborers advocates hope Wednesday's verdict will send a signal to other companies.
"This historic verdict puts American companies on notice that if they exploit the flaws in our temporary worker program, they will be held accountable and punished," Chandra Bhatnagar, co-counsel in the case and senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "In a victory for justice, the jury has reaffirmed the fundamental principle that all people are entitled to human rights no matter where they're from or what their race or immigration status is."
As the trial proceeded over the years, Signal tried to shift the blame on the recruiters, claiming they had relied on them and was not aware of the tactics they used.
"The jury said that there's enough blame to go around, but we think that you set up this process by saying, 'Get us workers, we're not paying you anything for them, tell them H-2B, tell them permanent residence, we don't care, just get them here quickly,'" Tsu said.
For the time being, the law doesn't require employers to ensure the fairness of the recruitment process — but advocates are hoping this will change.
In 2012, the federal government issued guidelines for government contractors to ensure their employees were recruited fairly, not lied to, and not tricked into paying fees.
"That kind of code would be the most efficient way to clean up the recruitment process," Tsu said. "The power really is in the employer's hands."
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi