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article imageJudgement handed down in nation's largest labor-trafficking case

By Karen Graham     Feb 19, 2015 in Business
New Orleans - On Wednesday, a New Orleans jury awarded $14 million to five Indian men, lured to the U.S. and forced to live in inhumane conditions after Hurricane Katrina while working for a U.S. ship repair firm.
After a four-week trial, the verdict was issued against Mobile, Alabama-based Signal International LLC and its associates in a civil trial overseen by U.S. District Judge Susie Morgan. Signal lawyer Malvern C. Burnett’s firm and Indian labor recruiter Sachin Dewan’s company were all found guilty of labor trafficking, fraud, discrimination, racketeering, forced labor, harassing living conditions, and breach of contract.
The trial is the first of almost a dozen related lawsuits with over 200 plaintiffs making it one of the largest labor trafficking cases in U.S. history. The suits are being brought under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, a federal law that went into effect in 2003 that protects people from traffickers. Signal is also being sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. That trial begins June 1 in New Orleans.
According to the lawsuit filed in 2008, using the H-2B guest-worker program, Signal recruited 500 Indian men to repair oil rigs and other facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. "The workers each paid the labor recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent U.S. residency for them and their families," according to the American Civil Liberties Union in a statement. "Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees."
The plaintiffs said that once they arrived in the U.S., they were told they would receive 10-month work permits. They were forced to live in dirty, overcrowded trailers. They had to pay $1,050 a month each in rent to the company. On Wednesday, Signal released a statement saying it "strongly disagrees" with the verdict and is considering an appeal.
Alan Howard, a lawyer for Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights group representing the Indian workers said, "They were victimized and exploited and really taken advantage of." Howard added that it is questionable whether the Indian workers will receive any compensation. He said Signal has suggested they might file for bankruptcy.
More about labortrafficking, Hurricane Katrina, ship repair firm, Signal International, Bankruptcy
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