A federal agency claims in a lawsuit filed this week that hundreds of people recruited in India to work for an oil rig construction company in Mississippi and Texas in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were forced into oppressive living arrangements and subjected to harsh language and discriminatory working conditions.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed the lawsuit Wednesday against Signal International LLC in U.S. District Court in Gulfport, Miss., alleging discrimination based on race and place of birth. The lawsuit seeks class action status for about 500 Indians who came to the United States on the H-2B guest worker program to take jobs as welders and pipefitters in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas.
Signal International did not respond to messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment. In 2008, when Indian workers filed a lawsuit making similar allegations, the company called the accusations "baseless and unfounded." At that time, the company said federal officials had reviewed its employment practices and inspected its facilities and deemed them compliant with the law.
The 20-page EEOC lawsuit filed this week claims the agency uncovered numerous discriminatory practices. The lawsuit said Signal International forced as many 24 workers to sleep in bunks in unsanitary, one-room trailers in camps set up in industrial areas. The camps "were enclosed by fences and accessible only through a single, guarded entrance" where the workers were sometimes searched, the lawsuit said.
As part of a signed agreement written in English and difficult for the workers to understand, they agreed to pay $35 a day for food, transportation and accommodations, the lawsuit said. The company allegedly threatened to charge the fee even if workers found other accommodations on their own.
The EEOC also claims the company retaliated against workers who complained about their treatment. According to the lawsuit, some of the workers met with lawyers in 2007 and began organizing an effort to improve their conditions. In response, EEOC claims Signal rounded up five workers with the intention of putting them on an airplane and immediately sending them home.
One of those men "attempted suicide by cutting his wrists," the lawsuit said.
The workers claim they were lured to the United States by promises of green cards and permanent U.S. residency. Some say they didn't know their work visas would last less than a year until after they paid thousands of dollars on travel and other expenses.
The first of the workers came to the United States in October 2006, the EEOC lawsuit said. The rest came in groups of 30 to 50 until March 2007.
It wasn't long before they started complaining. Several Indian workers filed the 2008 lawsuit with help from advocacy groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center. That lawsuit, which alleges human trafficking and racketeering, is pending.
Signal officials have said the company had to look overseas for workers because Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in August 2005, had displaced qualified workers. Thousands of immigrants descended on the area looking for work. Housing them was a major challenge.
Richard Marler, president and CEO of Signal, said in 2008 that he was shocked to learn that foreign workers allegedly were charged thousands of dollars by recruiters to come to the United States. He said Signal ended its contract with the recruiting firm. He also said in 2008 that he was hurt by allegations that workers were subjected to poor living conditions. He said Signal provided catered meals, 24-hour transportation services, Internet access and other amenities.