Law center: Rig repair firm, apology for mistreated workers

AP News
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Posted: Sep 29, 2015 8:28 PM

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A U.S.-based oil rig repair company has apologized to hundreds of Indian guest workers drawn to the Gulf Coast through false promises and housed in squalid conditions to help with damage repairs after Hurricane Katrina, a law center said Tuesday.

The apology is part of a $20 million settlement that Signal International of Mobile, Alabama, agreed to in July, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced Tuesday. That group and others, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had sued Signal on behalf of the guest workers and called it one of the largest labor-trafficking cases in U.S. history.

Signal hired roughly 500 Indian welders and shipfitters after the devastating 2005 hurricane in a rush of repair work on storm-damaged oil equipment and rigs.

The company sent a letter dated Sept. 22 to the guest workers, apologizing for its actions, according to the law center. Signal didn't return a message Tuesday seeking comment from The Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the letter.

The workers were lured to Mississippi and Texas with false promises of permanent U.S. residency and paid $10,000 or more to recruiters, according to Jim Knoepp, SPLC's deputy legal directors. Most of the workers sold property or put their families into debt to pay the fees, the SPLC said, adding the workers also accused Signal of forcing them to pay about $1,000 a month to stay in overcrowded and dirty trailers.

Richard Marler, chief executive officer and president of Signal, said in the letter that the company was expressing its "sincerest apology and regret for the treatment of its guest workers." He added that the company "deeply regrets the living conditions the guest workers were subjected to."

According to the letter, he also said the "company has learned from its mistakes."

"We hope that this will help deter other companies from exploiting guest workers, or any workers," said Alan Howard, the board chair of the SPLC.

In February, the first five plaintiffs won a $14 million verdict in federal court in New Orleans. That victory led to the settlement, which was part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing the company made in July, according to the SPLC.

The SPLC said Signal also apologized for a pre-dawn raid in March 2007 on some living quarters in Pascagoula, Mississippi, of guest workers. The SPLC said the raid was "an attempt to deport guest workers in retaliation for complaining about abuses to workers' rights advocates."

"Signal knows this treatment caused hardship to the guest workers, and in many cases, their families," Marler wrote in his apology letter.

After Katrina, tens of thousands of workers descended on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast to work on the recovery from the nation's costliest disaster. The storm caused extensive damage to oil rigs, pipelines and platforms. In the ensuing rush to get oil production back, Signal was among many companies hired to repair the damage. 

The guest workers from India were among tens of thousands of workers brought in by companies to fix Katrina's havoc. 

Throughout the rebuilding, labor lawyers spoke out about harsh working conditions for immigrant laborers in other separate cases. Few employers faced prosecution over that alleged abuse.

"This sort of apology is unprecedented in labor trafficking cases," said Knoepp at the SPLC. "Their apology is evidence of the reforms desperately needed within the federal H-2B guest worker program. While the apology is unique, this sort of misconduct is not."

That program allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the U.S. to fill temporary nonagricultural jobs, according to a website of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.