June 3, 2011 Volume 112 Number 11

Federal lawsuit targets companies for labor trafficking

On April 20, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced prosecution of some of the worst abuses ever encountered in the agency’s 45-year history. EEOC filed federal lawsuits against companies that trafficked hundreds of foreign workers to Washington, Hawaii, Texas, and Mississippi and forced them to work under conditions of shocking exploitation.

One of the defendants is Signal International, which builds and repairs oil rigs at shipyards along the Gulf Coast. According to the EEOC lawsuit, Signal International brought over 500 pipefitters and welders from India between October 2006 and March 2007. Signal was able to import the workers under temporary H-2B visas, after telling the U.S. government it could not find enough qualified American workers to meet its workload in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In India, the workers were recruited under false promises that the visas would lead to green cards and permanent residency in the United States, and they paid recruiters up to $20,000 each for their jobs. Upon arrival at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and Orange, Texas, the workers were made to sign forms, in English, committing them to pay over $1,000 a month for housing, transportation and food — whether or not they ate the company’s food or lived in its housing. The housing consisted of what the company called “man camps” — a series of one-room modular trailers connected by elevated walkways, enclosed by barbed wire fences and accessible through a single guarded entrance. The camps were located in isolated industrial areas, miles from anywhere. Each trailer housed up to 24 men in two-tiered bunk beds, packed so tightly it was difficult to move between bunks. In separate mess hall trailers, workers were fed poor quality food. Toilets were insufficient, and workers had to line up in the morning to shower or relieve themselves. Workers were not allowed to have visitors. They had their bags searched when they entered, and were also subjected to surprise searches of their belongings by camp guards employed by Signal. Guards enforced camp rules with fines of $250 for the first violation and $500 for the second.

Workers also had $100 to $200 a week deducted from their wages to pay for tool kits they were required to buy from the company.

Signal International assigned numbers to each Indian employee, and called workers by their numbers instead of their names. Supervisors also used offensive and insulting language, calling workers thieves, animals, rats, “f…ing Keralites,” and “whining little bitches,” and telling them that their company living conditions were better than those of the slums of India.

When workers complained to managers, they were threatened with deportation. On March 4, 2007, a group of workers at the Pascagoula shipyard met with attorneys at a local church. The company got wind of it, and called the wife of one of the workers, in India, threatening he’d be deported. Five days later, five Signal guards locked the gate to the “man camp,” swept through the bunkhouses looking for workers who had organized the church meeting, and forcibly brought them to another trailer. The plan was to fire the ringleaders and put them immediately on a plane back to India, but one of the workers foiled the plan by cutting his wrists in an attempt at suicide.

In separate lawsuits, EEOC accused a Beverly Hills-based labor contractor, Global Horizons, of similar abuses against workers brought from Thailand to work on farms in Hawaii and Washington. According to the lawsuit, between 2003 and 2007, Global Horizons enticed over 200 Thai men with false promises of steady, high-paying agricultural jobs along with temporary visas allowing them to live and work legally in the United States. But upon workers’ arrival in the United States, Global Horizons confiscated their passports and threatened them with deportation if they complained. To get jobs and passage, Thai workers had paid hefty recruitment fees to Global Horizons, but their farm wages were low — far less than promised — with the result that they and their families back in Thailand were severely in debt to the company. On the farms, Thai workers lived in vermin-infested company housing and were forbidden to leave. At work, they endured screaming, threats and physical assaults by overseers, and were isolated from non-Thai farm workers working under more tolerable conditions. 

In addition to Global Horizons, the suits name six Hawaiian farms as defendants: Del Monte Fresh Produce, Kauai Coffee Company, Captain Cook Coffee Company, Kelena Farms, Mac Farms, Maui Pineapple Company; as well as two Yakima County farms —Green Acres Farms and Valley Fruit Orchards.

EEOC is seeking back pay, compensatory and punitive damages, as well as federal court orders to prevent further abuses.

EEOC’s mission is enforcement of Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act, which bans employers from treating workers differently on the basis of race, national origin, or other factors, said Justine S. Lisser, Senior Attorney-Advisor in EEOC’s Office of Communications.

“What’s different in these cases is the magnitude of abuse,” Lisser told the Labor Press.