They came from India to repair the Gulf Coast after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and were repaid with months of abuse. On Katrina’s 10th anniversary, both the workers and their bosses are finally getting their due. Following a landmark lawsuit victory in February, the maritime company that imported the roughly 500 “guestworkers” to repair storm-damaged Gulf Coast oil facilities has officially apologized as part of a $20 million settlement for 12 suits, in one of the largest human trafficking cases in US history.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which helped represent the workers, called the settlement “unprecedented,” in that it mandated the contractor that employed the workers, Signal International, to issue a formal apology, as part of its bankruptcy proceedings, conceding its “fail[ure] to ensure that the guestworkers were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved.” But the gesture was monumental mainly because it bookended a case that exposed one of the darkest corners of the labor force: The huge transnational black market in trafficked migrant labor.
The workers involved in the settlement came to the United States in 2006 on the H-2B visa program, which places guestworkers in various low-wage non-farm industries, such as hospitality and construction. They were brought to this country through a recruitment scheme that has become routine across the Global South: in exchange for fees as high as $20,000, the men were promised good jobs and a chance to gain green cards for their families.
They ended up in a fortress-like encampment, with up to 24 men cramped in segregated quarters, for which they were charged about $1,000 a month. Their dismal conditions, to which non-Indian workers were not subjected, helped the company “save” $8 million in labor costs.
Signal’s letter refers to grievances raised in the workers’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation against organizing actions. The company shunted the Indian workers into isolated “man camps,” forced them into “the most undesirable work” at the site, and stoked a climate of hostility by calling them “thieves,” “animals,” and “fucking Keralites.” They faced constant threat of deportation, which, combined with massive debts and intimidation from on-site security forces, terrorized them into silence. Until they decided to reach out to a budding movement of grassroots labor activists that emerged in the storm’s wake.