When the Gulf Coast was struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina back in 2006, as reconstruction workers streamed in and out of chaotic worksites, a group of roughly 500 immigrant workers barely caused a stir when they arrived to do some routine pipe work for oil rigs. The men were “guestworkers” recruited from India to work for the maritime contractor Signal. The company seemed to have operated “on the books,” fixing them up with special H-2B visas, and the men disappeared into a vast army of imported low-wage labor. They began to re-emerge in 2007 as survivors of a nightmarish captivity, telling stories of prison-like encampments, fraud, intimidation and forced labor. Five of those men were vindicated this week with a $14 million guilty verdict against Signal on various federal counts of labor abuse and trafficking.
The incident was an extreme example of abuses that pervade a subterranean global labor market of guestworkers, who do temporary jobs for American industries without the protection of essential American labor laws. For this opportunity to earn higher wages than they would in their home countries, workers claimed they paid “recruitment fees” of about $11,000 to $25,000 to labor brokers, only to see both their savings and potential earnings evaporate in their bondage. Earlier promises of gaining green-card sponsorship through their jobs also quickly fell apart.
After the workers escaped and began protesting, in 2008, Paul Konar, a middle-aged worker from Kerala, India, told The New York Times, “Everyone has a dream. If we could come here legally to live with our families, that was my dream.”
According to the workers’ complaints, in the isolated “man camps” at shipyards in Texas and Mississippi, they were segregated from other workers and charged about $1,000 a month for food, shelter and tools, which effectively kept them tied to their worksite. In the crowded “bunkhouses,” described as “unfit for human habitation,” workers recalled, “privacy was nonexistent. Toilet and bathing facilities were insufficient. Food was often rotten.”
They were kept under tight surveillance, further humiliated with racial discrimination and verbal abuse, and intimidated for trying to challenge their bosses. Signal argued in a statement that the men had chosen to work and could volunteer to be deported at any time: “The only consequence of quitting their job was returning to their home country, but that restriction was dictated by U.S. immigration law, not Signal.”
And that’s precisely the problem. When some workers attempted to meet with lawyers to take legal action, they were bullied and threatened with deportation—simply for exercising their rights.
Since the workers were not able to bring their cases as a class action, other lawsuits are pending, and it’s unclear how this might affect other abuse victims who have not complained publicly. But public scrutiny of the migratory labor racket has intensified over the past several years, with many big-name employers facing lawsuits and protest campaigns: overseas students lured into grueling fast food jobs, to migrant seafood processing workers trapped in Walmart’s supply chain. All these workers were exploited through a visa system that facilitates both their mass recruitment and mass exploitation under contracts that bind them to employers (bosses are known to confiscate passports to keep them from leaving).