Indian workers win $20 million settlement against US firm

  • Yashwant Raj, Hindustan Times, Washington
  • Updated: Jul 16, 2015 20:37 IST

A US company has agreed to pay $20 million to more than 200 guest workers from India who had brought labour trafficking lawsuits against it in a case going back to 2006.

The company, Signal International, will also apologise to the workers. The settlement has to be approved by a bankruptcy court as the company has sought bankruptcy protection.

“These workers have waited seven long years for justice,” said Jim Knoepp of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit that took up the case of these workers, earlier this week.

“This agreement and apology from the company will allow the workers to finally move on with their lives. It also serves as a warning to companies that might exploit guest workers.”

A Louisiana court had ordered Signal, a Gulf Coast marine services company, to pay $14 million in compensation to a group of five Indian workers in February.

The $20 million settlement announced by Signal last Sunday takes care of all suits, and includes the earlier amount of $14 million, the non-profit told Hindustan Times.

Around 500 guest workers on H-2B visa were brought from India in controversial conditions in 2006 to work on Signal’s post-Hurricane Katerina reconstructions projects.

They had to pay recruiters between $10,000 and $20,000 a head, as they had also been promised a Green Card each and permanent American residency eventually.

Soon after arriving, in Signal shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi starting 2006, they realised they had been duped — there were no Green Cards and citizenship waiting for them.

They were put up in small accommodations in subhuman conditions, for which they were made to pay, unlike other non-Indian workers who had better facilities.

The non-profit said, citing an economist, that Signal International may have saved around $8 million “in labor costs by hiring the Indian workers at below-market wages”.

When they protested — after constant abuse and bad food — they were detained by the company’s private security guards in 2007 and some of them were marked for deportation.

That’s when their plight came to the attention of the world.

The non-profit filed a lawsuit in 2008.

The first piece of good news came for the workers in February this year, when five of them won $14 million compensation from the company, also represented by the same non-profit.

Signal had then protested, disagreeing with the court. But faced with a multitude of such suits, it is understood to have given in, agreeing to the new settlement and an apology.

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