US authorities are taking action against a marine fabrication company three years after it was found to be mistreating around 500 guest workers from India, forcing them to live in cramped, fenced-off trailers near its plant in Mississippi.
The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EECO) filed a suit against Signal International on Wednesday saying it "violated federal law by subjecting a class of approximately 500 Indian employees to human labour trafficking and a hostile work environment".
The commission said Signal subjected "the Indian employees as a class to abuse based on national origin (Indian) and/or race (Asian)".
It listed out what it meant.
· Indian employees lived in modular trailers called "man camps," enclosed by fences, built for the Indian employees.
· Indian employees were charged more than $30 daily for housing and food.
· Worse, the commission that the employees were each assigned a number and "used these numbers as a form of identification and reference rather than using the employee's name".
The workers had revolted against their living conditions in March 2008 telling Hindustan Times then, that they were forced to "live like pigs in a cage" and staged protest marches singing "We shall overcome".
Hindustan Times had covered the workers' demand and their protests in a series of articles, dovetailing into an investigation into conditions of Indian workers in other parts of the world.
There was also an element of trafficking in the stories that eventually emerged. These workers had paid huge sums of money to a recruiter in Mumbai for these jobs - between Rs 6 lakhs and 10 lakhs ($15,000 to $25,000).
They were recruited in India in 2006 to tide over a labour shortage in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that killed over 1,800 on the Gulf coast in August 2005. They had claimed they were offered "permanent residency as part of the deal".
The company had then claimed to have spent $7 million on living quarters for the workers. And these facilities and labour practices had been inspected and approved by both the US Department of Labour and the Federal Immigration and Customs Division.
Sabulal Vijayan, a 40-year-old pipe-fitter who had been fired for organising the protests, had told Hindustan Times then, "Twenty-four of us stayed in one cramped dormitory that included our beds, showers and water coolers."
There were problems with the wages too. "Initially, we were paid $18 an hour and it was later reduced to 13," Vijayan said.
Vijayan figured in the charges leveled by the US commission against Signal.
"The EEOC lawsuit alleges Signal retaliated against Sabulal Vijayan and Joseph Jacob Kadakkarappally because they opposed Signal's unlawful conduct," said a statement released by the commission.
The commission was seeking compensatory and punitive damages for the workers.
"The injustice here towards Indian workers solicited to come to the United States violated the mandates of federal law," said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for the Birmingham District Office.
"Employers cannot avoid anti-discrimination laws by seeking to hire workers from other countries," he added.