New human trafficking lawsuits were announced Thursday against a major U.S.-based shipbuilder, alleging that Signal International had brought 500 Indian guest workers to the U.S. and then forced them to work under "barbaric conditions."
The first-of-its-kind case was initially brought as a class action suit on behalf of workers represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups, and would have been the largest labor suit in history. But the case is now being brought as a series of individual cases in part because of the diversity of worker complaints.
Among them: "Workers were promised green cards and once they arrived those turned out to be false. They were living in horrible labor camps with more than 20 men in one trailer... Instead of being paid what they were promised, they were paid a lot less," says Chandra Bhatnagar, the ACLU staff attorney on the case.
Many of the workers had also paid $20,000 up front to the company to come to the U.S., according to the suit.
The suit alleges that in 2007, on a day workers have dubbed "Black Friday," Signal managers rounded up Mississippi workers who had complained about their conditions in an attempt to deport them. One of the employees allegedly singled out, Sabulal Vijayan, testified in 2008 that Signal had "made us live like animals" and trapped its employees "between an ocean of debt at home and constant threats of deportation from our bosses in Mississippi."
Signal, which declined to comment on the suit, released a statement calling the case an attempt to cripple companies who tried to employ temporary workers through the country's H-2B program during labor shortages.
The H-2B nonimmigrant program was set up to allow U.S. employers to temporarily hire foreign citizens for nonfarm work, and a similar H-2A program exists for farm work. Hundreds of thousands of foreign workers come to the U.S. every year, according to the National Guestworker Alliance, an advocacy group for temporary foreign laborers.
A June 2012 report from the Alliance on the state of the guest worker program said it found many laborers were being subjected to "deeply exploitative conditions" that "rise to the level of forced labor and involuntary servitude."
The Department of Labor sought to address some of those concerns in April of last year by establishing a new set of rules for the H-2B program, but litigation from the companies it would affect has so far blocked its implementation.
Dan Werner at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which announced the new lawsuits Thursday, said many of the problems stem from a lack of regulation.
"As a result, we have situations like this one where people who don't have a lot of means mortgage their futures in order to have these opportunities to work in the U.S.," he says. The Signal suit, he said, only "scratches the surface" of how many guest worker abuses exist in the country, and he noted that more lawsuits against Signal are yet to be initiated.