On Wednesday, February 18, 2015, a federal jury awarded $14 million in damages to five H-2B guestworkers from India who joined the National Guestworker Alliance (NGA) and launched a nationwide campaign in 2008 to expose human trafficking and forced labor by Gulf Coast marine services company Signal International, together with its labor recruiters.
The following is a statement by NGA Legal Director Jennifer J. Rosenbaum:
“If any further vindication was needed, workers whose brave action exposed human trafficking to the Department of Justice, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, U.S Congress, and the national press have now been vindicated by a federal jury as well.
“The jury found Signal and its agents guilty of a shocking list of violations: labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering, and discrimination, based on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, and Ku Klux Klan Act.
“But more shocking is the reality that thousands of H-2B guestworkers in the Gulf Coast and throughout the U.S. continue to face the same dynamics of forced labor that the Signal workers did. Guestworkers continue to be legally bound to one employer, trapped by debt from recruitment fees and costs, and subject to employer threats of firing and deportation in retaliation for organizing.
“The most extraordinary part of the Signal story is the actions the workers took. After joining the NGA, hundreds of workers escaped the Signal labor camp, reported the company to the Department of Justice, marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, testified before U.S. Congress, and held a 31-day hunger strike that burned the realities of guestworker abuse into the national consciousness.
“They also exposed that Signal had a powerful ally in trafficking the workers: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Court testimony revealed that ICE advised Signal on performing illegal private deportations to punish workers for organizing and cover up the abuse.”
NGA Executive Director Saket Soni said:
“When these workers escaped the Signal labor camps in 2008, many lawmakers had never even heard of guestworker programs. Since then, thousands of guestworkers, including hundreds of NGA members, have come forward to expose the coercion inherent in the H-2B and other guestworker programs. As widely reported, Walmart, Hershey’s, and McDonald’s have joined Signal in the shameful club of companies that have been exposed while trying to escape responsibility for severe abuse of guestworkers on their supply chains.
“As policymakers and employers enter a new round of conversations on expanding guestworker programs, we need to remember that what happened at Signal International wasn’t an exception but an extreme example of the rule.
“As long as these programs continue to tie workers to a single employer, trap them in program-related debt, and leave them subject to threats of retaliatory deportation, severe abuse of guestworkers will be an everyday American reality.”