Category: Signal

Immigrants’ Greatest Fear Isn’t What You Think

indianworkers_katrina_apA federal jury recently awarded $14 million in damages to a group of courageous H-2B guestworkers from India who captured national headlines in 2008 when they exposed severe labor exploitation by a Gulf Coast ship and oil-rig builder called Signal International.

In 2015, Signal’s violations sound like something out of another era: human trafficking, forced labor, discrimination and racketeering. Their practices violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and Ku Klux Klan Act.

I first met the workers one Sunday in 2007, weeks after they arrived in the United States. They had stolen away from a labor camp on Signal’s property to attend a clandestine meeting with me in a small church in Mississippi.

They told me how agents of the company had promised them good jobs as welders and pipe-fitters, along with green cards and a better life for themselves and their families. The workers paid up to $20,000 each based on these false promises. Some took on crushing debt; others sold ancestral homes to buy an American Dream.

They arrived in an American nightmare, subject to brutal working conditions, living with twenty-four men in a trailer and facing constant threats of firing and deportation. Instead of green cards, they received temporary H-2B guestworker visas. Now they were asking me: How can we make the company keep its promises? I said: By taking collective action.

A year later, late one night in March 2008, hundreds of workers and I were huddled in a room in Mississippi, just hours before they launched their public campaign to expose Signal’s abuses. As the organizer, it was my job to prepare them.

They had much to fear. They’d soon face covert surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the possibility of arrest and deportation at every step, and even threats of physical violence as they marched from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to hold a thirty-one-day hunger strike.

But that’s not what they feared most. To my surprise, their greatest fear was telling their families back home that they’d failed. They’d come to America, the land of opportunity, the freest place on earth, and they had nothing to show for it. In their darkest moments, it wasn’t Signal’s abuses that haunted them. It was the fear that they’d let down the ones they loved.

At first this amazed me—then I remembered I’d had exactly the same fear.

I came to the United States from India, to attend college at the University of Chicago. For a time, I thought my foothold in America was secure. Then, in 2000, I missed an immigration deadline and became undocumented. Unable to work legally, I fell behind on rent. I was evicted from my apartment. I lived on friends’ couches, and worked minimum-wage jobs alongside undocumented immigrants from around the world.

After the 9/11 attacks, the threat of deportation increased. More than once, I faced physical violence from strangers who projected onto my brown skin their own nightmares of another terrorist attack. Even so, what I feared most—more than homelessness and physical violence—was telling my family that I had failed. Here I was, in the land of opportunity. And I’d let them down.

The fear of admitting that you’ve failed to achieve the American Dream is hardly unique to immigrant workers. The reality for tens of millions of US workers today is not the climb toward prosperity they were promised, but the sense that they’re losing ground every day. That they’re one slip away from disaster. Workers in the US are working harder every yearwith less to show for it. They struggle each day with their own fear of failure, of letting down the ones they love—and with the sense that somehow it’s their own fault.

It’s not. They haven’t failed at the American Dream; the American dream has failed them. College professors are now poverty-level adjuncts. Educated millennials are now just-in-time retail staff. Seniors who should be retired have become migrant warehouse workers for Amazon. Contract attorneys with six-figure law-school debt are reviewing documents for $8 an hour.

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So how did the Signal workers overcome their greatest fear? By coming together to take collective action.

All around America, there are workers coming together to imagine an economy in which they’re truly free. They’re fighting for the new generation of rights and guarantees that would let tens of millions of US workers trade anxiety and constraint for dignity and creativity.

Those who believe in the promise of the American Dream need to remember that opportunity in America has always been won through generations of collective struggle. If we can imagine freedom in the face of fear, as the Signal workers did, then we can start to build an economy that will guarantee it.

February 21, 2015

Congratulations! After 8 years the Jury and the Court are standing alongside you and your families and the National Guestworker Alliance, your lawyers, and so many other friends, allies, and organizations who have joined to support you in the last eight years. 

At NGA, we were not surprised on Wednesday February 18, 2015, when a federal jury found Signal, Malvern Burnett, and Sachin Dewan liable for labor trafficking in the first case to go forward in the Court.  

You told us the truth in February 2007 in the church in Pascagoula, you joined the National Guestworker Alliance, and we have been with you on the road to justice since that time. 

The road to the court in New Orleans was long and at times lonely. You marched, sat on hunger strike, and talked to the people who make the laws. And you have always told the truth. And over time more and more friends, allies, and organizations have come to understand. And now even the jury and the court have agreed.   

We stood with you when you risked being fired and deported to have secret meetings in the church in Pascagoula, and when you escaped out of the Signal man camps and threw your hard hats back at the company gates. We stood with you when you reported Signal to the Department of Justice and when you protested in front of Malvern Burnett’s offices in New Orleans. We marched with you from New Orleans to Washington DC exposing surveillance by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And we stood with you on Hunger Strike for 31 days in front of the White House, Indian Embassy and the US Capitol building.

Through these and many other brave actions over eight years, you exposed how Signal and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were working together and through your bravery and courage you won recognition from the government and won protections from Deportation for you and your families.

We want to celebrate and congratulate you and everyone who worked hard to make all the moments in this campaign happen including this sweet victory. 

We celebrate the work of all the allies who came with us after the walkout all the way from New Orleans to Washington DC to help keep everyone safe from ICE.  

We celebrate SPLC and the other lawyers for all the hours of legal work on the court case. 

We especially celebrate Jobs with Justice for standing and fighting with us at every step of the way and opening all the support of their members and organization to help the campaign win.  

We celebrate the pastors who have stood with us and given sanctuary–  the African American Religious leaders of the Beloved Community Center in Greensborough North Carolina who helped win the support of many members of Congress, Reverend McDonald in Atlanta who opened his church gave us Sanctuary after we exposed that ICE was following us on the Satyagraha, Rev. Grant Stevensen and sister Darcy in Fargo who brought so much support in a difficult time. 

We also celebrate all of our brothers and sisters in the Labor movement from the AFL-CIO and SEIU who came and sat with us on the blue tarp in front of the White House and who helped build the power we needed to win. 

And most of all we celebrate you and your family members’ bravery in this long inspiring fight. Everyone of you has played a part and together you have immeasurable strength.  

But the struggle is not finished.  Just as you built your campaign on the shoulders of the NGA members before you, many other guestworkers still find themselves trapped in deep debt, living in man camps under threats of deportation. 

We believe you can and know that you will lend a helping hand to those workers who are still struggling. Even as your victories continue to come in you have a key role to play in defending the rights of all workers and defending immigrants from unjust attacks from immigration police. 

And we will also continue our work with you to force the Indian Government to change it’s policy which continues to unjustly wives and children from husbands still waiting to be reunited since 2007 and causes hardship to many who need to travel freely between India and the U.S. to be with family.  

We look forward to celebrating with you and to continuing our work together with you and your families.  May your victory be an inspiration to all migrant workers in the U.S. and around the world who are fighting forced labor, discrimination and workplace abuse!

With Love and Solidarity,

JJ Rosenbaum
Saket Soni
Jacob Horwitz
Daniel Castellanos
Jan Collatz
Colette Tippy
And all your brothers and sisters at the National Guestworker New Orleans Workers Center

workermarch_350On 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 CommissionU.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, WalmartHershey’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.”


EEOC v. Signal International, LLC, 11-cv-00179, U.S. Dist. Ct., S.D. Miss. (filed April 2011)

(EEOC April 20 2011 complaint)

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) sued Signal International, LLC, charging that the Gulf of Mexico marine services company violated federal law by subjecting a class of approximately 500 Indian employees to human labor trafficking and a hostile work environment.   The affected workers are H-2B guestworkers trafficked to work as welders and pipefitters in the marine fabrication industry.

The EEOC lawsuit charges that Signal subjected the Indian employees as a class to abuse based on national origin (Indian) and/or race (Asian). The agency charges Signal with disparate, discriminatory treatment concerning the workers’ terms and conditions of employment, as well as segregating them. Finally, the EEOC lawsuit alleges Signal retaliated against workers who opposed Signal’s unlawful conduct.

Learn more ...

New York Times editorial

May 1, 2011

Slavery and human trafficking are alive and well in the United States, according to lawsuits filed by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of farm laborers in Hawaii and Washington State and shipyard workers on the Gulf Coast.

The suits allege that labor recruiters and employers lured, trapped and abused foreign workers hired through federal guest-worker programs. The government charges that more than 500 Indian men hired by Signal International of Alabama for rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina were confined in squalid camps, illegally charged for lodging and food, and subject to discrimination and abuse. When they complained, the suit says, Signal agents tried to intimidate workers’ families in India. Two lawsuits filed in Hawaii and Washington against other employers make similar charges about 200 men brought from Thailand.

The United States urgently needs to strengthen protections for guest workers who are lied to by recruiters and tied to employers with too much power to exploit them. Today’s shackles are the threats of deportation and financial ruin. They might as well be iron.

A recent agreement by the federal Labor and Homeland Security Departments to work together on immigration and labor enforcement at work sites is encouraging, though there are serious concerns about Homeland Security’s past behavior. Sworn testimony in a separate civil lawsuit against Signal International charged that rather than protecting the Indian workers, immigration officials coached the company on how to silence and deport them.

Workers in the new lawsuits may win some money and be eligible for special visas for trafficking victims. But they are only a handful of workers — both documented and undocumented — stranded in a system that accepts their labor but fails to prevent their exploitation.

Statement by Saket Soni, Executive Director, National Guestworker Alliance. Many of the workers trafficked by Signal International are members of the National Guestworker Alliance, a project of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.

April 20, 2011—Today, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued Signal International, LLC, a major Mississippi marine fabrication company, for its discrimination, segregation, and subjugation of hundreds of Indian guestworkers after Hurricane Katrina. The EEOC’s action is a vindication of a long fight for justice that started in labor camps in 2007. We applaud the EEOC for its action, the workers for carrying on an extraordinary campaign, and hundreds of civil rights and labor leaders who stood with the workers while they were under attack.

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New York Times editorial – Feb. 4, 2010

A federal agency appears to have collaborated in an effort to silence foreign workers who claimed they were lured here under false pretenses and abused by the company they worked for. The role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement – reported in The Times by Julia Preston – is being investigated by the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department.

This is the latest twist in a sad tale of human trafficking and another reason why Congress, as part of its immigration reform efforts, must solve a problem that dates back to the Mexican bracero program: how to accept guest workers in this country while preventing their exploitation.

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Immigration authorities worked closely with a marine oil-rig company in Mississippi to discourage protests by temporary guest workers from India over their job conditions, including advising managers to send some workers back to India, according to new testimony in a federal lawsuit against the company, Signal International.

The cooperation between the company and federal immigration agents is recounted in sworn depositions by Signal managers who were involved when tensions in its shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss., erupted into a public clash in March 2007.

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Workers on Hunger Strike Say They Were Misled on Visas

Published: June 7, 2008

WASHINGTON — About a dozen metalworkers from India staged the fourth week of a hunger strike here this week, camped under a shade tree on Embassy Row.

The workers, who walked off jobs in Gulf Coast shipyards in early March, say they were victims of human trafficking when they were brought to the United States under a temporary guest worker program. The hunger strike is meant to pressure federal officials, and comes as Congress is debating an expansion of the guest worker program, known as H-2B for the type of temporary visa the workers receive.

The Indian workers say they were deceived by Signal International and labor recruiters when they paid as much as $20,000 for visas they believed would allow them to work and live permanently with their families in the United States. In fact, the H-2B visas are for short-term contracts.

“Everyone has a dream,” said one of the protesters, Paul Konar, a 54-year-old worker from the Indian state of Kerala, speaking in Hindi through a translator. “If we could come here legally to live with our families, that was my dream.”

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Workers Sue Gulf Coast Company That Imported Them

Published: March 11, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — A group of 500 foreign welders and pipefitters brought in to work at Gulf Coast oil rig yards after Hurricane Katrina said Monday that they had sued their employer, claiming they were lured with false promises of permanent-resident status, forced to live in inhumane conditions and then threatened when they protested.

The workers were recruited in India and the United Arab Emirates and brought in late 2006 and early 2007 under the government’s temporary guest worker program. They worked at Signal International, an oil-rig repair and construction company with yards in Pascagoula, Miss., about 85 miles east of here, and in Orange, Tex., about 100 miles east of Houston.

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