Five more lawsuits have been filed this week against Signal International LLC, accusing the shipbuilder and its network of recruiters and labor brokers of using the H2B visa process to hire 500 Indian workers and forcing them to work under “barbaric conditions,” according to a statement by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
Clearly the SPLC has never been to a shipyard in Asia, but regardless, these new lawsuits follow a string of similar lawsuits filed on behalf of 83 workers this past May, as well as the David v. Signal International LLC case filed in 2008 by the SPLC.
The SPLC’s statement notes that, “Once these workers were lured to Signal’s shipyards in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas, they were forced to live in overcrowded, unsanitary and racially segregated labor camps.”
Signal chief executive Richard Marler notes in a statement on their website that these lawsuits are an “abuse of the legal system.”
“These are the same exaggerated claims which have been exposed as false allegations by a Federal Court Judge well over a year and a half ago,” he said after several similar lawsuits were filed in May. “Signal made every attempt to bring these H2-B workers into the Signal family of employees and treated them with dignity and respect just as we treat each and every Signal employee.”
I spoke to a Signal employee this morning about the situation, but he was unable to comment on the record.
For workers who arrive in the U.S. on the H2B visa, it’s a complicated situation to be in because their visa is directly tied to their employer. Unless a worker is able to obtain a green card, which is difficult and expensive, they have no choice but to either work for their employer, in this case Signal International, or be sent back to India. Even if they have degree in naval architecture and are being recruited by top firms, there’s little, if anything, that can be done.
“The workers were for the most part paid well, free to come and go as they pleased, and some even took vacations and bought cars,” noted Marler. “The pressure to work for Signal arguably came at least in part from a set of circumstances that each plaintiff individually brought upon himself when he elected to pay what is now characterized as ‘exorbitant’ fees to participate in the green card program.”
In their scathing press release, the SPLC adds that, “the allegations in these lawsuits underscore the critical need to overhaul the United States’ foreign worker programs as part of any comprehensive immigration reform.”
If there’s anything to be taken away from this, that might be it.