Washington: After seven long years, five Indian 'guest' or temporary workers who were allegedly defrauded and exploited in a labour trafficking scheme have won $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages by a US court.
The workers were allegedly exploited by Signal International, an immigration lawyer and an Indian labour recruiter who lured hundreds of workers to a Mississippi shipyard with false promises of permanent US residency.
The "historic verdict" by a federal jury came Wednesday after a four-week trial before US District Judge Susie Morgan in New Orleans, according to the workers lawyers.
The jury ruled that Signal International, New Orleans lawyer Malvern C. Burnett and India-based recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination.
The jury also found that one of the five plaintiffs-Jacob Joseph Kadakkarappally, Hemant Khuttan, Andrews Issac Padaveettiyl, Sony Vasudevan Sulekha and Palanyandi Thangamani-was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.
"The defendants exploited our clients, put their own profits over the lives of these honourable workers, and tried to deny them their day in court," said lead attorney Alan Howard of Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC).
"But they persevered and after seven long years have received the justice they so well deserve."
"This historic verdict puts American companies on notice that if they exploit the flaws in our temporary worker programme, they will be held accountable and punished," said Chandra Bhatnagar, co-counsel in the case and staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights programme.
According to SPLC, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the US government's H-2B guest worker programme to import nearly 500 men from India to work as welders, pipefitters and in other positions to repair damaged oil rigs and related facilities.
The workers each paid the labour recruiters and a lawyer between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and other costs after recruiters promised good jobs, green cards and permanent US residency for them and their families.
Most sold property or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.
When the men arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula, Mississippi, beginning in 2006, they discovered that they wouldn't receive the green cards or permanent residency that had been promised.
Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in isolated, guarded labour camps where as many as 24 men shared a space the size of a double-wide trailer.
None of Signal's non-Indian workers were required to live in the company housing.
Together, the H-2B visa status, the high debt, the poor conditions at the labour camp and the discriminatory treatment and disparagement based on their race or nationality led the men to feel trapped, SPLC said.
In March 2007, some of the SPLC's clients were illegally detained by Signal's private security guards during a pre-dawn raid of their quarters in Pascagoula.
Two were detained for the purpose of deporting them to India in retaliation for complaining about the abuses and meeting with workers' rights advocates.
One worker who is a plaintiff in a separate suit was so distraught he attempted suicide, SPLC said.