Yesterday, some of the nation's most prestigious law firms filed a series of cases on behalf of H-2B workers who have suffered abuses and indignities at the hands of their employers in Mississippi and Texas.
The suits stemmed from a case called David v. Signal International LLC, filed in 2008 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, reports Daniel Kowalski of Lexis Nexis. When a federal court denied class certification on that case, SPLC contacted a handful of law firms to provide pro bono representation for the 12 named plaintiffs and a class of Indian guest workers who had worked for Signal International.
The current lawsuits allege that Signal trafficked in approximately 500 guest workers from India and subsequently forced them to work under inhumane conditions. The workers were allegedly forced to live in filthy, crowded and racially segregated labor camps. Steep fees for the horrific living spaces were deducted from the workers' salaries. In addition, Signal's employees discriminated on the basis of racial, religious, and ethnic characteristics in the assigning of difficult manual labor tasks.
Also, Signal reportedly defrauded the workers of thousands of dollars in wages based on supposed "recruitment fees." In reality, Kowalski reports, the workers themselves saved tremendous sums of money to pay their own way to the U.S. in order to work at Signal. The skilled workers had been under the impression that the jobs held much promise and would come with proper work visas so they could remain in the United States. Signal never fulfilled those promises, and the abuses continued because the workers had so little leverage and no resources.
Daniel Werner, a senior supervising attorney at SPLC, calls this dire situation a type of "modern indentured servitude," that can manifest among vulnerable populations like undocumented workers. He hopes that these lawsuits will serve as a warning to other employers who may engage in abusive labor practices.