In a landmark decision, a federal jury in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana in
New Orleans has awarded $14.1 million in
compensatory and punitive damages to
five Indian guest workers who were lured
to a Mississippi shipyard in 2006 with
false promises of higher wages and permanent residency.
After a four-week trial before US District
Judge Susie Morgan, the jury ruled that
Signal International, New Orleans lawyer
Malvern C Burnett and India-based
recruiter Sachin Dewan engaged in labor
trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination.
The jury also found that one of the five
plaintiffs was a victim of false imprisonment and retaliation.
They were among more than 500
Indians defrauded and exploited in a labor
trafficking scheme by the defendants, per
In a statement, Signal International said
it ‘strongly disagrees with the rulings from
the court which impacted its ability to
present defenses and is disappointed with
the verdict. Signal is evaluating all of its
options including an appeal to the US
Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
‘At Signal, employees under the H2-B
program were given the same compensation package as similarly situated
employees who held US citizenship.
Signal paid employees holding US government H2B visas over $18 per hour,
provided medical benefits, safety bonuses, matching 401(k) plans, and overtime
pay,’ the statement said.
It is the first in a series of suits spearheaded by the by the Southern Poverty
Law Center that together comprise one
of the largest human trafficking cases in
“By speaking out about the lies that were
told to us and the abuses we suffered, we
hoped to protect other workers from expe-
riencing the same thing,” Jacob Joseph
Kadakkarappally, one of the plaintiffs, said
after the verdict. “I hope this verdict lets
other US businesses know they can’t get
away with treating guest workers this way.”
He was awarded the highest amount of
$4.1 million, as he was detained by the
company. It is being called the highest
amount awarded in a trafficking case.
“It’s a great day for justice,” said Sony
Vasudevan Sulekha, another plaintiff, who
was awarded more than $2.27 million.
Other plaintiffs awarded were Hemant
Khuttan ($2.54 million), Andrews Issac
Padaveettiyl ($2.6milion), and Palanyandi
Thangamani ($2.56 million).
“We expect the defendants will pay what
they owe and our clients will get the justice they deserve,” Daniel Werner, senior
supervising attorney at the Southern
Poverty Law Center, told India Abroad.
Signal can appeal the verdict, but has to
give a bond for 130 percent of the total
award before appealing, he said.
Of the total amount, $5 million was
awarded as damages and $9.1 million as
punitive damages. The defendants have to
pay attorney fees too, which is not part of
Signal International will have to pay
$12.1 million of the award amount.
Attorney Malvern C Burnett and recruiter
Sachin Dewan have to pay $900,000 each.
In all 230 workers have filed cases
against the defendants. Another trial for
seven people will start April 7, Werner
said. Some of the trials will be in Texas.
Some cases are prosecuted by the Equal
employment opportunity Commission.
An economist who reviewed Signal’s
records estimated the company saved
more than $8 million in labor costs by
hiring the Indian workers at below-mar-
ket wages. The cases were filed separately
after a judge did not grant class action
status in this case, which would have
allowed the suit to benefit most of Signal’s
The SPLC coordinated an unprecedent-
ed legal collaboration that brought togeth-
er nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law
firms and civil rights organizations to rep-
resent, on a pro bono basis, hundreds of
workers excluded from the original SPLC
suit by the denial of class action status.
The workers, who came between 2004
to 2007, got T visas for being victims of
human trafficking. Most have brought
their families and got Green Cards, too.
“It is the victory of truth and humanity. They treated us like pigs in a cage,” said Sabulal Vijayan, a leader of the affected workers who was the only witness in the trial.
His testimony was taken along with that of the other five. His
case will go for trial in April.
“This is a lesson for all companies who are practicing racial
discrimination and committing illegal things against the guest
workers. We salute the US for providing justice for us,” he said.
The story began in 2003, when workers saw advertisements by
recruiter Sachin Dewan, promising Indian welders and pipe-fit-ters Green Cards for them and their families.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Signal used the H-2B
program for bringing seasonal workers 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 labor recruiters and a lawyer
between $10,000 and $20,000 or more in recruitment fees and
other costs believing the promises. Most of them sold property
or plunged their families deeply into debt to pay the fees.
When they arrived at Signal shipyards in Pascagoula,
Mississippi, beginning in 2006, they discovered that they
wouldn’t receive the Green Cards. Those on H2-B visas could
work only for 10 months legally.
Signal also forced them each to pay $1,050 a month to live in
isolated, guarded labor 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.
‘That was the minute where all my expectations were shat-
tered,’ plaintiff Sony Sulekha testified. ‘The time that I went into
the camp and I looked, I was shocked. Where all my expecta-
tions and my happiness all got destroyed, that was the minute
that it happened.’
When some tried to find their own housing, Signal officials
told them the ‘man camp’ fee would still be deducted from their
pay. Visitors were rarely allowed into the camps. Company
employees searched workers’ belongings. And workers who
complained were threatened with deportation.
‘I had borrowed so much money to come here,’ Sulekha testi-
fied. ‘And then if I am returned to India by Signal for standing
up for my rights, then my entire family would be in the streets.’
“If we are sent back, committing suicide is the only option for
many of us,” Vijay Kumar, another employee, told India Abroad
The workers say once they reported for work, they were told
they were only allowed to stay in America for 10 months. The
salary offered was $18.20 an hour. But they got work mostly for
three days a week. They were forced to pay $35 a day for boarding and lodging.
“I did not eat such filthy food in all my life,” Kumar said.
“When we said that we will cook on our own and stay outside
the camp, the company said still we have to pay $35 a day.”
This is the third time that a large number of Indian workers
accused a company of treating them like virtual slaves.
In 2001, 53 workers at pipe manufacturer John Pickle
Company in Oklahoma successfully accused employers of virtual
slavery. The court asked the employer to pay compensation.
They also got T visas (given to victims of human trafficking).
In 2002, more than 300 workers came to work at Mississippi-
based Falcon Steel on H2B visas. Their case against the compa-
ny was not successful and they went to other cities to work ille-
gally. Many returned to India penniless. Two died of heart
attack. The workers later marched to Washington, DC and
organized a hunger strike that lasted 29 days in 2008.
Jury awards $14.1 million in damages to Indian guest workers lured to Mississippi shipyard
‘A lesson for all companies
The working and living quarter of the employees