Indian workers reach $20 million settlement with US shipbuilder

Washington, July 16 (IANS) More than 200 guest workers from India agreed to a $20 million deal to settle their lawsuits against Mobile, Alabama-based shipbuilder Signal International, according to the workers’ lawyers.

The announcement comes five months after a New Orleans jury awarded a group of five workers $14 million in a federal lawsuit that alleged workers were lured to work for Signal after Hurricane Katrina with false promises of green cards and permanent US residency.

Signal will also issue an apology to guest workers who also sued in Texas and Louisiana, the Southern Poverty Law Centre, a legal advocacy organisation that filed a case for the workers said.

The agreement, if approved by the US Bankruptcy Court, would resolve the 11 lawsuits still facing the company, which has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Those lawsuits represent more than 200 workers with the same claims as those of the workers in the successful SPLC lawsuit tried earlier this year.

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, SPLC said.

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, SPLC said.

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.

The company 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.

An economist who reviewed the company’s records estimated the company saved more than $8 million in labour costs by hiring the Indian workers at below-market wages.

Court papers filed Sunday indicate the company has more than $100 million in debt, but less than $50 million in assets, AL.com reported.

“This agreement will ensure some compensation for these workers who only sought a better life when they took these jobs,” said Alan Howard, SPLC board chairman said.

“They persevered and won justice. This agreement sends a powerful message that guest workers have rights and cannot be exploited.”

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