US: Workers Sue Gulf Coast Company That Imported Them

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

NEW ORLEANS - A group of 500 foreign welders and pipefitters brought
in to work at Gulf Coast oil rig yards after Hurricane Katrina said
Monday that they had sued their employer, claiming they were lured
with false promises of permanent-resident status, forced to live in
inhumane conditions and then threatened when they
protested.

The workers were
recruited in India and the United Arab Emirates and brought in late
2006 and early 2007 under the government's temporary guest worker
program. They worked at Signal International, an oil-rig repair and
construction company with yards in Pascagoula, Miss., about 85 miles
east of here, and in Orange, Tex., about 100 miles east of
Houston.





The company said it had brought them in to supplement a labor force
depleted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.





At a rally here Monday, workers and their lawyers said they had given
up life savings, sold family jewelry and paid up to $20,000 in
immigration and travel fees after being assured that the company would
help them to become permanent residents of the United States.





In a statement, the company called the workers' charges "baseless
and unfounded" and said it had spent "over $7 million constructing
state-of-the-art housing complexes" for the workers. The company
said that the "vast majority of the workers" recruited had been
satisfied with their conditions and that the workers were being paid
"in excess" of prevailing rates and in full compliance with the
law.





Workers and their advocates disputed those assertions. Ignorant of
American immigration law, advocates said, the workers were unaware
that they had been brought in only temporarily.





"They didn't know they were guest workers," said Stephen
Boykewich of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice.
"They thought they were getting permanent status."





The green cards enabling residency never materialized, according to
the lawsuit, and the workers were forced to live in overcrowded
guarded "bunkhouses" at Signal International, with inadequate
toilets and unhygienic kitchens that frequently made them ill.





The class-action lawsuit was filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center
of Montgomery, Ala., among other groups.





The workers' assertions are the latest in a series of complaints
about exploitation of foreign laborers on the Gulf Coast after
Hurricane Katrina.





Previous complaints have involved Hispanic hotel and construction
workers and farm laborers and have centered on low pay and harsh
working conditions.





In the summer of 2006, Hispanic hotel workers sued a prominent New
Orleans developer over inadequate pay, and last month, fruit pickers
walked off the job in a parish north of here over exploitative
conditions.


The Southern Poverty
Law Center has also sued on behalf of immigrant workers involved in
the reconstruction and cleanup of New Orleans after the storm. It
maintains that immigrants brought in under the guest worker program
are "systematically exploited and abused," all over the
country.
AMP Section Name:Labor
  • 116 Human Rights