A ship building and repair company will pay $5 million to settle a U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) race and national origin discrimination lawsuit with 476 Indian guest workers who worked at the company’s facilities after hurricanes Katrina and Rita. While Indian workers lived in squalid containers “the size of a double-wide trailer,” non-Indian workers were not subjected to the same conditions.
According to the lawsuit, Signal International recruited Indian guest workers through the federal H-2B guest worker program to work at its facilities in Texas and Mississippi and forced them to pay to live in deplorable conditions. In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleged that Signal forced “the men to pay $1,050 a month to live in overcrowded, unsanitary, guarded camps. As many as 24 men were forced to live in containers the size of a double-wide trailer, while non-Indian workers were not required to live in these camps.”
H-2B visas are generally used for low-skilled or seasonal work, which are valid for ten months, with the chance to extend visa renewals up to three years. As part of the visa program, employees should be reimbursed for the consulate interview fee, visa fee, border crossing fee, and transportation costs associated with obtaining their H-2B visas. Employees aren’t always reimbursed for the H-2 visa process. They are also tied to the employers during their stay in the United States.”
“We are very pleased Signal has accepted responsibility for its wrongdoing and that these workers, who have waited 10 long years for justice, will now receive compensation and can move on with their lives,” Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for EEOC’s Birmingham District, said in a statement. “In many cases, these men paid thousands of dollars to come to the United States, only to be subjected to inhumane conditions and exploitation after they arrived.”
An estimated 66,000 H-2B visas are distributed on an annual basis. But employers often us the H-2 visa programs to take advantage of legal guest workers. An Economic Policy Institute study found that temporary legal guest workers are as likely to be subjected to low wages as undocumented workers.
The $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill passed Friday included a provision to dramatically increase the number of H-2B visas. The AFL-CIO and the International Labor Recruitment Working Group criticized the visa provision because it could potentially roll back “protections for low-wage workers and guest workers… while lowering the protections for workers,” Joleen Rivera, a legislative representative at the AFL-CIO, said.
Still, the 476 Indian guest workers are not the only exploited workers from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some undocumented immigrant laborers helping to rebuild the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina were threatened with deportation and were often unpaid for the work they did.