Employer liable in $14 million jury award to foreign temporary workers

24 Feb 15

UNITED STATES

A federal jury has awarded $14 million to five Indian nationals working for a U.S. company under the temporary-worker visa program. The jury found the employer, along with a labor recruiter and an immigration attorney, liable for luring foreign workers to the U.S. with false promises of permanent residency in violation of labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination laws.

The verdict is part of a recent government focus on anti-trafficking. Last month, Congress introduced several bills aimed at preventing labor abuses of foreign workers.

According to the lawsuit, Signal International, a marine construction and repair company, began recruiting hundreds of workers from India in 2006 to work in welding, pipefitting and the repairing of oil rigs damaged by Hurricane Katrina the previous year. Each of the five plaintiffs paid the recruiter and lawyer $10,000 to $20,000 in exchange for promises of green cards for themselves and their families. The workers were actually brought to the U.S. on the H-2B visa program for temporary or seasonal workers whose maximum stay is three years. In addition, Signal charged each worker $1,050 per month to stay in tightly packed, guarded labor camps where they were required to live.

“This historic verdict puts American companies on notice that if they exploit the flaws in our temporary worker program, they will be held accountable and punished,” said Chandra Bhatnagar, one of the lawyers who represented the workers, in a statement. Bhatnager is a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Human Rights Program. The four-week trial concludes the first case in a series of cases that constitute one of the largest anti-labor-trafficking efforts in U.S. history, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, another legal organization that represented the plaintiffs.

Anti-trafficking has become a high-profile issue in recent years. Last month, the new Congress introduced more than a dozen bills targeting human trafficking. In 2012, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to tighten regulations to prevent human trafficking by employers engaged in federal government contracts. And Obama’s recent immigration executive actions include a proposal for federal agencies, including the Labor Department, Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, to form a working group to strengthen enforcement of labor and immigration laws and encourage workers to cooperate with investigations. A fact sheet posted on the Labor Department website says that the working group will create clearer rules and protections for workers regardless of immigration status, including strengthening processes to stay removal and provide work authorization to undocumented workers who complain about workplace conditions.

BAL Analysis: The jury verdict and flurry of legislative proposals on this issue is a compliance reminder to employers, especially those who rely on recruiters abroad. While the H-2B guest-worker program has been the focus of the litigation and policy initiatives, employers recruiting foreign workers in other programs, including high-skilled workers, should be cognizant of the increased activity in this area.

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