by MATTHEW BUCKWALD
As early as 2004, over 500 men from India were recruited by Signal International LLC, a
Gulf Coast marine services company, to work in their New Orleans site on the shore which was still recovering from massive loses during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Despite the tragedies of the storm and the dramatic employee drop at Signal, business was highly in demand because of storm-damaged rigs that desperately needed work. Recruiters representing Signal charged workers $10,000 to $20,000 per person for the “opportunity” to work at Signal; this “opportunity” included work, residence, registration with an H-2B “guest worker” visa, and the promise of an eventual employment-based permanent residence visa in the United States . Promised a better life to eventually bring back to their families across the world, workers pulled money together by borrowing from families or villagers, selling land and jewelry, and borrowing from “loan sharks” at outrageously high interest rates. At the time these promises were made, there was a 5 year wait to get a green card for workers from India, which was obviously made unknown to the hopefuls.
As mandated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the U.S. Department of
Homeland Security, H-2B “guest worker” visas may be owned for 10 months at a time, with the ability to renew such ownership only one, maybe two, times. A recipient’s guest worker visa is only valid if they are working for the sponsor employer. Contrary to Signal’s recruitment promise to the Indian men, H-2B visas expressly cannot be used as a path to permanent residency. In fact, immigrant intent is grounds for visa denial. Therefore, not only did the recruiters lie to the workers, but they also lied to the government. Later on the trial, Signal’s defense team would argue ignorance; they did not know about the promise of green cards. In essence, Signal’s counsel claimed that the plaintiffs were “self-trafficked.” Additionally, there are H-2B eligible countries, only from which immigrants may be considered for a guest work visa; India is still not among them .
Life at the Signal compound was humiliating and undignified. The contracts required the
workers to live in housing facilities that were built on the grounds, for which they were charged $1,065 per month to live there. Up to 24 men were assigned to live with each other in each small trailers and visitors were not allowed on the grounds. They were fenced, guarded, and constantly arbitrarily searched . Essentially, they were forced into slave labor, with the threat of deportation always looming over their heads after it was revealed that they would not be receiving the promised path to citizenship nor an extension of their green card. Moreover, because of recruiting fees paid and debts incurred, the workers had to stay employed there, anyway. Culturally, the social stigmas around debt in India had a strong coercive impact. When the men borrowed money from “loan sharks,” little did they know of the constant threats and intimidations from across the world. Diaries and testimonies later exposed in discovery and in the trial would reveal that many of the workers were self-harming or suicidal.
As horrendous as living conditions were at Signal, the environment of the surrounding
area was similarly decimated by the hurricanes. Lawyers found voir dire to be particularly challenging because they were choosing from New Orleans natives who were already living in FEMA trailers due to their houses being destroyed during Katrina. Despite this, plaintiffs found clear intent and knowledge of living conditions at Signal on behalf of their recruiters and superiors. Litigants persuaded the judge to order Signal to turn over all search items, which included a diary from one of the Signal executives that noted intent for labor trafficking and enslavement. Many workers would escape the Signal compound and find refuge in over twelve big-name litigation firms across the country. Right in our backyard, some workers would stage a hunger protest on Embassy Row in Washington, DC.
After over 180 days of testimony and a year and half of trial, the jury found for the
plaintiffs on every single on of their claims against Signal on a false imprisonment charge, resulting in over $14 million in compensatory and punitive damages to the five Indian plaintiffs . The case of David v. Signal highlights many of the modern challenges in international labor trafficking: environmental refugees, the power of international law, the effectiveness of monitoring human trafficking, and guest work visa disparities.
For one, Signal illustrates the realities of environmental refugees and how natural
disasters heavily impact human trafficking. The European Commission alleges that “The greatest single impact of climate change could be on human migration with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding, and agricultural disruption – a crisis in the making” . When these millions are displaced domestically, however, large corporations are forced to turn to cheap labor, which often comes in the form of international labor trafficking, whether it is intentional or not.
In an international perspective, Signal violations of the United Nations’ “International
Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their
Families” staggers up to over 14 violations of Articles and Sections . There still exists the question, however, of if a worker’s citizenship status affects their eligibility to be protected in a particular country. Regardless, despite the United States having the largest percentage of migrant populations at 12.4%, they have still yet to ratify the Convention . Of course, this calls into play the timely discussion of the relationship between International Law and United States Law. To what extent can we hold domestic enforcement agencies, namely the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of State, accountable for international norms and regulations? The question remains wholly untouched, even with the augmented tensions in the Middle East regarding the Trump administration’s decision to move the United States embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Additionally, how did we not know about these violations? What went wrong in the job
supply chain that missed over 500 foreign nationals being trafficked? The tracking and
measurement systems in place are not doing enough to monitor large-scale human rights
violations. Polaris, one of the largest anti-human trafficking NGOs, reports that there is little or no data on the trafficker profile, recruitment methods, or victim profile of construction and non-agricultural trafficking incidents, such as the one with Signal . If we drew parallels between technology and trafficking, then perhaps monitoring methods would have advanced far enough to impede Signal’s recruitment process.
Finally, there are a myriad of visas available to potential guest workers, but almost all are still controlled by the sponsor employer which complicates the ability to monitor and enforce human trafficking incidents. Domestic workers for foreign diplomats, royalty, or staff of international organizations may apply for an A-3 and G-5 visa, temporary business workers may apply for a B-1 visa, specialty occupations fall under H-1B, agricultural workers are eligible for H-2A, cultural exchange jobs can apply for J-I, and of course, non-agricultural workers may apply for H-2B visas. As much variety as there may seem at face value, only B-1 and some J-I visas have portability, or the ability to allow the worker in question to leave abusive jobs without losing their legal worker status in the United States . Still, the overwhelming majority of guest workers do not have this choice.
The case of David v. Signal remains as one of the most gruesome public labor trafficking
cases in the United States. There is, however, substantial evidence to suggest that there are worse cases, domestically and internationally. Although Signal certainly sheds light on some of the most pressing issues in labor trafficking, there are more to be uncovered. This cases perfectly illustrates the potential for monstrous human rights abuses to take place closer to home than we ever thought, without penalty, without accountability, and without justice.
 Southern Poverty Law Center, “Federal jury in SPLC case awards $14 million to Indian guest workers victimized in labor trafficking schemed by Signal International and its agents”
 U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, “H-2B Temporary Non-Agricultural Workers”
 American Civil Liberties Union, “David, et al. v. Signal International, LLC, et al.”
 European Commission, “COP21 UN Climate Change Conference, Paris,”
 United Nations, “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees”
 United Nations, “Convention on Migrants’ Rights”
 Polaris, “The Facts”
 Department of Homeland Security, “U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services”