Lawsuit Against Mobile Firm for Human Trafficking and Racketeering

In May, three lawsuits were filed in federal courts in Mississippi and Texas claiming that Mobile-based ship repair company Signal International LLC engaged in human trafficking and racketeering in its treatment of Indian workers recruited to work in its shipyards.

The suits stem from an earlier suit filed in Louisiana federal court in 2008 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which sought class status for some 590 foreign workers, alleging they were subjected to “barbaric conditions” as they worked to clean up Hurricane Katrina damage.

The complaints allege the workers were falsely promised green cards, held in labor camps and paid a fraction of the wages promised. A network of recruiters and labor brokers also are named as defendants.

Federal Judge Jay Zainey, of the Eastern District of Louisiana, denied the class status sought in the original suit, and the SPLC launched a campaign to recruit pro bono representation of individual workers. An impressive group of high profile law firms from around the country has enlisted in a series of suits, the first three of which were filed in May.

Los Angeles-based Latham & Watkins filed suit on behalf of 33 workers at a Pascagoula, Miss. shipyard. Two Atlanta firms, Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, filed two suits on behalf of 50 workers at a shipyard in Orange, Texas.

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SPLC officials say these are only the first in a series of such suits that will be filed by a total of more than half a dozen firms working without compensation.

The SPLC says it also plans to continue with its original suit but representing individuals and not a class. The SPLC was joined in that suit by the ACLU.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also has filed a federal lawsuit against Signal, alleging labor trafficking and a hostile work environment.

Signal International moved its headquarters from Pascagoula to Mobile in 2009 at the urging of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which invested in corporate financing of the company.

Text by Chris McFadyen

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