While sex trafficking gets a lot of attention in the media, labor trafficking is actually more common. It largely affects middle-aged men, most of whom are looking for ways to support themselves and their families. Often faced with overwhelming poverty, these men make ill-informed and risky choices, hoping that what they are being told by potential employers is true.
In a landmark case, a Gulf Coast company, Signal International, has been ordered to pay $14 million in damages to men they had “hired” from India.
After more than four weeks of testimony and several days of deliberations, the jury found that marine construction company Signal International and its agents engaged in human trafficking, forced labor and racketeering, among other violations.
It is ‘an historic verdict,’ said Alan Howard, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, ‘finding damages against every defendant on every single claim that we brought, and finding punitive damages against every defendant for every claim for which we were entitled to ask for punitive damages.’ Signal must pay over $12 million to the five plaintiffs, while the company’s recruiter and its immigration lawyer must pay over $900,000 each.
These men had paid huge “recruiting” fees to Signal International, and were told they would receive permanent residency status in the U.S. Instead, they were actually brought here on temporary work visas. The men also faced horrible living and working conditions.
When the workers arrived, they were unpleasantly surprised to discover their accommodations: ‘man camps,’ as they were referred to throughout the trial, where they were housed in trailers with 24 men and just two toilets each. They complained of unsanitary conditions, lack of privacy, and constant noise from proximity to the worksites, which operated day and night.
A man camp manager wrote in his private journal, ‘Our Indians have been dropping with sickness like flies. … Water has leaked everywhere and stagnated as a result, which serves as a bacterial breeding ground.’
The men paid $35 a day—over $1,000 a month—for room and board. Signal says it did everything it could to make them feel at home, including hiring an Indian caterer to cook them three meals a day, adding a prayer room and a quiet room to the camps, and providing a bus to take them to Walmart and church. The camps were under guard 24 hours a day, which the company says was intended to protect workers’ belongings.
The plaintiffs, however, say they were the ones being monitored and that the guards conducted surprise searches of their belongings.
When one of the workers contacted the Southern Poverty Law Center for help, Signal responded by locking the men in a trailer, terminating their employment and telling them they would be deported.
Human traffickers are driven by greed. They often understand the tragedy of their mistakes when it affects their bottom lines. This type of legal action will continue to be necessary in order to make a dent in the world of human trafficking.