An Alabama-based ship-building and repair company was last week asked by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission to pay $5 million to476 guest workers from India to settle a national origin discrimination lawsuit filed by the federal agency against the company.
EEOC announced Dec.18 that it has reached an agreement with Signal International, LLC, a Mobile, Ala. company, under which the latter will pay an estimated $5 million to the workers who were brought from India on guest worker visas by the company to work at its facilities in Texas and Mississippi after the hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.
The Indian workers, EEOC alleged, were forced to live in “overcrowded, unsanitary, guarded camps.” EEOC had alleged that Signal subjected the men to “a pattern or practice of race and national origin discrimination”, including unfavorable working conditions and forcing 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,” it said in a press statement.
According to the lawsuit, Signal International recruited the workers from India through the federal H-2B guest worker program to work at its facilities in Texas and Mississippi in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
EEOC alleged Signal subjected the men to a pattern or practice of race and national origin discrimination, including unfavorable working conditions and forcing 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. Such alleged conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits discrimination in employment-including terms and conditions of
employment–based on race or national origin.
EEOC filed suit in federal court in Mississippi in 2011 after first attempting to reach a prelitigation settlement through its conciliation process, and the suit was later transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana.
After Signal International filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in Delaware, the settlement of EEOC’s suit and eleven related suits became subject to approval by the bankruptcy court. The settlement establishes a claims process and ensures that all aggrieved individuals included in the litigation may receive relief in spite of the bankruptcy proceedings. In addition to monetary relief, Signal International’s CEO has issued a statement “acknowledging the company’s wrongdoing” and apologizing for its treatment of the guest workers.
David Lopez, general counsel of EEOC, said in a statement that the case was challenging and hard-fought, but shows that EEOC will fight for the right of all workers to be free from discriminatory working conditions.
“This case should remind companies that EEOC remains vigilant to prevent the exploitation of immigrant and vulnerable workers. We are especially grateful for the cooperation of the Southern Poverty Law Center during the investigation and prosecution of this egregious case and to the U.S. Attorney for Delaware for assistance during the bankruptcy proceedings,” he said.
“This lawsuit sends a powerful message that an employer must treat all workers equally without regard to their national origin or race,” said Delner Franklin-Thomas, district director for EEOC’s Birmingham District.
“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. 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.”