DECEMBER 19, 2015 — The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reports that bankrupt Mobile, AL, headquartered shipbuilding and repair company Signal International, LLC will pay an estimated $5 million to 476 Indian guest workers to settle a race and national origin discrimination lawsuit filed by the agency.
According to the EEOC 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 pre-litigation settlement through its conciliation process, and the suit was later transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana (EEOC v. Signal International, LLC, No. 2:12-cv-0557).
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 EEOC says that 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, “This 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.”
“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.”
Senior Trial Attorney Gerald L. Miller said EEOC encourages all Indian H-2B workers formerly employed by Signal International to immediately contact EEOC by calling 205-212-2060, or by e-mail at [email protected] to verify their contact information and meet claim deadlines in order to receive claim forms to request monetary compensation from the settlement fund.
Signal International’s assets have been purchased by a recently registered Alabama limited liability company, World Marine LLC, which, according to the Sun Herald newspaper “is seeking to become a leader in the business of offshore drilling rig and ship overhaul, repair, upgrade, and conversion, as well as new shipbuilding.”