The Slave Ship that Ran from Kerala to New Orleans

Padmaparna Ghosh
Grist Media
Letter from immigration lawyer Malvern Burnett to recruiter Sachin Dewan (courtesy SPLC).

Late in October 2006, Andrews Isaac Padavettiyil sat in an airplane in Mumbai, waiting for take-off. It wasn’t the first flight he had ever taken, but it was the most promising. The airplane was taking him to America, where he imagined he would spend the rest of his life. For now, he had to leave behind his wife and two sons, aged 7 and 11, in Kerala, to fly across the planet and into the wreckage left by a hurricane.

This would, Andrews thought, be his last big move. He was 45, and he had bounced around a lot already – across the Middle East through his 20s and 30s, from Dubai to Qatar to Bahrain to Sharjah – working as a welder, primarily in the shipping industry. He was tired of this itinerant existence, of living away from his family. Then, in 2004, when Andrews was working on ships in Dubai, some of his friends told him about an opportunity to go to America. The prospect appeared to be an exit from a life spent between India and the Gulf, and a future full of possibilities. “This is it,” he thought to himself on the airplane. “Everything will work out well now.”

Eight years later, though, Andrews was sitting in a US DistrictCourt in New Orleans with four other colleagues. On February 18, the five men were awarded $14 million (Rs 87 crore) in compensatory and punitive damages – to be paid by the company that hired them, a New Orleans-based immigration lawyer, and a recruiter in Mumbai. The trial was the first in a queue of several lawsuits by approximately 230 plaintiffs facing Signal International, a marine fabrication and repair firm, and its co-defendants. Andrews had found himself in the thick of one of the largest labor trafficking cases in US history.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) in Alabama, uncovered a scheme to defraud the Indian workers. The workers had been promised permanent residency in the US in return for the high "recruitment fees" charged by the lawyer and the agent. The workers had paid millions in fees but not one of the workers had received what he had been promised in America. Signal, however, made millions in profits from their labor and even more by charging a daily deduction from their wages for room-and-board. Room and board in an unsanitary, guarded labor camp.

Alan Howard, in the prosecution's opening statement, said, "The five men whose claims you'll decide were amongst close to 500 men, blue-collar workers from India, who were lured to the United States by a false promise. They were lied to, they were mistreated, and they were discriminated against."

Daniel Werner, an SPLC attorney, calls the case a stark example of the exploitation within the nation’s broken H-2B visa program for guest workers. Although the case was not granted class-action status, the SPLC coordinated a large legal collaboration. It brought together nearly a dozen of the nation’s top law firms and civil rights organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Louisiana Justice Institute, to represent pro bono hundreds of other workers who had been excluded from the original SPLC suit by the denial of class action status. Buoyed by this enormous legal aid, Andrews and his four colleagues had sought justice on charges of labor trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination.

The case was filed in March 2008 and has been going on for several years. Werner adds, "It has been a very complicated case, with a lot of procedural hurdles. That is why the victory is even more satisfying for our clients. The defendants did everything to delay the case but our clients really persevered." Finally, in February this year, a federal jury ruled in their favor.

Trans-Atlantic

What led Andrews to become a part of a seven-year-long trial in a foreign land is a set of specific events aligned in a very specific manner. If it was fate, it was sealed by the weather gods. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina, one of the deadliest in American history, pounded the US Gulf Coast with great fury. The ensuing damage prompted Signal to recruit 476 industrial metalworkers from India for the first time.

Andrews was one of these workers, and in February he spoke to me, over the phone, in voluble and cheerful Malayalam; a translator turned that into English for my benefit. (US federal laws do not allow me to reveal Andrews’ location at the moment.) Born to a farming family in the district of Thrissur, Andrews had studied till Class 10 grade; then he attended a local welding school, “because the situation at home was not very good.”

"The reason I desired to go into welding was because I did not have much education,” he says. “I did not go to college. I only completed high school. So in my mind, I was thinking, you know, this is a hardship for me to live like this. The income is not enough for the family, so if I earn [through] welding, I could make money on my own and I would be able to be with the family and support the family."

It was this training that eventually took him to Mumbai and the Middle East. The money from his income, and some additional earnings from his small groves of rubber, cassava and black pepper back home, kept the family afloat. Andrews disliked being away, but the salary was competitive. And so he kept building – trucks, heavy vehicles, ships – all for Rs 25,000 a month. “The work was very hard, and we would have injuries sometimes,” he said. “It was extremely hot, but the food and the accommodation were good. I was well-liked, and I had some good relationships.”

His lack of proficiency in English stood in the way of a promotion, although he had been promised one – to the designation of Foreman – by his supervisor in Dubai in 2005. At the time, he hadn’t even heard of Signal International. He had heard of the “big recruiter” Sachin Dewan, though. “He was well known for sending people abroad,” Andrews said. When he went to the Dubai office of Dewan Consultants, to see if he could find a job, he found Dewan along with roughly 70 other workers, all of whom were being told about a golden opportunity to work in the US.

This particular arrangement was with a company called J&M, a labor contractor that promised, over the next two years, to secure Green Cards for the workers and take them to America. Katrina hadn’t hit the US yet.

“They said, ‘You’ll be working for a good company, and there will be decent accommodation. Later on, you can bring your family,’” says Andrews.

Dewan told him that it would cost him Rs 5,00,000, to be paid in three installments, to be split three ways – between Dewan and two others coming in from the US. In comparison, according the testimonies of the plaintiffs, recruitment for the Gulf countries has sometimes been free or ranged between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000. (Repeated calls to Dewan’s Mumbai office requesting an interview went unreturned.) According to India’s Emigration Act, 1983, irrespective of the country to which a worker is being recruited, “No recruiting agent shall collect from the worker the charges more than the equivalent of his wages for forty-five days as offered under the employment contract, subject to a maximum of twenty thousand rupees.” 

Andrews didn’t have savings running to anywhere near Rs 5,00,000; in his testimony in court, he pointed out that even if he had sent no part of his wages home, it would have taken him three-and-a-half years to amass that much. So he called his 78-year-old father in Thrissur to talk about it. Convinced that it was a good opportunity, his father made Andrews an offer: to divide their ancestral land among the four siblings, so that Andrews could sell his 2acre portion to pay the recruitment fees. He received the most valuable portion of the land, the part with the rubber trees on it.

In April 2005, Andrews went to Dewan’s office to pay the first installment. Four months later, Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, and it hit Signal International’s Pascagoula shipyard in Mississippi hard. In his court testimony, Richard Marler, the CEO of Signal, said that his company had few contract workers before the hurricane. Afterwards, though, many of his employees left to repair their own homes. “After Katrina, I mean 300,000 homes were destroyed along the Gulf Coast,” he said. “A lot of our employees just either didn't come back for a long period of time or they went to work for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] in the cleanup action along the Gulf Coast…I mean, it was a really hard scramble to get people to come to work for you.”

But Signal needed workers urgently. It was behind on two drill rig contracts, collectively worth $490 million (around Rs 3,054 crore). Some contracts had expensive penalty clauses for job delays. The storm had also damaged several oil rigs along the coast, and Signal was in the business of repairing rigs. The local workforce often preferred to work for FEMA, which paid $35 (around Rs 2,180) an hour to drive a truck – wages that Signal couldn’t compete with. Signal needed fitters and welders to fulfill its contracts, and in February 2006, it decided to find them in India, with the help of the trio whom Andrews was paying: Dewan, an immigration lawyer named Malvern Burnett, and a labor broker named Michael Pol.

Effectively, Signal took over the contracts of Andrews and his colleagues from J&M, the labor contractor. However, since getting the workers Green Cards would have taken too long, Signal procured H-2B visas for them instead. The H-2B visa is a temporary 10-month work visa, which can be extended twice for 10 months each time. Workers are legally bound to the visa-sponsoring company. “It is a seasonal temporary work visa and has a lot of tremendous flaws. It creates a situation in which what happened to our clients is almost inevitable. They could not find other jobs in the free market. Their choices are very limited,” says Werner. “When working for an abusive employer, H-2B workers have the untenable options of returning to the source country, often with debts that cannot be repaid; leaving the employer but remaining in the US as undocumented workers; or remaining with the abusive employer.”

At the epicenter of the lawsuit was this broken promise: the Green Card. Signal maintained, in the lawsuit, that their agents Dewan, Malvern and Pol had acted on their own when they made this promise. In the trial, though, the workers testified that they would not have paid such high fees if they had known that they were only going to be part of a temporary work force. Andrews had, after all, convinced his father that the move to the US would be permanent. Assured by Dewan, in fact, that he would be bound for the US by October 2006 with his Green Card in hand, Andrews had even quit his Dubai job in April of that year, to return to India and spend some time with his family.

Around the same time, Sony Vasudevan Sulekha, then 36, was on a train to Kochi with a cousin. He had spotted a recruitment ad in Malayala Manorama, seeking welders and fitters for a shipyard in the US. Those interested had been called to a seminar at the Trident Hilton Hotel in Kochi. When Sulekha got there, the hotel hall was brimming with hundreds of people. Most stood around clutching all the paperwork of their lives. Ramesh Dubey, an assistant with Dewan Consultants, recalled in his testimony: “Most of them came with plastic bags…They didn't have any air bags or anything like that. High standard bags. They had [lower-class] bags, like shopping bags, or just like…carry bags.”

At the seminar, Sulekha told me, “They talked about Signal Company, showed video clips and photos of facilities, the work, and the Green Card processing. How much time and money it would take.” Unknown to Sulekha, Jacob (full name withheld) was also at the same seminar. He had flown down to Kochi on leave from his job in Saudi Arabia. Later on, in 2015, they would sit on the same side in a courtroom, suing Signal.

It was night by the time Sulekha got home. He had decided not to apply for the program because they were asking for Rs 7,00,000, but later he got a call from a Dewan Consultants representative, who reduced it to Rs 6,00,000. Sulekha arranged for the money in three installments, raising it by borrowing cash against his land, his wife’s jewelry, and his house. Eventually, he left for the US in November 2006, leaving behind a wife and a two-month-old daughter. He thought his situation would soon change for the better. He said, "The recruiting agency that were recruiting us had told that in about nine months that I would be able to live along with my family.”

At home, Andrews had been feeling the heat. “After I went to India, my wife would always ask me about these things – that you don't have any work now, you had resigned [from] your job in Dubai, you cannot go back to that, and you have sold the land, and there is no income from it, and so would we be able to go to America?” he said in his court testimony. By mid-October, Dewan had told Andrews that his visa was imminent, but that it was an H-2B for Signal and not the promised Green Card. Signal would, Dewan assured him, process him for a Green Card once he arrived in the US.

Over the next two weeks, several workers went to the US Consulate in Mumbai for their visa interviews. All the plaintiffs testified that they were “coached” on what to say. They were told not to mention the Green Card or how much they had paid by way of recruitment fees to Dewan, Burnett and Pol. An August 2006 email from Pol, to a Signal manager, reads: “One of us needs to be with each and every candidate going to the consulates before the interview. They sometimes say the dumbest things, and need to be coached on the proper way to interview. For example, if one of these guys says he's going to the US for immigration and Signal is sponsoring for permanent residence, he's a goner.”

The visas were issued without any trouble. Andrews, Sulekha and Jacob flew to the US in separate waves of guest workers, staggered over more than a year, prepared to begin rebuilding a disaster-hit shipyard.

The Man Camp

When Andrews landed in an airport in Alabama, he had no idea that 28 other welders and fitters were also on his flight, headed for the shipyard in Pascagoula. When he walked out of the terminal, he saw Burnett and Pol waiting outside. “To be honest, that is the time I was very happy,” he said. “The two people who had promised me had come there, and so I trusted, I believed, I hoped everything would be okay.”

When Andrews reached the Signal facility, he was shown to a bunkhouse in a housing complex called the Man Camp. It was when he saw his quarters that he first questioned his decision. A wooden trailer held bunk beds, crammed side by side, intended to house 24 workers. “The US was my dream country,” he said. “All I ever heard was that it's a very good country, a rich country, a big country. It's number one in the world and powerful. So I was really surprised. I was in shock. In America, things like this happen?”

This Man Camp had been purpose-built for the Indian H-2B workers, and Signal charged each worker $35 (around Rs 2,180) a day for accommodation, meals and laundry. According to a calculation by Signal's CFO, by making $1,065 (around Rs 66,380) a month from each worker, it would take the company three years to recover the cost of constructing the camp. The plaintiffs contended, however, that they hadn't been told about this deduction when they left India. Further, the Man Camp’s overcrowding and unsanitary conditions didn't comply with US laws on health and safety standards for workers.

The Indian workers were not given the option of living outside the facility, even though workers of other nationalities could. Werner said it was clear what Signal wanted from the Man Camp, because “they also called it the Profit Center.” The Indian had to live by rules that were not applicable to other workers. They couldn’t have visitors in the camp, and they were frisked on every entry. According to the economist Robert Maness, a visiting Associate Professor at Texas A&M University who was hired by the plaintiffs, in 2007 Signal earned from the workers about $730,000 (Rs 4.5 crore) –more than the cost of operating the facility. That same year, the company saved $8 million (close to Rs 50 crore) in labor costs by employing these Indian workers over American contract workers.

The Man Camp housed around 290 workers. Just before the first wave of workers arrived in October 2006, Chris Cunningham, the Signal CFO, took a tour of the newly constructed camp with John Sanders, the camp manager. In his diary, excerpts of which were part of the lawsuit's documentation, Sanders wrote: “I accompanied him out there, and he's extremely impressed, saying he had never seen anything like it… And that the incoming workers would probably think this was like being at the Taj Mahal.” Ronald Schnoor, the COO of Signal said in an email to Marler, his CEO: “The trailer will likely be an improvement over their current living conditions. I would think they'll be happy campers.” In his deposition in 2014, Schnoor said that he had thought these conditions would be an improvement because he thought these workers were living in India “pooping in ditches”. In 2008, Marler, who owned 4 percent of the shares in the company, sold half of that stake for $4 million (around Rs 25 crore); Schnoor sold three-quarters of a percent for $1.7 million (around Rs 10.6 crore).

Andrews disliked being confined in the camp, so isolated that it was hours away from the nearest town. He phoned his wife or father every other day, which provided a few minutes of relief, he said. "I did not tell them about my American life. They would be sad. They would be worried, and so I did not want to do that. They may think that, in Dubai, you were living in a good place; and now you are in America and you are living like this. I did not want them to worry.”The only other reprieve involved trips to the closest Wal-Mart in a company bus, followed by a meal at the Buffalo Wild Wings diner next door.

There was one aspect that none of the workers had a problem with: the wages, which on average came to $22.81 (around Rs 1,420) per hour, including safety bonuses and overtime. Workers clocked 52 hours a week. Towards the end of 2007, a year after he got there, Andrews and nine other colleagues were able to pool some money and buy a secondhand car. One of his precious memories of that time was a trip to Disney World with his colleagues over a Christmas vacation. It was the America he had imagined, and the one he had wanted to see.

Black Friday

The Green Card, however, remained out of sight. As waves of Indian workers kept moving in, some of them started to suspect that the promise would go unfulfilled. In February 2007, Signal had applied for a grant from the state of Mississippi, in which it specified that the Indian workers would be gone in a couple of years, calling them temporary workers. A part of Schnoor’s testimony was this exchange:

Question: On February 22nd 2007, did Signal have the intent to seek permanent residency status for any Indian workers? The answer is no, correct?

Answer: At that time, that's correct. We didn't have it.

In India, however, Dewan continued to believe that he had been authorized by Signal to promise Green Cards for prospective workers. Dewan was earning between Rs 1.7 and 2.7 lakh as a recruiting fee per worker. From 476 workers, Dewan collected Rs 9 crore. Burnett (who nicknamed his Indian partner “Mafioso”) earned as much as well. Signal kept working with Dewan and Burnett, fully cognizant of the fees they were charging. Both Burnett and Dewan now have to pay roughly $900,000 (Rs 5.6 crore) apiece to Andrews and his four fellow plaintiffs as damages. (Burnett did not reply to emails requesting an interview.)

Signal maintains that it did file for Green Cards for some of the workers who stayed with them – but only in 2008, after it was sued. Those 81 workers are still waiting for their permanent residencies. Why? An immigration expert, appearing for the plaintiffs, explained:

Q. And when do you think those applications (filed in 2008) would be reviewed by the US government?

A. Assuming that the first step, the labor certification, was approved, the second step was approved, I would think it would probably go beyond 2018, at least.

Q. At the very minimum. And then what would you say would be the maximum?

A. 30 to 40 to 50 years.

Most optimistically, then, Andrews would have been 58 by the time he received his Green Card. Or he might have been 100.

Andrews is a man of faith. One of the places, apart from the Wal-Mart, to which Signal took its workers was the Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Pascagoula. A few Indian workers aired their concerns over their living conditions and visa issues to a priest at the church, who then called the New Orleans Workers' Center and arranged a meeting there.

On March 4, 2007, a Sunday, about 40-50 workers, including Jacob, went to meet a lawyer at the church. Signal came to know about this meeting; it also received a letter from the SPLC, on behalf of the Indian workers, asking for a “good faith dialog” on the terms and conditions of their employment. On March 6, Schnoor sent an internal email that read: “Remember, the best defense is a strong offense. When we do not respond to threats like this, it only fuels the fire. Ignoring threats and not responding only helps sponsor more trouble like we have now with all the Indians meeting with the lawyers this past weekend. The next time some disgruntled employee barks, they'll think twice about wasting their time again. Before the week is over, the Indians will know we're not afraid to fight.”

Soon after, Schnoor assembled everybody in the camp and announced that if the workers sued Signal, “then this program is over. Your visas are going to end, and you're all going to have to go back to India.” The prosecution used these threats as evidence of “forced labor,” because Signal knew that going back to India would put the workers in financial ruin.

By Thursday, March 8, Signal had decided to deport Jacob and Sabulal Vijayan, another H-2B worker, both of whom Signal thought were instrumental in the lawyer meeting. They were seen as the people who were riling other workers into talking to lawyers. Vijayan and Jacob did talk to other workers about problems at Signal. Jacob also remembers that he spoke to a few people from the New Orleans Workers' center (the parish had called them) and told them about the accommodation problem at Signal Man Camp. Vijayan hoped that SPLC would mediate on their behalf. He said in his testimony, "The Indian people that were unable to participate on that day for that meeting (Sunday, March 4 meeting at the church), we went and saw them in their rooms and explained these things to them."

Two days after the Sunday meeting, Vijayan said that someone from Dewan's office had called his wife in Kerala, which made Vijayan call Dewan back, who said (according to Vijayan's testimony), "We heard that you're creating problems there, that I came to know of that. That is the reason I called," he told me. And then Sachin was threatening me saying that, "If you all are creating a problem there, you all will be sent back to India from there."

They were both good workers according to their appraisals. They were fired for "talking on the rig", which their supervisor attested to not knowing. According to company policy, workers are to be given written warnings, then an oral warning and then a firing. They received none of these. Signal had even bought them their flight tickets home. Later, Signal said they were fired for being disruptive to the rest of the workforce. 

Matters reached a crescendo on March 9, 2007 – a day referred to as Black Friday by some company officials from then on. Darrell Snyder, a project manager with Signal, was tasked with firing nine workers, including Jacob and Vijayan. He walked into the camp that morning, carrying large pictures of these two workers, walking around asking: "Do you know where this guy is?"

Vijayan was eating breakfast in the canteen, preparing to go to work. Just three days earlier, he had received a positive evaluation from his foreman as well as a raise. When Snyder told him that he was “under his custody”, Vijayan asked if he could finish breakfast first. Then he went to his bunkhouse to wash his hands, and he slit his wrists instead.

Sulekha remembers that he was calling the parish when he saw Sabulal bleeding. Sulekha said in his testimony, "He was bleeding and he was calling out and saying that I cannot go back to India, that my family is going to be orphaned, that – I cannot return back to India. He was calling out all those things. When I heard all of these things, for a minute I thought about my own family. If they would send me back also."

Vijayan said in his testimony – "I told my colleagues at the canteen at the time, 'Do not let them take [me] away. I was speaking on all of your behalves.' I asked them to save me. They were all afraid and they were all standing there in fear. No one there could help me.’

"I tried to eat food. Because I was shivering, I was unable to eat anything. That I have lost everything, when I came to know that they are going to be sending me back. I was thinking that they are going to harm me. Because I was afraid,” Vijayan said. "That I had put in all of my many years of work and savings and I had borrowed loan, I have to sell my gold and then to come here, I cannot – I would not be able to go back empty-handed. If I am going back like that, then I would not be able to face my wife or my children, my family and the society, I would not be able to stand there. Rather than going back like that, it is better for me to die. That's what I felt. I felt I need to do something, but I don't know why I am – what I'm going to be doing or why I would be doing it. I got a blade from somewhere and I cut myself. I cut my arm."

Vijayan didn’t die. But the events of Black Friday led Sulekha, Vijayan, Jacob and a few others to leave Signal that very day. (What happened to the workers after they left Signal’s employment cannot be disclosed, because it falls under a protective court order.) Snyder remembers that Jacob was genuinely surprised when he told him he was fired. “He didn't resist or, you know, he didn't say I'm…he was taken by surprise, as I was. I mean, I liked the guy. He was a personable guy. I mean, I really…he was a nice guy. I hated that it went that way for him, really,” Snyder said in his testimony. An email from Dewan to Signal recommended the deportation of the workers who had talked to lawyers. Jacob went to his bunkhouse, packed his suitcases, and walked out. Snyder asked him if he needed a ride somewhere. Jacob kept walking.

Discrimination

While the jury believed the workers had been taken for a ride, much of the discrimination and prejudice against them was exposed by internal emails. Dewan was Burnett’s bill collector in India, and payment delays made Burnett mad. “And you tell them to pay up or we will substitute with willing candidates. What can't you make the dolts understand? Confused and pissed, I remain, yours truly, Mal,” Burnett wrote to Dewan once. In another email, he asked Dewan to send checks promptly, otherwise “these idiots get time to stop payment.” The "idiot" referred to here is a worker who wanted to withdraw from the program, because his father was suffering from cancer. Burnett apologized on the stand for these emails.

The discrimination wasn’t limited to Burnett. Within Signal, right before an employee visited India, an email was circulated to several supervisors and management. It read: “WA, you will love the trip to India. Most Indians are shorter than you. You will also smell better than most.” It was CC’d to Tracey Binion, Signal’s HR director. There were references to the workers as "F***ing Keralites." On email, an offensive joke about Hindu women circulated around the company. Binion admitted, in her testimony, that none of these employees were warned, terminated or counselled, or deterred in any way from making disparaging comments. The company’s anti-discrimination policies were insufficient, she said, and Marler, the CEO, acknowledged this as well.

The next case in the series of lawsuits against Signal is slated for April 6. Signal has said, in a press release, that it is disappointed with the verdict and is considering an appeal. But even though a jury found that Dewan, Burnett, and Signal engaged in labor trafficking, racketeering and fraud, nothing in the law prevents them from recruiting new H-2B workers tomorrow. Advocates are urging legislation to require licensing of foreign labor recruiters and accountability for the US employers who use them. 

“Because H-2B workers are considered temporary, they are treated as disposable commodities, never becoming part of the fabric of the communities where they reside or having the political clout to address abuses and change policies,” says Werner. He hopes that the verdict will convince Congress to reform US’s guest worker programs.

Andrews believes the verdict will help tell his story. “The judge and jury understood what we went through, even after five-six years,” he said. “They understood the truth.”

Padmaparna Ghosh is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.