Five Indian men have been awarded USD 14 million in damages by a US court in a human trafficking case after they were lured to the country and forced to work under inhumane conditions by an American ship repair firm following the devastating 2005 Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans federal court jury ruled that Alabama-based Signal International was guilty of labour trafficking, fraud, racketeering and discrimination and ordered it to pay USD 12 million.
Its co-defendants, a New Orleans lawyer and an India-based recruiter, were also found guilty and ordered to pay an additional USD 915,000 each, Houston Chronicle reported.
The verdict is the first in a series of trials brought on behalf of about 500 Indian guest workers and spearheaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama civil rights organisation.
Jurors found Signal International, which has offices in Houston, and a network of recruiters and labour brokers conspired to lure the pipefitters and welders on false promises of obtaining green cards for them and their families between 2003 and 2007.
"They viewed them as expendable, almost like pieces of equipment to handle the backlog of work," said Alan Howard, lead attorney for the plaintiffs and board chairman for the law center.
Jurors found the defendants guilty of all nine claims, including forced labor, human trafficking, fraud, racketeering and human rights violations, making it one of the largest cases ever brought under the 2000 Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
The lawsuit contends the defendants charged the Indians exorbitant fees, often keeping their passports until they were paid in full.
The defendants "perpetrated a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion and fraud designed to render plaintiffs afraid, intimidated and unable to leave," according to the lawsuits.
In a statement, Signal International said rulings from the court impacted its ability to adequately present its defense and that it's disappointed with the verdict. The firm is considering an appeal.
A former Mississippi police officer made at least USD 5 million in the alleged scam, according to the lawsuits, which were first filed in 2008 and include several in the Eastern District of Texas.
Workers paid up to USD 25,000 each in cash upfront in return for promises of permanent residency if they worked at the plants under a temporary US guest worker programme, according to court documents.
But once they arrived in the US, they were forced to pay USD 1,000 a month to live in the overcrowded camps and were threatened and prevented from leaving after complaining about the conditions.
Because of the debts they'd incurred, they felt forced to continue working. One worker even attempted suicide after employers called his wife in India and warned her he should stop complaining about the conditions.