Suit accuses La. companies of exploiting workers

Published 4:17 pm Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A group of Filipino guest workers who allege in a lawsuit that their Louisiana-based employers subjected them to inhumane working and living conditions claim company officials have threatened some of them with deportation unless they drop the case.

A federal judge on Monday issued an order barring Grand Isle Shipyard Inc. and DNR-Offshore and Crewing Inc., a job-placement firm, from contacting any of the 20 workers who sued the companies.

U.S. District Judge Kurt Engelhardt said there is no legitimate reason for the companies to communicate with the plaintiffs since they no longer work for them.

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The workers’ class-action lawsuit claims they were confined to cramped living quarters and forced to work long hours for substandard pay. Lawyers for the companies say the workers’ claims are false and should be dismissed.

Several recruiting agencies that helped the workers secure visas also are named as defendants in the case.

The suit claims Filipino laborers who worked as welders and pipefitters for Grand Isle Shipyard were “essentially imprisoned … from the minute they set foot in Louisiana.” Many lived on in a bunkhouse in Galliano or on a barge in Lafitte where six workers shared 10-foot-by-10-foot rooms and slept on mats instead of beds, according to the suit.

“Defendants closely monitored these living spaces to ensure that plaintiffs and other Filipino workers would not escape, or attempt to escape, defendants’ employ,” the suit says. “In the case of the Galliano bunkhouse, defendants went so far as to lock Plaintiffs inside the bunkhouse after (10 p.m.) and to set up security cameras outside the bunkhouse to discourage plaintiffs from attempting to escape.”

The suit also claims the defendants refused to pay workers for all of the hours they worked and deducted an excessive amount from their paychecks for living expenses and work-related equipment.

“Because plaintiffs were foreign nationals working in an unfamiliar land, and because they entrusted defendants not only with both their visa status and their livelihood, they had no option but to bow to defendants’ exploitative and unlawful employment practices,” the suit alleges.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Joseph Peiffer said none of the 20 plaintiffs are still working for Grand Isle Shipyard, but they have secured visas to stay in the U.S. while the suit is pending. At least 100 other Filipino guest workers who have worked for Grand Isle Shipyard since 2007 could have claims against the companies if the case is certified as a class action, according to Peiffer.

“By the time this is all said and done, we’re looking at tens of millions of dollars (in potential damages),” he said.

In a court filing Friday, plaintiffs’ attorneys claim a DNR official warned a guest worker’s wife earlier this month that her husband could be accused of job abandonment and deported. The official offered to waive the abandonment accusation, but only if her husband withdraws from the suit, the lawyers claim.

In response, DNR attorneys said the company “did nothing abusive” because it has a right under the laws of the Philippines to file a job-abandonment complaint against a worker.