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NEW ORLEANS – A group of workers from India who claim they were duped into taking jobs at Gulf Coast shipyards and subjected to abusive living conditions are suing the company that hired them. A class-action lawsuit filed Friday in federal court accuses Signal International, an oil rig construction and repair company, of exploiting and defrauding more than 500 Indian nationals who worked at its facilities in Pascagoula, Miss., and Orange, Texas. Several dozen former workers protested Monday outside the New Orleans office of a lawyer who allegedly helped recruit them to work for Pascagoula-based Signal as welders, pipefitters and in other positions through a federal guest worker program. The workers claim they were lured here by the false promise of green cards and permanent U.S. residency. Some say they didn’t know their work visas would last less than a year until after they paid thousands of dollars on travel and other expenses. Dick Marler, Signal’s president and CEO, and attorney Malvern Burnett didn’t return phone messages Monday. In their lawsuit, the workers accuse Signal of subjecting them to “psychological coercion,” threats of deportation and overcrowded living quarters. “These workers mortgaged their futures for the American dream and instead incurred substantial debt, were forced to live in squalid living conditions and were threatened with (deportation) when they tried to stand up for their rights,” said Jennifer Rosenbaum, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Subulal Vijayan, one of 12 former workers named as plaintiffs, said he gave up a job in the United Arab Emirates to work for Signal and didn’t know his work visa would expire 10 months after his arrival in December 2006. Vijayan said he attempted suicide after Signal allegedly threatened to deport him in retaliation for complaining about the working conditions. “We are saying this a modern-day slavery,” Vijayan said. Lawyers for the workers are asking a federal judge in New Orleans to certify the lawsuit as a class action. The suit accuses Signal and its recruiters of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. Rosenbaum said a shortage of skilled labor after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 has left many Gulf Coast companies relying on guest workers. She said some use the program to “undercut job quality and exploit foreign labor.”

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