- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

JACKSON, MISS. (AP) - For some workers from South America, the opportunity sounded too good to be true: high-paying jobs at a major shipyard in the United States and help obtaining temporary work visas. According to a federal lawsuit, it was.

Ten Brazilians sued two companies Monday in U.S. District Court in Gulfport, accusing the labor recruiters of racketeering, breach of contract and fraud. The workers claim promised jobs didn’t pan out and they were forced to live in storage buildings on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in conditions that violated their rights.

When workers complained, their suit alleges, they were threatened with deportation.

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, was filed against Knights Marine and Industrial of Moss Point and its subsidiary, Five Star Contractors LLC. It seeks class status to cover all workers brought to the United States by the companies on temporary visas in 2006 and 2007.

David Knight, vice president of Knights Marine and Industrial, said in a written statement Monday he had not received a copy of the complaint and could not comment. Knight also is the registered agent for Five Star Contractors, according to the Mississippi secretary of state’s office. The lawsuit says the companies recruited foreign laborers to work at shipyards on the Gulf Coast.

Jacob Horwitz, of the independent New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice that has aided foreign workers, said hundreds traveled to the United States seeking work through the companies as welders, metal fabricators or pipe fitters. Some came from as far as the Philippines, others from neighboring Mexico and other Latin American countries.

Horwitz helped the workers through the center’s project, called Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity.

One of the plaintiffs, Moises Moreira Santos of Sao Paulo, Brazil, said he borrowed $7,000 to pay his relocation expenses in late 2007 because he was promised a minimum of 40 hours a week, overtime pay and “good living conditions, free of charge.”

“When I arrived, I was shocked. We were being made to live in storage containers and charged $75 week for it,” he said in a separate written statement sent to The Associated Press.

Santos claims he was fired for organizing the others to petition the owner of Five Star for better working and living conditions.

With help from the Alliance of Guestworkers for Dignity, Santos filed a complaint in June 2008 with the National Labor Relations Board. A settlement was reached and the company agreed to give Santos back pay and notices were given to other workers advising them of their rights, according to Alliance of Guestworkers.

The lawsuit charges many of those seeking temporary work under a so-called H-2B visa spent thousands of dollars getting to the United States. Many claimed they were left deep in debt, their hopes dashed.

Up to 66,000 H-2B visas are issued each year for temporary or seasonal work required by employers in non-agricultural jobs in which U.S. workers are in short supply, authorities say.

The lawsuit seeks a declaration that the workers’ rights were violated. The suit contends that the workers can be exploited because their visas are tied to the companies that sponsored them.

Laura Tischler, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, said she couldn’t speak specifically about the lawsuit, but the visa holders do “derive their status from having that job.”

She said U.S. labor laws apply to foreign workers and the government tries to inform them of their rights.

(SUBS 13th graf to correct to 66,000 visas annually. Moving on general news and financial services.)

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