Labor Traffickig possibly connected to Oil rig explosion

Six Filipino workers injured or killed in an explosion on an oil platform off the coast of Louisiana last week were working for a Louisiana company accused in a federal lawsuit of human trafficking and extensive labor violations in its treatment of foreign workers.

The workers, including one who died in the blast and another who is missing, were among 14 employees and subcontractors working for Grand Isle Shipyard on a rig owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy, which has an office in Broussard in Lafayette Parish.

Grand Isle and several recruiters here and in the Phillipines are accused in the class-action lawsuit of running a “labor camp” for foreign workers — paying substandard wages for long hours, collecting fees as high as $3,200 a month per worker for a small room shared with four to six other men, and keeping workers “imprisoned” behind lock and key except for one-hour supervised treks to Walmart once a week on Sundays.

The suit accuses Grand Isle and the other companies of violating the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, among others.

The company and others accused in the lawsuit have denied the allegations, saying they are “patently false and baseless.” An attorney representing the company did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.

Black Elk Energy is not named in the lawsuit and declined to comment about the lawsuit or its connection to Grand Isle or the other companies. A statement on the company website posted Monday said it is continuing with diving operations in its search for the missing worker.

“We remain focused on the victims and their families, including those injured in the accident,” according to the statement.

One worker, identified by the Philippine embassy as Elroy Corporal, 42, was killed in the fire. Another man, identified as Jerome Malgapo, remained missing late Tuesday.

Four workers were injured in the fire, and the condition of one worker was upgraded to good on Monday. Another worker was listed in serious condition and two others remained critical at Baton Rouge General Medical Center.

False promises?

The lawsuit accuses Grand Isle and several other companies of luring skilled workers from the Philippines with false promises of good jobs, fair wages, and free room and board.

Instead, workers — mostly certified welders and fitters — arrived to virtual incarceration in harsh conditions and were threatened with deportation if they complained, according to the lawsuit.

About 40 people have stepped forward to say they were mistreated by the company, and all tell similar tales of abuse,  according to Lori Mince, an attorney with Fishman Haygood Phelps Walmsley Willis & Swanson law firm in New Orleans, which is representing the workers.

“We have received a consistent story as to these essential allegations,” Mince told The Daily Advertiser on Tuesday. “Labor trafficking is not as uncommon as you might think.”

The lawsuit accuses Grand Isle of using two recruiting agencies based in the U.S., D&R (renamed DNR) and V People, and two based in the Philippines, IPAMS and POMI, to recruit workers through special visas.

The workers were given skills tests and then questioned at the U.S. Embassy before being offered jobs, according to the lawsuit.  The job offers made in English and presented to the U.S. Embassy, however, were at a higher wage than the wages actually paid and included offers of onshore allowances, monthly leave bonuses, and free housing and accommodations that were never fulfilled, according to the lawsuit.

Instead, workers were housed in “overcrowded, substandard living spaces,” including a bunkhouse in Galliano, La., that crammed four workers on bunk beds into rooms that measured about 10 feet by 10 feet. The Filipino workers were kicked out of those rooms if an American needed a place to sleep, the lawsuit says.

Workers were locked into the bunkhouse after a strict 10 p.m. curfew, and security cameras were set up outside to prevent escape, the suit charges. Other workers were housed on a barge in Lafitte, La., where six workers were assigned to a room that contained “sleeping mats” instead of beds, the lawsuit says.

The companies deducted as much as $3,200 a month for living expenses from the workers’ checks, and also charged fees for use of tools and equipment.  Moreover, workers were charged the housing fee even when they were sent offshore and another company was picking up those expenses, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit is seeking to include all workers recruited by the companies since Nov. 8, 2008 -— the three-year cutoff point for the statute of limitations on the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for assorted violations, including infliction of mental distress.

“As a result of defendants’ extreme and outrageous conduct, plaintiffs suffered severe emotional distress,” the lawsuit says. “While under the employ of defendants, plaintiffs were in a constant state of trepidation and fear that defendants would suddenly deport them back to their home countries.”

Court documents list Grand Isle as being owned by NANA Development Corp. Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are D&R/DNR, based in Galliano, La., and three Filipinos identified as half-owners of the business, Danilo N. Dayao, Randolf Malgapo and Nilfil Peralta; Thunder Enterprises, a privately held company that the lawsuit says holds a 50 percent share of D&R; Industrial Personnel and Management Services and Pacific Ocean Manning Inc, both recruiting firms in the Philippines; V Manpower Philippines, a Texas-based company that obtains visas for foreign workers; and Mark Pregeant, identified in the suit as international operations manager for Grand Isle and director of Thunder Enterprises.

Probe ongoing

Federal investigators, meanwhile, are moving in to look into the explosion on the West Delta 32 Platform.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, a government agency that investigates industrial chemical accidents, has sent a subpoena to Black Elk seeking information about the explosion.  The board has not yet decided whether to investigate, a spokesperson said.

And the federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has personnel on the platform this week to investigate what happened.

The explosion and fire occurred Friday on the deck of the platform, which sits in 56 feet of water off the coast of Plaquemines Parish. The fire was put out within hours, and the platform remained sound.

It was not producing oil at the time, and the accident did not result in continuous leakage of oil as occurred with the devastating Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010.

This article contains material from The Associated Press.

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