NEW ORLEANS -- The most seriously injured workers in Friday's oil platform fire in the Gulf of Mexico were Filipino guest laborers at a Galliano oilfield construction company.
Filipino workers have said they were recruited from their homeland with the lure of a fat paycheck and a better life. But they said they later found themselves living in substandard conditions, working far out in the Gulf, making only modest wages.
Grand Isle Shipyard's use of the foreign workers – along with the recruiting agencies that helped bring them to Louisiana – has been criticized for more than a year.
Those criticisms are outlined in a lawsuit that claims the company conduct “rises to the level” of human trafficking, involuntary servitude and forced-labor offenses.
The alleged practices already attracted the attention of the Embassy of the Philippines. Now, in light of last week's disaster, the company is under even more scrutiny.
"We need to know more details,” Jose L. Cusia Jr., the ambassador of the Philippines to the U.S., told Eyewitness News. “Their contracts for example, how were they brought to the U.S.?”
In November 2011, Grand Isle Shipyard and several recruiting agencies were named as defendants in a class action lawsuit that claims Filipinos were brought to Louisiana and forced to work in inhumane conditions.
Grand Isle Shipyard and the other defendants are trying to to dismiss the suit, saying the allegations are false. The companies noted in court filings that they never discriminated, mistreated or harassed Filipino employees.
All of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are citizens of the Philippines and were recruited and brought to Louisiana to work for Grand Isle Shipyard.
The workers were desperate for employment, and two Filipino recruitment agencies promised to help them obtain visas and earn substantial pay, according to the lawsuit.
Two U.S.-based placement agencies allegedly helped usher the Filipino workers into Louisiana and into the Grand Isle Shipyard’s business.
“Specifically, from the minute plaintiffs and other Filipino workers set foot in Louisiana, they were essentially imprisoned,” the attorneys wrote in one filing.
The lawsuit claims the Filipino workers were forced to stay in substandard bunkhouses. Workers reported that at times, six men slept on racks in a 10-foot by 10-foot room.
Among the other claims: Filipino workers were monitored so they would not escape, forced to abide by a strict curfew, and prohibited from obtaining driver’s licenses or even riding in a car with an American worker.
The lawsuit alleges that though the Filipinos were promised a substantial income, the employer “deducted an excessive and unreasonable amount” from their wages, upwards of $3,500 a month, for housing and living expenses. Also, the company “often deducted the cost of protective equipment and tools from the paychecks” of Filipino workers.
Because the Filipino workers were working on temporary visas in an unfamiliar place, “they had no option but to bow to the exploitative and unlawful employment practices thrust upon them,” the lawsuit states.
The civil suit claims Grand Isle Shipyard and the recruiting agencies had leverage over the workers, and if questioned, would intimidate the workers. The company allegedly didn’t treat its non-Filipino employees this way.
Several former workers said they could only leave the company’s facility to work, or for a weekly trip to a local Walmart while supervised by a Grand Isle Shipyard representative.
The Filipinos were forced to work about 12 hours per day, about six to seven days a week without being paid properly for overtime, said Attorney Joseph Peiffer.
"We had a client who had told to us that he was told that he had to weld for 24 straight hours and that he went temporarily blind as a result of it,” Peiffer said. “It's a number of these kinds of things that we are alleging."
Peiffer said he believes the lawsuit affects hundreds of current or former Grand Isle Shipyard workers.
Some of them reported that Mark Pregeant, Grand Isle Shipyard’s chief executive officer, made Filipinos wash his car, work on his home and perform other personal tasks.
Pregeant did not respond today to a request for comment. Attorneys for his company, as well as recruiting companies named in the lawsuit, did not get back to us.
In court, these attorneys have called the allegations false and are trying to get the suit tossed out.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Isidro Baricautro Jr. His story highlights a pipeline from the Philippines to a Gulf of Mexico oil platform.
Baricuatro says he was recruited to work as a welder in the United States. The recruiter secured him an E-2 visa and a welding job with Grand Isle Shipyard, where he worked off and on from January 2007 through December 2010, often in months-long stints, according to the lawsuit.
He claimed the recruiter promised him an eventual green card or citizenship in the United States in exchange for his work.
The lawsuit is pending in federal court in New Orleans. None of the plaintiffs are involved in last week’s deadly platform fire.
Earlier this year, after the lawsuit was filed, a group of the workers said company officials had intimidated them and threatened deportation unless they dropped the suit. Attorneys for the defendants denied such claims.
U.S. District Court Judge Kurt Engelhardt ordered Grand Isle Shipyard and the recruitment companies not to contact those workers.
Jose Cuisia, the ambassador, is currently in Louisiana, working as a liaison to the workers’ families back home. Cuisia said the injured workers were part of a much larger group recruited to work for Grand Isle Shipyard.
“I understand there were 162 scaffolders, and different types of workers who work on an oil rig, who were hired from the Philippines,” he said.
Cuisia said job opportunities in the Philippines are "not sufficient" and workers who can't find jobs there venture elsewhere for other opportunities.