The company at the center of an Eyewitness Investigation into human trafficking has denied many of the allegations. But new developments bolster the allegations made by dozens of Filipino guest workers.
Grand Isle Shipyard, an oilfield contracting company based in Galliano, has employed hundreds of Filipino migrant workers in recent years. Many of these workers allege slave-like conditions, saying they sometimes worked 400 hours a month for measly pay. They say they were forced to wash their boss' car and pick up trash, among other shocking claims.
We went all the way to the Philippines to investigate their claims (read the first report). And we uncovered a corporate web and found a system that allowed Filipinos to be funneled to bayou machine shops and offshore oil platforms in south Louisiana.
We learned just days ago that several of the former Grand Isle Shipyard workers have been granted amnesty, and labeled human trafficking victims by the U.S. Government.
Ricardo Ramos is proud to show off the documents. The paperwork states: "Dear, Mr. Ramos, this letter confirms that you have been certified by the US Department Health and Human Service under section 107 (b)(1)(e) of the trafficking victim protection act of 2000."
It means he is a victim of human trafficking. Several other Filipinos who worked at Grand Isle Shipyard have recently received similar paperwork.
The human trafficking visa – or “T visa” – allows the men to legally remain in this country and work here for at least four more years. It also puts them on a path to citizenship, enabling them to apply for a green card at the end of their visa term.
“It’s first and foremost to provide relief for this victim,” said Sharon Scheidhauer, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Because we know that returning home often presents a severe hardship. But the second part of the T visa is that it allows law enforcement in the United States to investigate a very major crime and to prosecute traffickers. It’s a powerful tool for us to prevent future trafficking.”
Scheidhauer could not talk about the Grand Isle matter, nor any applicant in particular. She could talk about the visa process overall.
“Every one of them is looked at extremely carefully on a case by case basis,” she said. “They have to show evidence that they are the victim of a form of trafficking. They also submit a form from a law enforcement officer that says there is evidence as well. You can't just write in and say you were a victim.” (Story continues below graphic)
The T Visa sheet shows the number of workers whose cases are considered serious
Records show 885 trafficking victims applied for a T visa in this country last year. And 674 of those applications were granted them. The number has increased steadily over the last decade.
Still, few victims come forward, she said.
“It’s a very sensitive issue of course and I think the reason that this visa is made available, was to try to get at the heart of this crime, and to assist victims and law enforcement, and put an end to it,” Scheidhauer said.
For the Filipino workers, the piece of paper was proof, validation.
"I was so happy that, when they say that I'm gonna approve, or you may be approved of your T visa,” said Eduardo Real, a welder who worked at Grand Isle.
Real and four others live quietly in a two-bedroom apartment on the West Bank. They and about 40 other Filipino laborers are currently part of a civil lawsuit against Grand Isle and several recruitment and subcontracting firms linked to Grand Isle.
According to their attorney, 14 of the plaintiffs, all currently residing in the U.S., have received trafficking visas. Many of the plaintiffs have returned to the Philippines.
But the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services does not conduct investigations into trafficking. And the issuance of a trafficking visa does not mean there is an actual probe into Grand Isle’s actions.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, will not say whether they are looking into Grand Isle or its affiliated Filipino recruiters.
We questioned the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration last month in Manila. He said he was troubled by what we had uncovered. Nonetheless, he had not opened an inquiry, nor had he heard from any American investigators.
Grand Isle’s CEO Mark Pregeant has not responded to our inquiries over the last two months. His attorney, David Korn, released a lengthy statement Thursday afternoon.
“Grand Isle Shipyard, Inc., maintains, as we have for months, that the allegations in the civil action lawsuit, including any allegations of the working conditions, human trafficking and payment processes are totally false. What has not been reported is that many Filipino workers who currently work on GIS projects through D&R Resources and who voluntarily decide to return to work on projects month-after-month and have done so for many years.”
The statement continued: “Grand Isle Shipyard is a leader in its industry. We will aggressively pursue our defense in this matter and look forward to when both sides of the story can be presented in the appropriate forum. Namely, a court of law.”
The statement did not address the trafficking visas issued to Filipino former workers.
Pregeant’s attorney has also said the Filipino workers were not employed directly by Grand Isle, but through a Filipino recruiter and a separate Louisiana subcontractor.
But records show Pregeant and other Grand Isle executives were behind some of these companies. We also have documents in which the Filipino workers are identified as Grand Isle employees.
In fact, Pregeant called them Grand Isle employees in an interview with WWL-TV last November, in the wake of the deadly oil platform explosion. Three Filipino guest workers died and three others were critically wounded that day.
“Right now, we’re trying to do what’s best for our employees and their families,” Pregeant said at the time. “I can say we had 14 employees on the platform and some of them were injured in the fire.”