A report released recently by three civil rights groups says minority workers in post-Katrina New Orleans are being exploited and that federal policies aimed at helping the city's recovery have made the situation worse.
Even before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was a hard place to survive for many of its residents, 67 percent of whom were African American. According to And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans, "New Orleans is being rebuilt on the backs of underpaid and unpaid workers perpetuating cycles of poverty that pre-existed Katrina and ensuring its presence in the newly built city."
The report was prepared and released by Advancement Project, based in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles; the National Immigration Law Center; and the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition. The 76-page document (available at www.advancementproject.org) details the stories of more than 700 workers -- from displaced New Orleanians to migrant workers lured here by promises of better pay and housing -- many of whom now find themselves homeless, broke because of what they characterize as "wage theft" and harassed by authorities.
While some of the findings are familiar refrains in New Orleans -- lack of child care, health care, housing and job security -- the report identifies "structural racism" as the root cause of those and other ills that victimize post-Katrina workers. Researchers also analyze the role of governmental and private-sector institutions in facilitating worker exploitation.
Some of the offending policies highlighted in And Injustice for All include:
• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration suspended job-safety and health-standard enforcement in several areas affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. OSHA regulations remain suspended in the areas that suffered the greatest damage, including New Orleans.
• On Sept. 8, 2005, by executive order, President Bush suspended provisions of the Davis-Bacon Act, enabling federal contractors and subcontractors to cut the pay of construction workers below the already low wages offered in Mississippi and Louisiana prior to Hurricane Katrina. The same order also allowed contractors to stop maintaining records on wage rates paid for specific work, thereby facilitating wage discrimination and fraud.
• On the same day, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, saturated the Gulf Coast Region, deploying more than 725 personnel. But while the number of immigration officials increased exponentially, the Department of Labor only added about five bilingual investigators in the Gulf region, says Melissa Crow of New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition.
Rosana Cruz, the Gulf Coast Field Coordinator for the National Immigration Law Center and a nine-year resident of New Orleans, says that when a large influx of migrant workers comes into an area "you have to figure you're going to see some serious labor violations," because workers are a marginalized population who often don't speak English and are assumed to have an undocumented status.
Ironically, many native New Orleanians of Hispanic descent are also suffering from the large-scale stereotyping that afflicts migrant workers. New Orleans has long been home to residents with Cuban and Honduran roots. In fact, the Cuban/New Orleans population pre-dates the ties between Cuba and Miami -- and the Honduran community has been here for decades. But longstanding ties to New Orleans have not protected some of these residents from being picked up by police or immigration officials.
"To see these communities being discriminated against -- it's racial profiling," says Cruz. "It's something the African-American community has been aware of for a long time."
Authors Judith Browne-Dianis and Jennifer Lai of the Advancement Project, Marlena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center and Saket Soni say another essential component of the exploitation experienced by workers of color in New Orleans is the "myth" of racial conflict between Latino and African-American workers.
The report cites specific examples of statements by politicians as well as the media that purportedly drive racial wedges between workers. At one point, the authors ask whether Mayor Ray Nagin's question last October, "How do I make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?" might have been better framed as, "How do I ensure that private out-of-state contractors do not profit from excluding survivors from work and forcing Mexican workers into exploitative labor conditions?"
Refusing to take the bait of a racial divide among the working poor, the report dubs the so-called competition for jobs "a race to the bottom." That conclusion is based on interviews with, and profiles of, hundreds of low-wage workers. Some of them traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles to find jobs in post-Katrina New Orleans; others, mostly displaced New Orleanians, now travel more than 100 miles a day to commute to their jobs from FEMA trailer parks outside the city.
In the report's epilogue, two women sit around a campfire on Scout Island in City Park, where they currently are living in tents. Aurora, originally from Chiapas, Mexico, was recruited away from her job in Maryland. "He offered us trailers, $15 an hour, $18 overtime." She tells Deirdre, an African American from Pensacola, Fla., about the time she countermanded a boss who ordered her to lie during an inspection. When Aurora told the truth, that workers were being denied regular breaks, her boss fired the entire crew.
Deirdre, a survivor of Hurricane Ivan who moved to New Orleans after her trailer was taken away (to be brought here, she believes), told Aurora about the day she was working in the rain while sick, holding up a sign for a Bobcat crew and trying to contain diarrhea and vomit. When she saw the foreman and his wife on lunch break, she threw her sign down and walked home. The next day, she was fired.
"They left me, standing there. And I am still holding that sign. And I am telling them: 'Look at me. I'm throwing up. I can't hold my diarrhea in.' And they park their Bobcat and sit there laughing and eating lunch."
When the conversation is over, the women say goodbye. Aurora tells Deirdre, "Whatever we have, we have food, water -- you're always welcome." And Deirdre responds in kind.
If, after reading the report, it seems that New Orleanians are less gracious to workers than one might expect in a city with such a strong tradition of hospitality, Cruz offers an explanation: "The public sentiment that was created after a massive -- not natural -- destruction, exacerbated by a lack of government intervention, left people feeling threatened." Combined with all of the media attention toward looting, then violent crime, "one always feels under siege," she says.
At the end of the report, a chapter titled "Recommendations" offers suggestions to improve workers' quality of life, including public policy changes, addressing worker issues at the institutional level and more research documenting issues faced by communities of color, among other things.
Cruz would also like to see New Orleanians speak up for the workers.
"Start interrupting," says Cruz. "We have to start demanding some level of respect and dignity not only for immigrants but also for people who were displaced." Cruz notes that racial and ethnic slurs -- "comments that have come all the way from the mayor on down" -- would never be tolerated if applied toward residents of Lakeview.
"Locals need to start caring and demanding a level of input and control," she says. Help a Navy Seal The family of a 28-year-old U.S. Navy Seal is seeking the public's help in finding a bone marrow donor to save the soldier's life. To help in the search, the National Bone Marrow Foundation is holding a drive funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and other supporters from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, July 29, at St. Francis Xavier Church (444 Metairie Road, Metairie).
The screening process is painless. Potential donors will have their mouths swabbed and the samples will be sent in for testing. The Bone Marrow Foundation will notify anyone whose bone marrow is compatible.
The Navy Seal, identified here only as Justin because of his position in the military, is a New Jersey native who has adopted Louisiana as his home. He lost his house in Slidell to Hurricane Katrina, but repaired the structure and moved back in May with the Louisiana bride he married at the first of the year. A month later, he learned he had leukemia.
He later learned he also has what is called a "Philadelphia" chromosome, which causes the disease to recur after remission. His leukemia can only be cured through a bone marrow transplant, and finding a compatible donor is crucial.
"The chances of finding a donor for Justin are about one in 25,000," says Geri Ehle, one of the drive organizers. "His family has already been tested and they don't match, so we need as many people to be tested as possible."
For more information contact Ehle at 460-1517 or Kathryn Le Sage at 247-4152.