04/12/2006

Bush Administration Continues to Ignore Labor Abuses

Petition to stop worker exploitation in New Orleans

A new tragedy is unfolding in New Orleans. Immigrants doing backbreaking clean-up are being ruthlessly exploited while big companies hide behind subcontractors and line their pockets with public money. Meanwhile, the Bush administration looks the other way, just like it did in the days after Katrina hit.

The Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) is litigating two major lawsuits against reconstruction contractors and advocating for stronger federal enforcement of worker protection laws. The Center is also making a major effort to mobilize supporters and other concerned citizens to urge President Bush to stop the injustice.

"Without public pressure from caring people, our lawsuits will not be enough to stop this widespread abuse," said SPLC chief trial counsel Morris Dees.

He asked Center supporters to sign a petition asking President Bush to order the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the U. S. Department of Labor (DOL) and other federal agencies to ensure that Katrina clean-up workers are treated fairly.

"Our supporters can send the message that it's wrong for politically connected corporations to make millions while people doing an honest day's work are being cheated out of an honest day's pay," Dees said.

Huge contractors hire subcontractors who hire subcontractors -- each taking a chunk of funds meant to pay workers.

"FEMA and other agencies must investigate the companies to whom they award contracts -- and each link in their contracting chains -- and penalize noncompliant employers," said IJP director Mary Bauer.

Federal agencies should also make public information regarding specific contractors.

"By keeping these documents inaccessible, the government keeps workers and their advocates at the mercy of contractors," she said.

Despite IJP's lobbying for enforcement of federal labor laws, DOL remains woefully understaffed, under funded and unable to force contractors to comply with federal wage and hour law. The Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), charged with protecting worker safety, does not have a single Spanish-speaking investigator in its Louisiana office.

"These essential government agencies have abandoned their responsibilities, sending the message to employers that hiring immigrant workers provides them with a free pass on complying with basic laws," Bauer said. "The only federal agency that has stepped up its enforcement in the region is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has escalated its raids on immigrant communities in the New Orleans area."

Many workers are not paid minimum wage or federally required overtime wages. Some are not paid at all for their work. Workers labor under dangerous conditions -- snakes, asbestos and mold -- without adequate protection or training. IJP published accounts of abuse in Broken Levees, Broken Promises: New Orleans' Migrant Workers in Their Own Words.

Workers who assert their rights often face hostile employers who make bogus threat reports to the police. Most police officers, unable to communicate with non-English speaking workers, simply accept the false employer reports as true.

"It's wrong for big companies like LVI to make millions while Katrina workers go without food and shelter because they aren't being paid," Dees said. "Using the police to keep complaining workers in line is reminiscent of the Jim Crow era when southern landowners used the law to intimidate sharecroppers."

Send the Bush administration the message that mistreatment of immigrant workers in New Orleans is a human rights issue the nation must address.