08/29/2006

Rebuilding New Orleans

Labor abuse continues one year after Hurricane Katrina

A year after Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, migrant workers recruited from other states and countries to revive the city are still being systematically underpaid and exploited.

The Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) is working to protect these vulnerable workers through litigation and public education. IJP attorneys have filed federal lawsuits against two major contractors, Belfor USA Group Inc. and LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans Inc., on behalf of reconstruction workers in New Orleans who were cheated out of overtime pay.

"One year after the hurricane, workers are still fighting for their wages for reconstruction work immediately after the hurricane," said IJP attorney J.J. Rosenbaum.

"As the city moves forward, we need to support local efforts to assist both long term residents and new immigrant workers in enforcing their rights to fair wages, dignity, and respect.”

IJP also filed a lawsuit August 16 on behalf of Latin American guest workers brought to the U.S. by Decatur Hotels Inc. to work in its New Orleans hotel chain.

The suit alleges Decatur Hotels and its owner, F. Patrick Quinn III, violated U.S. labor standards by failing to reimburse workers for exorbitant fees they paid aggressive labor recruiters working as agents for the company.

The lawsuit illustrates the inherently abusive nature of the government’s guest worker program, which in this case was used to fill the jobs of workers displaced by Katrina. Latin American immigrants came here legally to work, but under U.S. immigration law they are not allowed to work for anyone else -- even when they cannot earn enough money to repay the debt they incurred to come here.

The Center is also collecting signatures on a petition urging President Bush to protect the rights of workers in New Orleans. Many contractors hired by the federal government have a history of labor abuses, but the government continues to do business with the offenders.

In some cases, these companies use multiple layers of subcontractors to evade accountability for the treatment of workers. The subcontractor system also means that companies at each level take profits, leaving less money for the workers actually performing the backbreaking cleanup.

"Lawsuits alone won't stop the widespread exploitation of workers that's going on in New Orleans," said Rosenbaum. "The people working in New Orleans to rebuild its schools, hospitals and university buildings need and deserve the protection of the federal government."