03/07/2006

SPLC Seeks Rights for Katrina Workers

On Friday, two representatives of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) were in Washington, D.C., to advocate for the rights of exploited post-Katrina workers on two fronts.

IJP attorney J. J. Rosenbaum and outreach paralegal Rebecca Watson presented the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights testimonials contained a new IJP publication. Broken Levees, Broken Promises: New Orleans Migrant Workers in Their Own Words (PDF) provides first-person accounts of the abuse workers have endured.

Following the international commission's hearing, where grass roots groups from across the nation testified about the United States' failure to protect the human rights of evacuees and workers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Rosenbaum spoke at a Congressional staff briefing where she also distributed "Broken Levees, Broken Promises."

A press conference was held in between the two events.

Workers hired to do backbreaking and dangerous clean-up work after the hurricane, many of them Latino immigrants, were underpaid or not paid at all, Rosenbaum said.

"When our bosses talked to us, it was like they were talking to animals," said one New Orleans worker in "Broken Levees, Broken Promises." "They abused us to make themselves richer."

The commission is an independent human rights body established by the Organization of American States, an international group composed of countries in the Americas. Its central mission is to protect and promote human rights through on-site visits and hearings. Through these methods, the quasi-judicial organization successfully pressures governments to reform policies and practices.

"By taking our case to Washington and to the Inter-American Court, IJP continues in the fight for justice in the New Orleans reconstruction work," Rosenbaum said.

IJP staff has assisted migrant workers employed in New Orleans since October. Through its toll-free telephone number and targeted outreach in the city, they have spoken with more than 500 workers about problems getting paid, workplace health and safety conditions, workplace injuries and retaliation.

In early February, IJP filed two significant impact cases in federal court in New Orleans against major reconstruction contractors. It is also working with the Loyola Law School workplace justice clinic, the New Orleans Hispanic Apostolate and others to find direct individual representation for exploited workers.

IJP's work also includes advocating for stronger federal enforcement of worker protection laws, proposing Louisiana state legislative reform to improve existing wage and hour provisions and building broader public awareness about the ongoing exploitation of migrant workers in New Orleans.