Thousands Petition President Bush to Protect Post-Katrina Workers

The Southern Poverty Law Center today submitted to President Bush the names of 20,528 people who signed a petition calling on his administration to protect thousands of migrant workers from exploitation as they work to rebuild New Orleans.

The Department of Labor has ignored rampant, well-documented labor abuses by government and private contractors, many of which have used multiple layers of subcontractors to avoid responsibility for mistreating workers, the Center charged.

In the course of interviewing more than 500 migrant workers who came to New Orleans to do the backbreaking, dangerous cleanup work after Hurricane Katrina, the Center's Immigrant Justice Project (IJP) documented widespread labor abuses involving theft of wages by employers, violations of workplace health and safety standards, and threats of retaliation against workers who assert their rights. Many workers reported they were denied overtime pay -- and some reported not being paid at all. Some of their personal stories can be read in the IJP report Broken Levees, Broken Promises: New Orleans' Migrant Workers In Their Own Words.

Because of the administration's failure to enforce federal wage and hour standards, the Center has filed three federal lawsuits against companies working in New Orleans. One of those suits, against major disaster contractor Belfor USA Group, has been settled, with workers recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid overtime wages.

The Center initiated the Internet and mail petition campaign in April. The petition drive ended with the submission to Bush.

"Your administration, regrettably, has stood on the sidelines as this new tragedy has unfolded," Center President Richard Cohen wrote to Bush in a letter (PDF) accompanying the petition. "Most of the victims are poor -- people who have no lobbyists in Washington and who do not write campaign checks to politicians."

Cohen urged Bush to hold the administrator of Labor's Wage and Hour Division accountable for failing to protect workers there. In late August, Bush used a recess appointment to install corporate lawyer Paul DeCamp as head of the division. As a senior policy adviser in the division since July 2005, DeCamp has been heavily involved in the department's handling of labor issues in New Orleans.

"Mr. DeCamp should be held accountable, not rewarded, for his failure to protect workers from exploitation," Cohen said in the letter. "In my view, Mr. DeCamp does not deserve to be re-nominated to the post of administrator, which he now holds by virtue of your recess appointment. Instead, you should appoint someone who believes in the division's mission and is committed to carrying out his responsibilities."