Broken Levees, Broken Promises

New Orleans' Migrant Workers: In Their Own Words

As New Orleans is rebuilt, a new tragedy is unfolding.

This one is also happening in public view, and those who could prevent it are once again looking the other way. The new tragedy is exploitation of migrant workers doing backbreaking and dangerous hurricane clean-up work.

After working seven days a week in difficult and contaminated settings, migrant workers in New Orleans are systematically underpaid for their work and are often not paid at all. When the checks don't come, workers are left hungry and homeless. Workers face serious health threats from dangerous work conditions -- snakes, asbestos and mold -- without adequate protection or training. When workers are injured as a result of unsafe working conditions, they are denied medical treatment and workers compensation benefits.

Meanwhile, major U.S. companies are lining their pockets while they hide behind the subcontracting system, the workers' fear of retaliation, and the general chaos in the city.

Should we allow New Orleans to be rebuilt on the backs of the most vulnerable workers? Is this our vision of a new New Orleans?

Lured by promises of long hours and good wages, men and women left their homes and families and went to New Orleans. They left the construction sites of Houston, the orchards of Michigan, the sweet potato fields of Mississippi, and the day labor sites of Memphis and a dozen other cities.

They arrived ready to work, expecting nothing more than the promised wages, hours, and working conditions. They worked alongside hurricane survivors recently returned from their temporary places of refuge to rebuild the city.

Although the majority of these newly-arrived workers are Latino, the migrant worker population in New Orleans is diverse and includes African-Americans, Native Americans, and immigrants from many countries. What these workers now share is the sad fact they have been deceived and exploited.

This booklet contains just a few stories of the people working on New Orleans' reconstruction. The stories show what the Immigrant Justice Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center hears from workers over and over again. As part of our outreach and legal assistance, we have been in contact with over five hundred women and men who worked in New Orleans between October 2005 and February 2006.