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Workers Face Problems Rebuilding New Orleans

Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans one year ago and much of the city hasn't been rebuilt. Workers imported from other states and countries to rebuild the city are underpaid and exploited by government-hired contractors.


The Center's Immigrant Justice Project is working to remedy the labor abuse through litigation and, on this anniversary, is celebrating a success. Belfor USA Group, Inc. signed a settlement allowing almost 200 workers to recover significant wages in this first settlement on behalf those rebuilding New Orleans. Another 2,000 eligible workers have a year to opt-in and recoup unpaid earnings.

"Because of their unity and bravery, workers have won an important battle against ongoing wage theft and mistreatment by reconstruction contractors," said IJP attorney J.J. Rosenbaum.

"Contractors who think they are above the law are wrong. This is an important step as residents of New Orleans, both hurricane survivors and new reconstruction workers fight together to combat wage theft and disaster profiteering."

The settlement also includes changes Belfor will put in place to protect future workers. A similar lawsuit against LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans, Inc. is ongoing.

Another important victory in the Belfor settlement is holding the major contractor accountable for the actions of subcontractors. Historically, contractors claimed no knowledge of their subcontractor's actions, thereby encouraging the exploitation and non-payment of employees.

Protecting vulnerable workers won't stop there. IJP filed a lawsuit April 16 on behalf of Latin American workers brought to the U.S. by Decatur Hotels, Inc. to work in their New Orleans properties.

The company did not repay the exorbitant fees charged by recruiters for workers to travel to the U.S. and failed to show a lack of American workers available to do the jobs. Latin American citizens came here legally to work, but were not given the wages, hours or working conditions promised them. The U.S. Department of Labor's approval of guestworkers in this context drives down wages for American workers in an already economically depressed area.

The Center also has collected approximately 20,000 signatures online and through the mailpetitioning President Bush to do more 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. The subcontractor system ensures each level takes their share as the money trickles down, and often none is left for the workers 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."