Nov. 3, 2005 – Immigrant workers, many of them undocumented, comprise a large portion of the post-Katrina workforce in the Gulf Coast region. Lured to Mississippi and Louisiana by contractors promising high wages, housing and food, many arrive to find those commitments empty. More than two months after the area was devastated by the storm, complaints among immigrants are rising.
Workers interviewed by The NewStandard and by rights advocates attempting to document and improve conditions have described toiling for long hours cleaning up toxic mold, sludge and other dangerous substances like asbestos for low pay and sometimes no pay at all. They also describe living in squalid conditions in makeshift dormitories, emergency relief shelters or on the streets.
Osmond Rafael, 30, came to the US from Tegucigalpa, Honduras eight months ago, fleeing the poverty and corruption there. Rafael told TNS he was living in Plano, Texas when a Spanish-speaking recruiter came to his apartment and offered him construction work in Mississippi. The recruiter promised Rafael housing, food, good pay and "everything" if he came to work for a construction company called "Gonzales."
Once he got to Mississippi, Rafael said, he found things much different than promised. He said he was expected to work about 75 hours a week demolishing a casino in Biloxi but was never paid overtime. He said he received about $740 a week for the grueling work, and when he got sick for four days, his pay was suspended. He also said that the contractor still owes him for two weeks of work.
Layers of contractors and subcontractors hired by huge companies and by the federal government have been operating with near-impunity in the chaotic reconstruction zones.
Rafael also said he wasnâ€™t given an apartment as the recruiter had promised, but rather had to sleep in the streets or in a big workshop with about 70 other men.
Gustavo, 35, another immigrant living in Biloxi, said the same contractor recruited him in Dallas, Texas and had not paid him in four weeks. "Thereâ€™s exploitation," he said, in Spanish. "The company should pay week by week, but itâ€™s been four."
When The NewStandard called the number on the card that the contractor gave Rafael, it was disconnected.
According to an increasing number of reports filtering out of the Gulf area, layers of contractors and subcontractors hired by huge companies and by the federal government have been operating with near-impunity in the chaotic reconstruction zones, bringing in crews of mostly undocumented workers to labor long hours for low pay. Immigrant rights groups monitoring the situation on the ground say the contractors frequently violate minimum-wage and overtime laws, often failing to provide the workers housing or adequate safety equipment.
The Texas-based Equal Justice Center and the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance are among a small number of advocacy groups working to publicize the labor law violations and general exploitation of immigrant workers in the area. Nikita Williams, who works at the Equal Justice Center in Mississippi, about three hoursâ€™ drive from the coast, said she has doumented numerous stories of workers not being paid.
â€œThis is the US, and weâ€™re treating people like itâ€™s a Third World nation.â€ --Ken Haggard, Red Cross volunteer
"Itâ€™s been really common," she said. "They keep working on trust. With their immigration status, they are afraid, so they just stay quiet and put their heads down. To make things worse, there is the language barrier. And most people are from very low-income families; some donâ€™t know how to read or write."
Equal Justice Center organizer Anita Grabowski recently met about 35 immigrants who had been working 12-hour days repairing a school in Pass Christian, Mississippi. She said they too complained of not being paid.
"They were pulling insulation out from the ceiling with no safety equipment," she said. "After two weeks, they told the contractor they refused to go back to work if they werenâ€™t paid. They were owed about $2,000 each, about $70,000 total."
Grabowsky said the immigrants were "working around the clock" and had no money to buy food. She also said they were living in tents in "really stressful and unsanitary conditions."
During a survey of the area, Antonio Vasquez of the American Friends Service Committee met a group of immigrants brought in by a North Carolina contractor.
"They had been in a trailer for three weeks and hadnâ€™t had food for three days, because most of them hadnâ€™t been paid," said Vasquez. "A lot of people donâ€™t know what the situation is within this disaster zone. There are rampant violations of workersâ€™ rights and health conditions."
Ken Haggard, a retired fire captain from Terrebonne, Oregon volunteering with the Red Cross in New Orleans, said that near the downtown Red Cross shelter by the Hotel LeCirque he found a condemned gymnasium where about 50 Latino immigrants were living in filthy, rat-infested conditions. During two weeks of daily visits to the site in late October, he said he observed police officers preventing other labor recruiters from approaching the immigrants, but otherwise doing nothing to help them.
"This is the US, and weâ€™re treating people like itâ€™s a Third World nation," Haggard said. "How can we bring people in from other countries and house them in these despicable conditions and say thatâ€™s okay? How can the health department be allowing this? This is absolute mistreatment. Itâ€™s beyond callous; itâ€™s totally immoral."
Contractors have also put workers up in emergency shelters meant for destitute hurricane victims. As a result, immigrants displaced by the storms have suffered an anti-immigrant backlash.
On September 28, US Marshals raided a Red Cross shelter in Long Beach, Mississippi. According to the Wall Street Journal, they blocked the exits and briefly detained about 60 people who looked Hispanic. The shelter residents, including workers and hurricane victims, were told they would be put in detention if they did not leave, as most did the next day.
According to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, immigration agents raided a worksite at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station on October 19, detaining more than 100 immigrant workers who were building a tent city there. The raid was executed at the request of US Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana). The contractor, BE&K out of Birmingham, Alabama, was a subcontractor of Halliburton Corp., the Houston-based conglomerate that has a contract to repair military bases throughout the area.
The Equal Justice Center has been working to document violations of labor laws in order to press for restitution. They note that there are relatively few immigrantsâ€™ and workersâ€™ rights groups in this part of the south. They also say it has been difficult to figure out which companies are involved.
"There are multiple layers of subcontractors," said Grabowski. "Weâ€™re tracing them back to the source. The real problem on the coast is there is no mechanism to make sure contractors will be held accountable for paying, period â€“ and then for paying decent wages."