The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Groups Urge Congress to Protect Gulf Workers

by Brendan Coyne

Oct. 21, 2005 – With near-daily reports about workers in the Gulf Coast region toiling under hazardous conditions for long hours with poor pay, over 100 organizations are seeking federal action to reverse the situation for many of the nation’s most vulnerable people.

In a letter sent earlier this month to every member of Congress, the coalition of religious, labor, immigrant-rights, environmental, medical and public-interest organizations urged Congressional action to put teeth back into labor and environmental laws. The groups charge that the Bush administration’s decision to suspend federal workplace standards in the Gulf Coast area following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has placed workers in peril.

A statement released yesterday by the New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) confirmed NewStandard investigations that found workers cleaning up in the immediate aftermath of the storms were forced to contend with chemical, oil and sewage contaminated waters with little or no safety equipment. The situation remains largely unchanged, NYCOSH said.

Roger Cook, executive director of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH), said workers have developed rashes and coughs from the work, but no one appears to be doing anything about it.

Many of the workers are immigrants, possibly undocumented, and have little recourse, the letter noted.

"Contractors are hiring immigrant workers right here in Houston and taking them to New Orleans to do cleanup," Juan Alvarez, director of the Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights in Houston said in yesterday’s statement. "I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems. They can't work, so they've come back here. The contractors just hire more."

Monday, the Boston Globe reported that contractors were transporting immigrant workers to the region and refusing to assist them with finding housing, at times abandoning them after a job was completed. Additionally, many of the workers reported being underpaid or not compensated at all.

Following the hurricanes, the Bush administration temporarily suspended a package of federal laws called the Davis-Bacon Act that would have regulated pay and working conditions on federally funded projects in the storm-ravaged region.

In the October 6 letter, the coalition outlines nine steps the federal government needs to take to protect workers cleaning up and rebuilding after the hurricanes, ranging from enforcing all existing OSHA and EPA regulations and testing for contaminants, to providing better training for workers and ensuring that contractors treat immigrant and temporary employees properly.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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