The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Group Fights Abuse of Gulf Coast Workers, Contracts

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 16, 2006 – For months, reports have alleged that companies rebuilding the Gulf Coast are engaged in contract impropriety while creating dangerous working conditions and paying low – or even no – wages. A newly formed coalition of community, labor and religious groups has stepped forward to fill in where the government has not acted.

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The Gulf Coast Commission on Reconstruction Equity has announced it will independently monitor contracts and subsidies awarded to companies, with an eye toward assuring proper project awards, decent pay and fair working conditions. The Commission includes consumer-rights advocates, labor organizations, interfaith religious groups, other grassroots organizations and progressive academics who hope to aid the local workforce by scrutinizing reconstruction contracts.

Tuesday, the group released a three-part, multipoint citizens’ program for hurricane clean-up contracts, citing the employment of local workers as a key goal. Other points the Gulf Coast Commission included in its ethical contracting criteria include prohibitions against awarding contracts to companies that violated labor laws and a ban on "no-bid" contracts. The group also plans to monitor contracts to insure that they are offered first to local companies and that firms pay a living wage.

"Billions have already been authorized and billions more are to come for Gulf Coast rebuilding," Good Jobs First Executive Director Rob LeRoy said on behalf of the newly formed coalition. "But corporate interests have dominated much of the process, even though the region's recovery hinges on the restoration of families, jobs and consumer buying power to the area. Keeping a focus on how the monies benefit workers is the key to a just and lasting recovery."

According to interviews, statements and reports released throughout the fall, many working to clean up after hurricanes Katrina and Rita have toiled at intensely hazardous jobs. Government and independent reports found that emergency workers, laborers and others laboring in the area were likely exposed to high levels of mold and other toxic substances, a situation worker-advocacy groups maintain contractors ignored in deploying crews.

In addition, many contractors actively abused employees, especially undocumented immigrants, refusing to provide appropriate protective gear and in some cases withholding wages, as The NewStandard previously reported. Some immigrants and day laborers even traveled to the Gulf Coast for a promised job only to end up at the mercy of contractors with no intension of fulfilling payment, housing or other assurances.

By some reports, physical conditions for workers appear to have improved recently. But many workers may still be in danger from environmental contaminants, according to information provided by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a grassroots workplace health and safety organization that is providing safety resources to Gulf Coast workers.

Reports of mishandled and improperly monitored contracts have also been rampant across the Gulf Coast since shortly after the hurricanes hit. According to a Government Accountability Office study released this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s failure to properly monitor rebuilding efforts led individuals and companies to defraud the government of hundreds of millions, leaving area residents largely in the lurch.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

This News Report originally appeared in the February 16, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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