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LABOR WARS

by Rita J. KingSpecial to CorpWatch
August 16th, 2006

Immediately following Katrina, workers were lured to the Gulf Coast with promises of lodging, food and decent wages. Some 100,000 Latinos heeded the call. But when Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon wage act, many of the promises went up in smoke, according to Victoria Cintra, executive director of Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA).

The suspension attracted immediate ire from unions, who fought for and won the protection 75 years ago. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney asked Congress to reverse the suspension: “Taking advantage of a national tragedy to get rid of a protection for workers the corporate backers of the White House have long wanted to remove is nothing less than profiteering.”

In October, the Act was reinstated, but not retroactively. Contracts awarded during the suspension are still exempt

KBR was among the firms that took advantage of the exemption; it was discovered to be using undocumented immigrants to replace union electricians working on the Seabee Navy base in Louisiana. (51)

“While the practice by subcontractors of employing illegal aliens is damaging under normal circumstances, at this time it is devastating,” said Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, noting that 478,000 Americans have lost their jobs following the devastation cause by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as the breach of the New Orleans levees. (52)

Local businesses say they are fighting for the crumbs at the bottom of the contracting ladder and that blame for the failures has to be passed up, not down.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee was equally infuriated: “The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the tragic consequences of having an administration where cronyism trumps competence. The fact that the President would cut wages for impacted workers, while handing out millions in nobid contracts to well connected firms is a perfect snapshot to this administration’s priorities.” (53)

According to a report, “And Injustice for All,” released in on July 6, 2006 by the Advancement Project, the National Immigration Law Center and the New Orleans Workers Justice Coalition, Black and Latino workers in Post-Katrina New Orleans are being exploited by a system of “structural racism,” that has existed since the days when the city was a slave-trade hub. The report articulates a common fear that future reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will create a theme-park-like region with fewer opportunities for the underclass.

Saket Soni of the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition interviewed hundreds of workers while working on the report. Soni said the workers he spoke to reported having their wages stolen by employers who threatened to deport them if they complained. Others claimed to have been forced to work at gunpoint.

“What is happening in New Orleans post-Katrina has revealed a story of race and class that cannot be ignored,” said Soni.

“The city cannot be rebuilt off the backs of low-wage workers of color and then constructed to exclude them because they are too poor to live there.” (54)

Rosana Cruz, Gulf Coast field coordinator for the National Immigration Law Center, said, “People across the rest of the country don’t really know what’s going on. The level of assault against workers feels like war. There’s vulnerability in each successive layer of subcontracting. ... It’s shocking that there aren’t millions of people across the United States demanding accountability. This is a microcosm of what’s happening around the world. If you’re poor and you’re brown, we can do whatever we want with you.” (55)

Much has been made in the blogosphere of immigrants coming to the Gulf to take jobs away from capable locals. But Victoria Cintra of MIRA says the anger is misdirected. “The contractors bring them here. They’re looking for cheap labor.”

Cintra’s husband Elvis adds, “In my opinion, the rich white people should thank the Latinos because if not for them, we’d still be in the same place we were right after Katrina. It’s the rich white corporations that want the Latinos here.”

Tim Guidry, a house builder from Metairie, Louisiana, told CorpWatch that immigrant labor is “the only thing that saved our butts. Without them, we’d be dead in the water.”

Cintra said that her small volunteer organization has successfully fought for over $300,000 in pay owed to workers, but the battle is ceaseless. The subcontracting layers are a major part of the problem, each can’t pay the next until it gets paid, meaning the laborers on the bottom rung get paid last if at all. That was the case with a contract granted to KBR in Mississippi to rehab the Seabee Naval Base.

KBR subcontracted with a company called Tipton Friendly Rollins that subbed the work to Kansas City Tree, who passed the duties on to Karen Tovar Construction. Tovar finally hired the workers, many of whom were immigrants, to do the job.

She promised food and board, in rickety trailers “not fit for rats,” according to Cintra. But after paying her employees for one week’s work, Tovar claimed that she couldn’t pay or feed the laborers until she was paid by Kansas City Tree.

In the dead of night, she allegedly entered the trailers and awakened the laborers and warned them that immigration agents were on their way. Many of the workers fled. MIRA traced the chain of contracts back to KBR and delivered its research to the U.S. Department of Labor (Mississippi does not have a state department of labor). Eventually MIRA won the $141,000 in back pay for Tovar’s laborers, but many fear deportation or have no permanent addresses, and cannot be found.

Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Immigrant Justice Project filed two class actions in federal court in February charging that thousands of immigrant laborers involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans have been cheated of wages by major US companies.

“Lawsuits alone won’t stop the widespread exploitation of workers that’s going on in New Orleans,” said J.J. Rosenbaum, an attorney with the Center’s Immigrant Justice Project (IJP), which filed the lawsuits. “The people working in New Orleans to rebuild its schools, hospitals and university buildings need and deserve the protection of the federal government.” IJP attorneys reported that the overwhelming majority of workers have been cheated on hours, overtime or both.

Although a Department of Labor press release issued on Dec 1, 2005 announced that five Spanish-speaking investigators had been dispatched to the Gulf region, none of the workers interviewed by the IJP report ever having met with or heard of the investigators in New Orleans.

The first case, Xavier v. Belfor USA Group Inc., was brought on behalf of potentially thousands of workers who were employed by Belfor USA Group, Inc., a major natural disaster reconstruction firm, and its subcontractors. According to the lawsuit, workers often toiled seven days a week, 12 hours a day to remove mold, mud, and other toxic contamination from flooded buildings

The lawsuit alleges that Belfor unlawfully used a subcontractor system to avoid paying any overtime wages to up to 1000 workers on its massive reconstruction projects. Federal law, according to IJC, says that employers like Belfor are jointly responsible for ensuring that their workers earn basic minimum wage and overtime. (56)

The second case, Navarrete-Cruz v. LVI Environmental Services of New Orleans, Inc., alleges that another large contractor, LVI, may not have paid up to 700 migrant workers at all. One of the large subcontractors used by LVI, defendant D&L Environmental, Inc., allegedly failed to fully compensate many of its migrant workers. (57)

Belfor, like LVI, received no federal contracts. Belfor did win a mix of private and state contracts to clean and open 60 Wal- Marts, restore public records for Jackson County, Mississippi, rebuild a casino in Biloxi and clean up Tulane University, while LVI had a contract to clean public schools.

“When we weren’t paid, we didn’t even have money for food,” said plaintiff Sergio de Leon, who worked during October cleaning toxic mud and mold from St. Bernard Parish schools.

“These companies are robbing us of our money after we worked so hard.” (58)

Belfor spokesman Robert Martin said that the suit will be settled soon, and that Belfor has “always followed the law.” “We’ve heard that employers are telling the workers that there is no law in New Orleans that they must follow,” says Rosenbaum. “With the Center’s help, workers in New Orleans are demanding that the city be built with equal justice for all who work and live there.” 

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