Image provided by: University of Oregon Libraries; Eugene, OR
About Northwest labor press. (Portland , Ore.) 1987-current | View Entire Issue (March 3, 2006)
Observers report rampant worker abuses in Katrina-hit area
GULFPORT, Miss. (PAI) — One
day in early February, a teenaged worker
tacking blue plastic sheeting over gap-
ing holes in a Hurricane Katrina-dam-
aged roof of a building in Gulfport,
Miss., fell off.
The teenager — who by federal law
is too young to even toil on a job like
that — was taken to Memorial Hospital
in Gulfport, where nurses tried to get
him to take a urination drug test before
examining his injuries.
But the youngster spoke only Span-
ish, the hospital personnel speak only
English, and he didn’t understand what
they wanted him to do, says Bill Chan-
dler of Mississippi Immigration Rights
Association. So they threw him out of
the hospital. And then, to add insult to
injury, the contractor who hired him re-
fused to pay him.
Abuses like that, numbering in the
thousands, are rampant in the Gulf
Coast area as workers and residents try
to recover from the damage caused by
Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita
last August and September.
Data uncovered by Chandler’s group,
Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and oth-
ers show widespread importation and
use of out-of-area workers, equally
widespread refusal to pay workers,
abuse of immigrants, use of illegal child
labor, and lack of job safety and health
enforcement, among other problems.
Worse, as IWJ discovered in a meet-
ing with a top Wage and Hour Division
official in Washington, D.C., the federal
government is unaware of the abuses,
and may not be willing to do much
The problems in the Katrina-hit area
come as the Bush Administration comes
under increasing fire from all points of
the political spectrum for its poor re-
sponse to the millions of people who
lost homes, businesses and jobs when
the hurricanes hit.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao dis-
putes the lack of response. She touts the
Department of Labor’s channeling of
$274 million in aid in the weeks after the
hurricane wrecked New Orleans, along
with much of Louisiana and southern
Mississippi and parts of Alabama.
Even so, 1.2 million people are still
displaced from their homes. Of the half
of those who are workers, 26.3 percent
are jobless, federal figures show. Chao’s
response to their plight was that “many
have found permanent jobs elsewhere.”
By contrast, unions rushed in teams
to help not just their colleagues in the
stricken states, but other workers. It still
has teams there, retraining area workers
for new rebuilding-oriented tasks and
Meanwhile, Chandler and others are
reporting abuses of workers by contrac-
tors hired — without competitive bid-
ding — by agencies to undertake the
Katrina cleanup and reconstruction.
• Outright refusal to pay workers.
Chandler’s group, with encouragement
by one federal Labor Department
worker in Mississippi, has documented
such refusals through interviews with
more than 1,000 workers. It already re-
covered $141,000 in unpaid wages for
65 workers hired by a subcontractor for
Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary
of Halliburton, the firm formerly headed
by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Other times, contractors and subcon-
tractors stall on paying workers, who
then leave to try to find employers who
will pay them. Or the contractors bring
the workers in for specific jobs and then
when the tasks are done, “they dump
them and force them out of the decrepit
housing they’re living in” while not
paying them, he adds.
In New Orleans, contractors got
away without paying immigrant work-
ers by calling in the federal Immigration
and Customs Enforcement agency to
conduct sweeps just before payday.
Workers fled. ICE agents often pose as
Occupational Safety and Health Admin-
istration inspectors, over OSHA’s
protests. “Every immigrant worker has
had wages stolen, in many ways,” Chan-
• Lack of wage and hour enforce-
ment, especially in Mississippi, the only
U.S. state with no Labor Department.
That puts the entire enforcement burden
on overworked and understaffed federal
DOL personnel, who in turn have en-
listed Chandler’s group as their eyes and
ears in the field, interviewing workers
and gathering evidence.
“All they (DOL) do is take walk-in
cases at their offices in Jackson and on
the Gulf Coast,” Chandler said. And im-
migrant workers are afraid to approach
both offices because the ICE office is
right next door. “One result of the lack
of enforcement is rampant use of child
labor, even in dangerous occupations
such as construction, he noted.
• Diversion of federal money long
before it gets to workers. Chandler gave
an example where the federal govern-
ment hired KBR to remove debris and
fill at a price of $20 per cubic yard.
KBR hired a subcontractor for the same
task, for $4 per cubic yard.
The subcontractor’s managers did
not speak Spanish, so they hired bilin-
gual “crew leaders” who in turn hired
the workers to move the debris at $5-$7
an hour. But neither the crew leaders nor
the rank-and-file workers were paid.
Chandler’s group argues the “crew lead-
ers” are really employees, not “inde-
pendent contractors,” and thus, like the
rank-and-file workers, should be cov-
ered by federal wage and hour laws.
• Lack of job safety enforcement.
Acting OSHA Administrator Jonathan
Snare admitted Feb. 6 that the agency
still is giving “technical assistance only”
to employers and workers on job safety
issues in the hardest-hit areas south of
Interstate 10. That includes New Or-
leans, a key oil refining and importation
area where Katrina smashed tanks,
pipelines, docks, wells, rigs and other fa-
Trusts for Twenty Years
One SW Columbia St., Suite 1100 Portland, OR 97258
THE UNION PLUS ® MORTGAGE PROGRAM
Provided Exclusively by Chase Home Finance
When it comes to mortgages, we’re
taking a stand for Union members.
Chase is backing union members with the Union Plus® Mortgage Program — a home
purchase and refinancing program exclusively for union members, their parents and children.
• FREE Mortgage Assistance Benefit
If you are unemployed or disabled.
• A wide variety of mortgages
Choose from fixed-rate, adjustable-rate, and low- or no-closing costs options.
• Special Lending
First-time homebuyer and less-than-perfect credit programs.
• Savings on closing costs
Member-only savings on new purchases and refinance.
It all adds up to more home-buying power.
Contact your local Union Plus® Mortgage Specialist
Union Plus is a registered trademark of Union Privilege. Eligibility for mortgage assistance begins one year after closing on a Union Plus Mortgage through Chase
Home Finance. This offer may not be combined with any other promotional offer or rebate, is not transferable, and is available to bona fide members of participating
unions. For down payments of less than 20%, mortgage insurance (MI) is required and MI charges apply. All loans are subject to credit and property approval. Program
terms and conditions are subject to change without notice. Not all products are available in all states or for all loan amounts. Other restrictions and limitations apply.
©2005 JPMorgan Chase & Co. All Rights Reserved. P-UP 104 2A-7604 10/05
MARCH 3, 2006
NORTHWEST LABOR PRESS