Working In These Times
Four Years After Katrina, Workers Still Exploited in the Big Easy
"I never earned anything for my work... When finally the bosses paid something, all of the money went to paying the money we were loaned."
—Misael Garcia, testifying in a wage-theft lawsuit brought by New Orleans immigrant workers.
After Katrina's fury emptied out the Big Easy, a wave of misplaced hopes flooded in from all over the world—an estimated 30,000 to 100,000 workers came in search of jobs, and employers swooped in to capitalize on the massive recovery effort.
Four years on, New Orleans is slowly building itself back up, but the people fueling the effort are sinking ever deeper into an economy founded on exploitation.
In the chaos that followed Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the Bush administration seized the opportunity to suspend critical labor and safety regulations in impacted regions.Though many of the policy changes were rescinded later on, the stage was set for employers to prey on a vulnerable, racially stratified workforce.
Tensions initially surfaced between newly arrived Latino workers and local black communities who felt shut out of the rebuilding effort.
But ultimately, as documented in a report by the Advancement Project, it became clear that the city's displaced poor, along with the newly arrived migrants (who included both U.S.- and foreign-born laborers), were both subject to equal opportunity abuse, from wage theft to criminalization by law enforcement.
A recent survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that eight in ten Latino workers in New Orleans reported being robbed by their employers.
Yet post-Katrina New Orleans encapsulates nationwide trends. At a 2007 House hearing, the National Employment Law Project called the city “'Exhibit A' of the lack of a meaningful wage floor in this country,” noting that Louisiana is one of several states that “does not have a state agency responsible for enforcing minimum wage and hour standards."
Workers are instead left at the mercy of a threadbare federal regulatory regime:
In the handful of instances where workers were able to contact DOL and it did respond, the results were disastrous. Among other things, the DOL office handling complaints from New Orleans did not, as it is authorized to do: (1) investigate retaliation claims brought by workers fired after complaining of no pay; (2) go after “joint employers” or independent contractor abuses, letting responsible employers off; or (3) seek liquidated damages or other penalties beyond the back wages actually owed to the worker, giving employers an incentive to continue to underpay for work performed.
New Orleans's entire history is steeped in race and class oppression, but in the aftermath of Katrina, the legacy of exploitation has become globalized.
Last year, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice helped 500 foreign workers file a lawsuit against Signal International, which had imported them to supply labor for Gulf Coast oil rig yards. The guest workers, recruited from India and the United Arab Emirates, alleged the company held them in "guarded, overcrowded, and isolated labor camps” and terrorized them with threats of deportation as well as "a campaign of psychological abuse, coercion, and fraud."
Post-Katrina workers have brought other lawsuits against employers. But legal recourse is out of reach for many undocumented workers, since government authorities seem to be far more aggressive in rounding up immigrants than busting unscrupulous bosses.
On May Day, scores of protesters, led by the Congress of Day Laborers, marched to the Labor Department office in New Orleans to demand government action against wage theft, particularly two cases involving firms receiving government funds. But the demonstration started to feel more like a workplace raid when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) appeared on the scene.
After the confrontation, one member of the Congress of Day Laborers remarked, “They tell me there are labor laws in this county that protect me from abuse. But how can I report violations of labor law if ICE blocks the doors to the Department of Labor?”
To help shield workers from intimidation, the Advancement Project has called on the federal government to mandate "that there will be no immigration enforcement during any phase of disaster preparedness or recovery."
Meanwhile, activists are pressing New Orleans lawmakers to pass legislation to impose criminal penalties for wage theft.
Although local laws might help protect marginal workers, the broadest enforcement responsibility still lies with federal authorities. Yet the Labor Department, despite suggestions of reform from the White House, seems pathologically weak in the face of a foundering economy and rising complaints of wage theft across the country,
While advocates and officials grow increasingly anxious about the glacial pace of Gulf Coast recovery, anxiety has already given way to hopelessness for the countless workers who wait indefinitely for justice.