Friday, July 07, 2006

Among the many, many deplorable realities of this post-K New Orleans--most of which, sadly, don't surprise me:

Report: Workers in N.O. endure abuse
Low-wage laborers exploited in recovery
Friday, July 07, 2006
By Gwen Filosa
Staff writer

Post-Katrina New Orleans is a dangerous, oppressive place for the working poor who labor on the front lines of the city's recovery effort, according to a report released Thursday by a Washington, D.C.-based legal center.

"The treatment of workers in New Orleans constitutes a national crisis of civil and human rights," said the report by the Advancement Project and the National Immigration Law Center, which interviewed more than 700 workers over several months only to find glaring examples of unfair labor practices, homelessness, and harassment by police and contractors.

The report bluntly depicts racist, bleak times for those on the working end of construction equipment or in the service industry. It details the experiences of migrant workers from out of town, many Hispanic and Asian, and also of African-Americans born and raised in New Orleans.

"New Orleans is being rebuilt on the backs of underpaid and unpaid workers perpetuating cycles of poverty that existed pre-Katrina," wrote the authors. They include attorney Judith Browne-Dianis of the Washington legal aid group the Advancement Project, and Marielena Hincapie of the National Immigration Law Center.

The report calls on the government to ensure availability of housing for low-income families and asks the philanthropic community to invest in programs that create opportunities for the poor and working classes.

Without reliable transportation, decent housing or child care, hundreds of families have found themselves living off meager wages, sleeping in cars or moldy, flood-ruined buildings. Many construction workers take health risks by working in possibly toxic conditions, the report said, while being denied overtime and, in many instances, all the pay they were promised or any money at all.

Gail Duncan, whose plight is outlined in the report, works in the kitchen of a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue but cannot afford an apartment. She and her children sleep on the floor of a relative's apartment in the Iberville public housing complex, the report said. It took her family seven months to return to New Orleans from their temporary home in Fort Worth, Texas, where her daughter was threatened by other children and school officials told her to "leave Texas."

Gloria Dillon lost her $6.78-an-hour job at a local toy store when Katrina hit and forced her family out of Gentilly. Dillon has no job or car and lives in a FEMA trailer park outside of Baton Rouge, named "Renaissance Village," with her only income $240 a month from public assistance.

"I am an excellent employee," said Dillon, who believes Baton Rouge businesses don't want to hire New Orleanians and has been repeatedly turned away. "I have the skills. But once they see that state ID, they don't want you."

The Regional Transit Authority provides a free bus from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, but often work shifts don't fit the bus schedule. Gwendolyn Hammond, who lived in the now-shuttered St. Bernard public housing project, said the nursing home where she worked only has 12-hour shifts, and she can't afford post-Katrina rents in New Orleans.

"Rents are now $700, $800, $1,000," Hammond said.
The report, titled "And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans," includes interviews with people like Dan Nazohni, who was recruited by a labor broker at his home at the White Mountain Apache Nation reservation in Arizona in September. The tribal government paid the unidentified broker $1,600 for gas and incidentals to help send 80 Apaches to the region with the promise of $14-an-hour wages.

Instead, the broker disappeared once the Apaches were dropped off in New Orleans. Nazohni and his co-workers were homeless for days, only to find a tent city set up in City Park, where the monthly rent is $300 per tent site. For months, Nazohni said he barely found enough construction work to scrape by.

For construction workers who find work, checks bounce or bosses refuse to pay.

The report examines the way the news media and politicians have painted a post-Katrina economic recovery. While the public was told that fast-food restaurants were paying huge bonuses, workers told the Advancement Project that it was mostly a ruse to lure workers to the low-paying, futureless jobs.

In one case in the report, a starting bonus was never paid to an employee who said her wages quickly fell from $9.25 back to the minimum wage of $5.15.

"In reality, low-wage workers of color are all losers in a race to the bottom," the report said.

Demolition worker Mario Fuentes came to New Orleans from Houston before Christmas.

After four days of cleanup and demolition work, his contractors dropped him off at a fast-food place on Canal Street and bought him a hamburger and a soda. They never came back. "I had to leave because I did not even have one dollar to buy something else," Fuentes said.

A group of 12 tree service workers who cleaned up hurricane debris in the Garden District are owed more than $20,000, the report said. Jorge Ramos, a Honduran from Houston, said his crew worked 12-hour days for 13 days straight but were not paid.

They live in tents on Scout Island in City Park.
Police often come down hard on the migrant workers, asking to check their skin for "gang" tattoos, said Tomas Hernandez, 28, of El Salvador, who came to New Orleans after working in New York, where he made $5.50 an hour at a factory.
Hernandez recalled police waking up him and his friends inside their rented house that had no electricity.

They didn't find any suspicious tattoos, Hernandez said, and then one officer asked the men if they had jobs lined up for the next day.

"They were pointing guns at us," Hernandez said. "We said no. He said he needed work done on his house."

The officer returned in the morning to pick up the workers. At least the officer paid them, Hernandez said.

The New Orleans Police Department denied such a scene would take place without a serious complaint having been phoned in. The report does not identify any officers by name or give specifics on what drew police to the home.

"His allegation is absurd," said police spokesman Capt. John Bryson, in response to the report. "We do not stop Latin Americans checking tattoos. We don't stop anyone for that. We have a right to knock on the door and say, there is a complaint that you're in violation for immigration laws. But we do not infringe on individuals in homes. We very carefully guard the rights of the Fourth Amendment."

The report is available on the Internet at
. . . . . . .
Gwen Filosa can be reached at or (504) 826-3304.

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