Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Immigrant Workers Exploited in Gulf Coast, As Expected

Well, this is certainly a surprise.

As expected, the Gulf coast is being flooded with immigrant workers, many of whom are undocumented, and, as expected, they are being exploited and abused, and as expected, Bush Administration policies are making the situation worse by suspending Davis Bacon law which would have required employers paid by federal funds to pay contruction workers the prevailing wage:
GULFPORT, Miss., Oct. 14 - The acrid smell inside trailer No. 2 is tough to take for any length of time. The linoleum floor is filthy and bare, aside from a few soiled blankets jammed in the corners. Dishes caked with leftover food are piled high in the sink, attracting flies. Two portable fans are the only things stirring the air.

But six men are living here. They sleep on that floor. They swat away those flies and dodge the roaches at night. They traveled all the way from Guatemala for this.

"It's O.K. for us," said one of them, Francisco Velazquez. "We need money."


Mr. Velazquez, 45, is one of 32 immigrants housed in three mobile homes who are being paid $8 an hour to tear Sheetrock for 10 hours a day. The men are among hundreds of illegal immigrants who entered the United States hoping to find work in the aftermath of the hurricane.

They are promised good pay, three meals a day and a place to stay, and some contractors make good on this. But the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, an advocacy group, says many do not.

"These workers are superexploited by contractors in horrible living conditions," said Bill Chandler, the president of the alliance. "People are working without any kind of inoculation - tetanus or anti-hepatitis - they don't have goggles, they don't have gloves, they don't have any safety protection at all."

Last month, President Bush made it easier for employers to use a less-expensive hand, suspending the Davis-Bacon Act in the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The act is a Depression-era law that prohibits federally financed construction jobs from paying wages less than a local average.

Not only are the living and working conditions abominable, but many of the workers aren't even getting paid:
Arnoldo Antonio Lopez, 36, another worker in the group, said he paid $70 a month to live in trailer No. 10. He said he would have put up with the poor conditions, but the contractor who hired him did not pay him. "He promised me $7 an hour wages and good food," Mr. Lopez said.

He and the other men went to work for another contractor. But that employer also did not pay, they said. The alliance refused to name any of the employers because it is considering legal action.

"They hadn't eaten for three days when we got to them," said Vicki Cintra, the Gulf Coast outreach organizer for the alliance. "They had no blankets, nothing. They were sleeping on the floor. They had no money to buy food."
Despite the exploitation, there are fears in Florida that the lure of work on the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast will draw needed immigrant labor away from Florida's fruit harvest and construction boom:
For many years, Mexican immigrants have been streaming into Southern states along a land route from the Southwest border. Smugglers and labor recruiters carry them by truck, bus and van to farms and worksites all the way down to the bustling service industries of South Florida.

"This is the dream work force for employers," observed Greg Schell, managing attorney for the Migrant Farmworker Justice Project. "Go to any construction site and you'll find a high percentage of undocumented workers. What is driving the South Florida construction boom is very cheap labor."

Florida growers and many businesses have come to depend on this undocumented work force. Now, some employers are becoming concerned that much of this labor pool will get diverted to Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"If we have a shortage in our work force, particularly during the critical harvest season, that could be economically disastrous," said Walter Kates, director of labor relations for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. "All of our crops down here are highly perishable. It would definitely have a ripple effect."
The immigrant influx is also causing resentment among higher paid native construction workers:
In one recent instance, 75 union electricians held a news conference to show off their termination letters from a job site at the Louisiana National Guard's Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse, south of downtown New Orleans. They said a contractor had replaced them with 120 immigrant workers from Houston. A spokesman for the Louisiana National Guard, Neal Martin, said he hadn't heard of any such incident.

Gary Warren, the political director for the Louisiana Regional Carpenters Council, said his group is regularly getting complaints from union members laid off by contractors and replaced with immigrant workers.

"Nobody wants me to say this because it's not politically correct, but they are calling them 'Texans.' What they are really using is a lot of illegal labor," Warren said. "It's an issue of people who lost everything being laid off in favor of people from out of state."