Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Workplace Hazards and Abuse in the Gulf: Part Deux

More today on the struggles of workers in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast. First, Amanda Schaffer at Slate writes about "Katrina Cough."

Katrina cough is a constellation of symptoms—coughs, sore throats, runny noses, and respiratory trouble. As I mentioned in my yesterday's review of Gulf Coast problems, many downplay its seriousness, although it can be dangerous for people with asthma, respiratory illness, or compromised immune systems.

Schaffer has been paying close attention to what happened after during the World Trade Centers cleanup.

Following 9/11, the EPA and OSHA failed to safeguard nearby residents and workers at Ground Zero from unnecessary exposures to asbestos, lead, glass fibers, concrete dust, and other toxins. The damage was caused not by a few days of rescue work, but by weeks and months of cleaning up the site or living nearby. The EPA offered assurances that the air outside of Ground Zero was safe to breathe—even though, as the agency's inspector general found in 2003, the agency "did not have sufficient data and analyses to make such a blanket statement." The EPA also caved to pressure from the White House Council on Environmental Quality "to add reassuring statements and delete cautionary ones" from its public announcements about the disaster. And in overseeing work at Ground Zero, OSHA decided not to enforce workplace health rules as it regularly would have, but instead acted primarily as an "adviser" to employers. As a result, the agency did not ensure that workers wore proper protective gear, especially respirators, though the equipment was widely available on the site. (For more on respirators and Ground Zero click here.)

The EPA is again downplaying the risks to Katrina survivors. Many of the educational materials prepared by EPA aren't reaching the people who need them, and although the American Lung Association estimates that more than 16 percent of New Orleans children suffered from asthma, EPA has not told parents to keep children away until the cleanup has significantly progressed. People working on houses are unable to find enough protective respirators and are instead using paper dust masks that can trap the contaminents in the mask, making the problem worse.

And then in a potentially tragic deja vu,
Also troubling is the lack of protection for recovery workers hired by contractors. Subra says the workers she has seen have no respiratory gear. Contractors are reportedly hiring the workers, many of them Latino immigrants, in nearby cities like Houston. "I know men who have gotten so sick with diarrhea, skin inflammations and breathing problems they can't work. … The contractors just hire more," said Juan Alvarez, director of the Latin American Organization for Immigrant Rights in Houston, in a letter sent to Congress by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health and other groups.
Meanwhile, over at Salon, Roberto Lovato writes about the Gulf Coast Slaves of KBR, "a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton that was awarded a major contract by the Bush administration for disaster relief work."

Workers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, report not being paid, not being fed, being kept captive on the military bases they're working on, and being thrown out on the streets after being kicked out of promised jobs. The job brokers and sub-contractors claim they can't pay the workers, because they haven't been paid by their contractor. On top of the heap stand Halliburton and KBR atop "a shadowy labyrinth of contractors, subcontractors and job brokers, overseen by no single agency, [who]have created a no man's land where nobody seems to be accountable for the hiring -- and abuse -- of these workers."

Meanwhile, it's almost impossible to hold Halliburton/KBR responsible:
Halliburton/KBR is the general contractor with overarching responsibility for the federal cleanup contracts covering Katrina-damaged naval bases. Even so, there is an utter lack of transparency with the process -- and that invites malfeasance, says James Hale, a vice president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "To my knowledge, not one member of Congress has been able to get their hands on a copy of a contract that was handed out to Halliburton or others," Hale says. "There is no central registry of Katrina contracts available. No data on the jobs or scope of the work." Hale says that his union's legislative staff has pressed members of Congress for more information; apparently the legislators were told that they could not get copies of the contracts because of "national security" concerns.
"If the contracts handed out to these primary contractors are opaque, then the contracts being let to the subcontractors are just plain invisible," Hale says. "There is simply no ability to ascertain or monitor the contractor-subcontractor relationships. This is an open invitation for exploitation, fraud and abuse."