Taking on ‘a modern form of slavery'”

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The catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina has spawned “a modern form of slavery” in New Orleans – one being challenged by a fledging worker rights organization.

The New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice is building a movement, worker by worker, street corner by street corner, in a city where many neighborhoods are still abandoned, basic services are missing or deficient and half of the population has yet to return.

It’s an environment where a skilled construction worker can command a high wage and where even fast food employees have seen their pay double. But it’s also an environment where a sizeable group of day laborers, many of them immigrants, live from day to day, work dangerous jobs and are constantly subject to exploitation.

“What is happening post-Katrina is nothing more than a modern form of slavery,” said Saket Soni, leader organizer for the worker center. “It’s as close as you can get to complete control over the movement of employees.”

Along streets with names like Elysian Fields, on a circle below a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and in the parking lots of Lowe’s and Home Depot stores, workers gather in the early morning, sometimes by the dozens, to wait for work.

The workers are immigrants – many of them undocumented – but also poor African-Americans and whites, as well as workers from other parts of the country lured to New Orleans with the promise of jobs. The latter include some 80 members of the White Mountain Apache Nation in Arizona recruited to come to New Orleans by a labor broker for a $1,600 fee. Once in the city, they were dumped off in front of the local FEMA office.

It’s difficult to track the number of day laborers because many have no permanent address and they tend to gather in very small groups in multiple locations because of fear of immigration authorities, Soni said.

Although their backgrounds may differ, they share a common experience of exploitation. Employers engage the workers in a bidding war to find who will work for the lowest wage. They face hazardous conditions on the job and, once they’re done, they often are not paid.

“We had workers who would call us, saying they were waiting for their checks,” Soni said. “Instead of the contractor, who would show up would be immigration.”

Dennis, a former day laborer who is now an organizer for the Day Laborers’ Congress, a project of the worker center, came to New Orleans from Honduras in search of work. With the shortage of housing after Katrina, he shared a trailer with 13 other people and worked to clean and demolish buildings.

The workers had no safety equipment and many were injured or got sick from the fumes, mold and other contaminants in the debris. When Dennis injured his hand, the employer had to be pressured to call an ambulance. When he got out of the hospital, he learned he no longer had a job. That’s when he decided to start organizing.

The worker center has a small office, but no building or other services. So it was a huge victory last week when day laborers negotiated the use of an empty lot as a safe place to gather.

Their organizing involves a mix of traditional and innovative methods. They publish a small newsletter with updates on events – such as encounters with police and immigration – and personal stories. On the corners where people are waiting for work, members of the Day Laborers’ Congress conduct workshops on topics such as the history of the slave trade in the United States and the struggles by indigenous people to keep their land.

The goal of their work is “to transform day labor into a dignified way of working,” Soni said. If day laborers can raise their wages and improve their conditions, they can no longer be used as a wedge to lower the standard of living for working people in the city, he said.

While these efforts continue, day laborers are starting to reach out to allies in the community. They work with the New Orleans Survivors Council, an organization of mainly African-American survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that is another project of the worker justice center.

Soni is hopeful that alliances can be built with the labor movement.

For example, “if day laborers and electrical workers were to sit down and talk, both sides would learn a lot from it,” he said. “I’m optimistic that over the next six months there will be more debate and dialogue.”

Barb Kucera, editor of Workday Minnesota, reported this story as part of a team at the convention of the International Labor Communications Association convention in New Orleans Oct. 18-20. View more articles, video, audio and photos from New Orleans at www.neworleanslabormedia.org

For more information
Read the report, “And Injustice for All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans.”