Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Working for Workers' Rights in New Orleans

Our mission team is glad to be offering its amateur home-repair skills for free to the citizens of Slidell. But before our volunteers pick up their paintbrushes and take up their trowels, they will pause to reflect on the realities facing low-wage workers who have come to Louisiana to rebuild but struggle to make a living.

"It was ... with great sadness that I witnessed open and flagrant abuse of workers' rights when I began visiting New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina," said Ted Smukler, public policy director for Interfaith Worker Justice, in testimony on June 26 before the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee, which convened to evaluate the performance of the U.S. Department of Labor following Hurricane Katrina.

"After Katrina, immigrants rushed to New Orleans with the promise of good, well-paid work," Smukler said. "These workers were used and exploited, denied their legal wages, exposed to toxins without proper health and safety training and equipment, and lived in unspeakable squalor. Those without documents knew if they confronted their bosses or reported abuse to government agencies they could be deported. Meanwhile, the mainly African-American displaced workforce was excluded from possibilities of work due to lack of housing, schools, health care and appropriate job training."

Smukler expressed dismay that the federal Department of Labor, once renowned as a can-do agency committed to the improvement of workers' lives, was virtually unknown among the workers he surveyed. "Not one worker mentioned the DOL as either a source of information about workers' rights or as an agency to which one could file complaints."

In response to the widescale exploitation of laborers and neglect of state and federal labor laws, Interfaith Worker Justice has organized a worker center in New Orleans, one of 16 such groups it operates around the country to educate, organize, and mobilize workers and people of faith. The group also issued a report, "Working on Faith: A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans," which documents withheld wages and occupational safety and health hazards among a cross-section of African-American, Latino, white, and other workers.

But IWJ is hardly the only organization beating the path for social and economic justice. Along with workers and other policy advocates, Smukler testified with Saket Soni, lead organizer for the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. The mission of this center is to organize African-American and immigrant workers to ensure fair treatment of all laborers in the reconstruction of post-Katrina New Orleans. Our volunteer team will have the privilege of meeting with Soni on Saturday, Jan. 5, to learn more about issues of workers' rights in the ongoing reconstruction of the region.

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