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Gulf Coast fund helps fight immigrant worker abuse

UUA-UUSC fund supports groups working for immigrant worker rights.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Immigrant workers at a camp in Mississippi

Immigrant workers, who are especially vulnerable to abuses in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, talk at a makeshift camp for workers doing hurricane recovery work in Ocean Springs, Miss., in October 2005. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

Even before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast Bill Chandler and his staff had plenty to do. Chandler is director of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA), and he and his staff lobby in the state capitol on behalf of the thousands of immigrants working in the state. They also respond to complaints by immigrant workers about poor working and living conditions and racism.

Those complaints have exploded post-Katrina. Chief among them are complaints that employers are hiring immigrants to help in reconstruction efforts and then not paying them.

MIRA is one of the groups receiving post-Katrina support from the Gulf Coast Relief Fund jointly sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the UU Service Committee. The fund raised more than $3.5 million with two goals—addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged and marginalized communities, and helping Unitarian Universalist congregations rebuild their ministries. The fund gave MIRA $25,000 last winter, which the agency added to funds from other sources to hire more staff to meet the increased need.

Chandler said the federal government has been awarding contracts for recovery work and reconstruction but not requiring contractors to follow responsible employment practices—such as paying workers. “The feds have been awarding contracts,” he said, “but only requiring the contractor to report on the first subcontractor, not those who are on down the line. So what happens is a lot of these folks get hired by ‘Joe in the blue pickup truck’ and then when it comes time to be paid, Joe is nowhere to be found.”

“What also happens,” he added, “is that, while people are waiting to be paid, the contractor puts out a rumor that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents are in the area and then the workers scatter, sometimes in the middle of the night, and never get paid.”

Chandler said that employers recruit people by promising them housing and health insurance but that in many cases there are no benefits of any kind and workers live in tents or dilapidated trailers.

MIRA has been bringing complaints against companies with the Department of Labor and has also had success in shaming contractors directly. “We’ll go to their homes and set up a picket line,” Chandler said. “Of all the ones we’ve confronted that way only one has not paid back wages to workers. We’ve also been able to get the Department of Labor to start enforcing the law by dropping into worksites unannounced and beginning investigations.”

Chandler said MIRA had helped thousands of workers including close to 2,000 who have recovered back pay. MIRA has four staff members now. Most are immigrants themselves. There is also a cadre of volunteers. Most of the complaints are from Latinos, he said, but he hopes to bring a Vietnamese organizer on board as well as an African American so MIRA can broaden its reach.

Chandler said MIRA is grateful for the help from the Gulf Coast Relief Fund. “The more resources we have,” he said, “the more we can do.”

The Advancement Project, working in New Orleans, is another agency focusing on worker abuses. The UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund contributed $125,000 to the Advancement Project, specifically to its Post Hurricane Katrina Enfranchisement Project, including hiring Jennifer Lai as staff attorney. Lai, who has formerly worked as a union organizer and with a New Orleans civil rights law firm, is assembling a comprehensive report that is documenting abuses of immigrant workers and hurricane survivors.

Thousands of workers are being cheated out of their wages, Lai said, forced to sleep out in the open and work with toxic molds and asbestos, and are enduring brutality and harassment not only by employers but also by police and federal Immigration Customs Enforcement agents.

“We don’t know how much is being stolen from workers,” she said. “We do know they’re being asked to work in highly hazardous situations with little protection and there is very little health care available to them.”

A team of more than 200 college students, including many law students, has been interviewing hundreds of workers. Among the stories they’ve collected are reports of workers being thrown in jail on false pretenses, workers being forced to work at gunpoint and with threats of violence, and workers who are paid less than half of what they are promised and often paid nothing at all.

The report will be released before the May 16 New Orleans mayoral runoff election. “We’re doing the report because we feel that at the very least we need to bear witness to what is going on here,” Lai said. “We wanted to open up space for the workers’ voices to be lifted into the discourse about rebuilding New Orleans.”

Religious groups have a key role in protecting worker rights, Lai said. People of faith will be asked to contact politicians and public officials and to support social service organizations as they build structures that will protect workers.

“We’re engaged in the largest civil and human rights crisis of our generation,” Lai said. “Ultimately it is organizing that will solve this problem. We need to attack the politics of the matter so that we can change things in the long run.”

Other partners working with the Advancement Project are the Critical Race Studies program at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law and the National Immigration Law Center.

The Rev. Marta Valentin, minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans, discovered a worker abuse situation when she was notified recently that 40 men and 12 women from Central America had been evicted from their hotel. The contractor they were working for had been paying for their hotel rooms but stopped payment without notice because he was replacing them with workers from Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia who would work for less. “Before, people were complaining about having non-resident Latinos doing the work,” Valentin said. “Now they’re pitting the Central Americans against the South Americans.”

The UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, which has distributed grants totaling $1.3 million, is playing a key role in supporting Gulf Coast social service organizations that focus on worker rights. Its contributions to both MIRA and the Advancement Project are among many grants both groups have received, but in each case the Gulf Coast Fund grants helped the groups expand their missions in key areas.

“These agencies are just what we should be supporting,” said Martha Thompson, the UUSC’s program manager for Human Rights in Emergencies and Disasters. “The situation in the Gulf Coast is no different than the problem the UUSC is working on in Thailand, where Burmese workers are being discriminated against as they try to clean up tsunami damage.” She said that when the Gulf Coast Fund donated to the Advancement Project little work was being done in the area of immigrant worker rights. “Now there’s a whole coalition working on it,” she said. “We helped jump-start something.”

Johanna Chao Rittenburg, UUSC’s program manager for Economic Justice, adds, “The role we are playing as UUs is to help to facilitate change. We have helped these groups define their needs and in the process we have created opportunities for other funders to contribute to their work. We played a key role with our grants and it is starting to pay dividends.”

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