KATRINA WORKERS WIN LANDMARK VICTORY AT CONTRACTOR-RUN CAMPSITE
Migrant workers, recruited to rebuild New Orleans, challenge unsafe living conditions
New Orleans – In pitch darkness, in a field with no lights or bathing facilities, more than 100 Katrina workers translated weeks of organizing into a powerful collective bargaining session. During a three-hour meeting the workers confronted contractors responsible for the campsite where they struggle to survive. They won concessions on running water, bathroom and shower facilities, written rental contracts, an end to eviction threats and other basic issues. Although negotiations are still incomplete, the meeting and the day’s victories are a major challenge to prevailing contractor-worker relations around the ravaged Gulf Coast.
The workers are permanently housed at New Orleans’ City Park, at one of several sites where Storm Force Inc. collects rent but has not provided even minimal facilities. Deficiencies in the campsite pose serious dangers: for example, reconstruction laborers work seven days/week amid toxic dust and sludge – including many whose employers fail to provide protective gear. But few can afford to bathe at the only showers available near the campsite, privately contracted at $5 apiece. At the workers’ meeting, a Storm Force principal committed to reducing the cost of showers within days; workers have yet to decide whether the offer meets their health needs.
“Skilled workers came here to rebuild the city. On the internet and the radio they begged us to come,” said a laborer who traveled from Illinois in October. “We get here and they’re treating us like trash. Just like trash. And we don’t have any place to go besides this muddy field.”
“Everyone is on some reconstruction committee, doing meetings and conference calls. But the families in City Park are actually doing the labor,” said Jen Lai, an attorney with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. “Violating their human rights is just not an option for New Orleans.”
The problems faced by migrant laborers mirror the issues of Katrina survivors. Although city officials have urged displaced people to return and reconstruction workers to come, it has provided no temporary housing. Some of the workers are the “permanently displaced” of other disasters. Survivors of Katrina fear that those workers represent the future of many New Orleanians, unless obstacles to returnees are removed.
“There is no available housing in New Orleans. There’s so much bureaucracy. There’s so much price-gouging. These are the things obstructing the return of the people and rebuilding the city,” said Leah Hodges of the Causeway Concentration Camp Committee, a Katrina survivor group.
“In my city, workers have rights; tenants have rights; communities have rights. These conditions cannot exist in this park, in my city, in my country,” said Tracie Washington, a New Orleans attorney for the workers.
City Park officials had promised to attend, but were not present.
Corlita Mahr (504) 908-6652 firstname.lastname@example.org
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