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Rebuilding after Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August 2005, thousands of men and women traveled to the city eager to find work in clean up and rebuilding efforts. As work got underway, the media reported that some employers in the Gulf Coast area had failed to pay their workers or to provide them with adequate safety equipment and housing. Workers alleged their employers paid them so poorly that they could not afford to buy food. Reports of abuse—coupled with the easing of labor regulations, virtually no monitoring of construction sites, and the city’s lack of adequate housing and healthcare—suggested that unscrupulous contractors could easily be exploiting their workers.

Against this background, the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley collaborated with the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University to conduct a study of the situation of construction workers in New Orleans. The study took place in March 2006 and examined both documented and undocumented workers. Documented workers include U.S. citizens, permanent residents, work visa holders, and those workers with temporary immigration status, while undocumented workers are immigrants who are considered to be living in the United States illegally, although some may be eligible for legal status but have not obtained it.

Research showed:

  • Nearly half of the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans is Latino, of which 54 percent is undocumented.
  • Documented and undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers because of inadequate legal protection and the failure on the part of federal and local authorities to monitor construction sites.
  • Undocumented workers are especially at risk of exploitation.
  • Few workers have medical insurance or seek medical care.
  • Few workers report harassment by police.
  • U.S. immigration laws are at odds with national and international labor standards.

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"Human rights researcher find widespread problems after 2004 tsunami," or download the full report, Rebuilding After Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans