Tulane-UC Berkeley Study Shows Katrina Rebuilding Leads to Violations of Workers’ Rights

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Undocumented Workers Receive Lower Pay and Minimal Access to Health Care

NEW ORLEANS – June 7, 2006 – A new study released today by researchers at Tulane University and the University of California, Berkeley reveals that undocumented workers are being abused even as they provide critical help to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in American history.

The comprehensive study of more than 200 workers surveyed in March 2006 by researchers at the Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer at Tulane University and the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley discovered vulnerability of undocumented workers, including severely reduced access to health care, wage discrepancy and unsafe working conditions.

The study found that almost half of the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans is Latino, and 54 percent of that group is undocumented, meaning 25 percent of all workers are undocumented Latinos. In the aftermath of the storm, the federal government allowed special waivers of immigration laws, which made it easier for employers to hire undocumented workers. Two-thirds of Latino construction workers have moved to the area since Katrina hit in 2005. But 87 percent of the undocumented workers were already living in the United States before they moved to New Orleans. This means that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not cause an influx of illegal immigrants across the US border as many have reported.

“Once these workers were in the city, they were not adequately protected by workplace regulations,” said Phuong N. Pham, assistant professor of the Payson Center of Tulane University. “We cannot have it both ways: either we enforce immigration laws effectively and prevent illegal immigrants from working, or we allow them to work and provide them with the same labor, safety and health protections afforded documented workers.” 

“Reconstruction after natural disasters exposes workers to some of the worst on-the-job hazards in situations where services, especially access to health care, are scarce. Public officials at all levels – federal, state, and local – need to strengthen monitoring and enforcement of worker health and safety protections,” said Laurel Fletcher, a Clinical Professor of Law at UC Berkeley’s School of Law (Boalt Hall).

The study, Rebuilding After Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans, finds:

On average, documented workers received significantly higher wages than undocumented workers peforming the same work ($16.50 per hour average for documented vs. $10 per hour for undocumented).

  • Construction workers frequently report experiencing problems receiving wages owed, especially undocumented workers.

*********Workers reported working with harmful substances (29 percent) and in dangerous conditions (27 percent) while 19 percent said they were not given any protective equipment for dangerous work.   Only 9 percent of undocumented workers have health insurance compared to 55 percent of documented workers. 83 percent of documented workers said they received medications when needed compared to 38 percent of undocumented workers.  

Research Design and Instruments
The study used random sampling to interview 212 workers of all origins in different sites in New Orleans. In addition to the random sampling, the study included key informant interviews and a targeted sampling of 148 Latino workers. All interviews, including the survey interviews, were anonymous. During March 2006, researchers interviewed 25 key informants including legal advocates, social service providers, community activists, health care providers, business leaders, policymakers, representatives of minority and immigrant groups, and representatives of federal, state, and local government agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi. Other important findings include:

  • Protective equipment generally is available but insufficient, especially for undocumented workers. The random survey data indicates undocumented workers possess equipment less frequently (72 percent) than documented workers (84 percent).
  • Post-disaster clean-up and construction work often exposes laborers to health risks due to working in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. However, awareness among undocumented workers of risk related to mold (38 percent), asbestos (36 percent) and unsafe buildings (19 percent) is significantly lower than among documented workers, respectively 67 percent (mold), 65 percent (asbestos) and 59 percent (unsafe buildings).

Among the construction workers who report health problems, a little more than one-quarter (27 percent) sought medical treatment. The disparity between documented and undocumented workers is striking: 33 percent of documented workers sought treatment for a medical problem while only 10 percent of undocumented reported seeking such treatment.