Using Illegal Labor to Clean Up after Katrina Gulf Coast Slaves

By Roberto Lovato in New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss.

Part 2: "Open invitation for exploitation, fraud and abuse"



Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters ever in the United States.
NASA

Hurricane Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters ever in the United States.

Cintra and other critics say there's been no accountability from the corporate leaders who signed on the dotted line when they were awarded multimillion-dollar Department of Defense contracts. "The workers may be hired by the subcontractors," Cintra says, "but KBR is ultimately responsible."

"Latino workers are being invited to New Orleans and the South without the proper conditions to protect them," adds Cintra, who recently provided tents to Martinez and several other unpaid Mexican workers who fled Belle Chasse for Gulfport after being dismissed by Tovar. Cintra, a Cuban exile and born-again Christian, has since seen a small tent city of homeless immigrants spring up in the yard of her church, Pass Road Baptist, in Gulfport. "This is evil on top of evil on top of evil," she says. "The Bush administration and Halliburton have opened up a Pandora's box that's not going to close now."

Halliburton/KBR is the general contractor with overarching responsibility for the federal cleanup contracts covering Katrina-damaged naval bases. Even so, there is an utter lack of transparency with the process -- and that invites malfeasance, says James Hale, a vice president of the Laborers' International Union of North America. "To my knowledge, not one member of Congress has been able to get their hands on a copy of a contract that was handed out to Halliburton or others," Hale says. "There is no central registry of Katrina contracts available. No data on the jobs or scope of the work." Hale says that his union's legislative staff has pressed members of Congress for more information; apparently the legislators were told that they could not get copies of the contracts because of "national security" concerns.

"If the contracts handed out to these primary contractors are opaque, then the contracts being let to the subcontractors are just plain invisible," Hale says. "There is simply no ability to ascertain or monitor the contractor-subcontractor relationships. This is an open invitation for exploitation, fraud and abuse."

Congress has heard a number of complaints recently about Halliburton/KBR's hiring practices, including the alleged exploitation of Filipino, Sri Lankan, Nepalese and other immigrant workers paid low wages on military installations in Iraq. And KBR subcontractor BE&K was a focus of Senate hearings in October, for the firing of 75 local Belle Chasse workers who said that they were replaced by "unskilled, out-of-state, out-of-country" workers earning $8 to $14 for work that typically paid $22 an hour.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has been an outspoken critic of the use of undocumented workers at Belle Chasse and on other Katrina cleanup jobs, said in a recent statement, "It is a downright shame that any contractor would use this tragedy as an opportunity to line its pockets by breaking the law and hiring a low-skilled, low-wage and undocumented work force."

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is also against the practice, citing its "serious social ramifications." As he told Salon, it devastates "local workers who have been hit twice, because they lost their homes."

Seventeen-year-old Simitrio Martinez (no relation to Arnulfo) is another one of the dozens of workers originally hired by Tovar, the North Carolina job broker working under KBR. "They were going to pay seven dollars an hour, and the food was going to be free, and rent, but they gave us nothing," says the thin Zapotec teenager. Simitrio spent nearly a month at the Seabee base. "They weren't feeding us. We ate cookies for five days. Cookies, nothing else," he says.

Simitrio, his co-workers, and the dozens of KBR subcontractors that employ them operate under public-private agreements like federal Task Order 0017, which defines the scope of work to be fulfilled under the contracts. Under the multimillion-dollar Department of Defense contract, KBR is supposed to provide services for "Hurricane Katrina stabilization and recovery at Naval Air Station Pascagoula, Naval Air Station Gulfport, Stennis Space Center and other Navy installations in the Southeast Region," according to a Defense Department press release.
The Ninth Ward in New Orleans was heavily damaged by Katrina flood waters.
AFP

The Ninth Ward in New Orleans was heavily damaged by Katrina flood waters.


But the details of the agreements remain murky. "Not only is it very difficult to see the actual signed DoD contracts, but it is nearly impossible to see the actual task orders, which assign the goods or services the government is buying," says Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight in Washington. The military can ask for goods and services on an as-needed basis, he says, which means that the contracts, which add up to tens of millions of dollars, can remain open ended. According to DoD press statements, the contracts call for considerable manual labor, including "re-roofing of most buildings, barracks, debris removal from the entire base, water mitigation, mold mitigation, interior and exterior repairs to most buildings, waste treatment plants, and all incidental related work."

Simitrio and any other workers on the high-security military bases must get permission before entering the guarded gates, where they get patted down by M-16-wielding military police. Responsibility for getting private-sector construction and cleanup workers on the bases rests with the general contractor -- in KBR's case, security chief Kevin Flynn. One of Flynn's responsibilities is to negotiate passes and entry for KBR subcontractors -- and their hires -- to do the work stipulated by the task order.

Yet, following several complaints by Landrieu, and just a few days after President Bush visited the Belle Chasse base, agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raided the facility and detained 10 workers who ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said had "questionable" documentation.

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