Using Illegal Labor to Clean Up after Katrina: Gulf Coast Slaves

By Roberto Lovato in New Orleans and Gulfport, Miss.

Halliburton and its subcontractors hired hundreds of undocumented Latino workers to clean up after Katrina -- only to mistreat them and throw them out without pay.

Did a subsidiary of Halliburton employ illegal workers to help clean up New Orleans?
REUTERS

Did a subsidiary of Halliburton employ illegal workers to help clean up New Orleans?

Arnulfo Martinez recalls seeing lots of hombres del ejercito standing at attention. Though he was living on the Belle Chasse Naval Base near New Orleans when President Bush spoke there on Oct. 11, he didn't understand anything the ruddy man in the rolled-up sleeves was saying to the troops. Martinez, 16, speaks no English; his mother tongue is Zapotec. He had left the cornfields of Oaxaca, Mexico, four weeks earlier for the promise that he would make $8 an hour, plus room and board, while working for a subcontractor of KBR, a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton that was awarded a major contract by the Bush administration for disaster relief work. The job was helping to clean up a Gulf Coast naval base in the region devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "I was cleaning up the base, picking up branches and doing other work," Martinez said, speaking to me in broken Spanish.

Even if the Oaxacan teenager had understood Bush when he urged Americans that day to "help somebody find shelter or help somebody find food," he couldn't have known that he'd soon need similar help himself. But three weeks after arriving at the naval base from Texas, Martinez's boss, Karen Tovar, a job broker from North Carolina who hired workers for a KBR subcontractor called United Disaster Relief, booted him from the base and left him homeless, hungry and without money.

"They gave us two meals a day and sometimes only one," Martinez said.


He says that Tovar "kicked us off the base," forcing him and other cleanup workers -- many of them Mexican and undocumented -- to sleep on the streets of New Orleans. According to Martinez, they were not paid for three weeks of work. An immigrant rights group recently filed complaints with the Department of Labor on behalf of Martinez and 73 other workers allegedly owed more than $56,000 by Tovar. Tovar claims that she let the workers go because she was not paid by her own bosses at United Disaster Relief. In turn, UDR manager Zachary Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told the Washington Post on Nov. 4 that his company had not been paid by KBR for two months.

Wherever the buck may stop along the chain of subcontractors, Martinez is stuck at the short end of it -- and his situation is typical among many workers hired by subcontractors of KBR (formerly known as Kellogg Brown & Root) to clean and rebuild Belle Chasse and other Gulf Coast military bases. Immigrants rights groups and activists like Bill Chandler, president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, estimate that hundreds of undocumented workers are on the Gulf Coast military bases, a claim that the military and Halliburton/KBR deny -- even after the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency turned up undocumented workers in a raid of the Belle Chasse facility last month. Visits to the naval bases and dozens of interviews by Salon confirm that undocumented workers are in the facilities. Still, tracing the line from unpaid undocumented workers to their multibillion-dollar employers is a daunting task. A shadowy labyrinth of contractors, subcontractors and job brokers, overseen by no single agency, have created a no man's land where nobody seems to be accountable for the hiring -- and abuse -- of these workers.

Right after Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, the Bush administration relaxed labor standards, creating conditions for rampant abuse, according to union leaders and civil rights advocates. Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers to pay "prevailing wages" for labor used to fulfill government contracts. The administration also waived the requirement for contractors rebuilding the Gulf Coast to provide valid I-9 employment eligibility forms completed by their workers. These moves allowed Halliburton/KBR and its subcontractors to hire undocumented workers and pay them meager wages (regardless of what wages the workers may have otherwise been promised). The two policies have recently been reversed in the face of sharp political pressure: Bush reinstated the Davis-Bacon Act on Nov. 3, while the Department of Homeland Security reinstated the I-9 requirements in late October, noting that it would once again "exercise prosecutorial discretion" of employers in violation "on a case-by-case basis." But critics say Bush's policies have already allowed extensive profiteering beneath layers of legal and political cover.

Halliburton/KBR, which enjoys an array of federal contracts in the United States, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has long drawn criticism for its proximity to Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly Halliburton's CEO. Halliburton/KBR spokesperson Melissa Norcross declined to respond directly to allegations about undocumented workers in the Gulf. "In performing work for the U.S. government, KBR uses its government-approved procurement system to source and retain qualified subcontractors," she said in an e-mail. "KBR's subcontractors are required to comply with all applicable labor laws and provisions when performing this work."

Victoria Cintra is the Gulf Coast outreach organizer for Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which recently partnered with relief agency Oxfam America to help immigrant workers displaced by Katrina. She says KBR is exposing undocumented workers like Martinez to unethical and illegal treatment, even though they are supposed to be paid with federal Katrina-recovery dollars to clean and rebuild high-security facilities like the one President Bush recently visited. Cintra is one of several people fighting to recover the wages owed the workers: She drives her beat-up, chocolate-colored car across the swamps, damaged roads and broken bridges of the Gulf Coast to track down contractors and subcontractors. With yellow legal pad in hand, she and other advocates document abuses taking place at Belle Chasse, the Naval Construction Battalion Center at the Seabee naval base in Gulfport, Miss., and other military installations.

I was with Cintra when she received phone calls from several Latino workers who complained they were denied, under threat of deportation, the right to leave the base at Belle Chasse. Cintra also took me along on visits to squalid trailer parks -- like the one at Arlington Heights in Gulfport -- where up to 19 unpaid, unfed and undocumented KBR site workers inhabited a single trailer for $70 per person, per week. Workers there and on the bases complained of suffering from diarrhea, sprained ankles, cuts and bruises, and other injuries sustained on the KBR sites -- where they received no medical assistance, despite being close to medical facilities on the same bases they were cleaning and helping rebuild.

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