Human rights group calls for Katrina investigation, The Times-Picayune

By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON — An international human rights agency is being asked to investigate whether the U.S. government is doing enough to help Hurricane Katrina victims and whether workers doing post-hurricane cleanup and rebuilding jobs are being protected from exploitation by contractors.

“Six months have passed, and these communities still look like the hurricane hit yesterday,” said Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans.

Harden, and other environmental and civil rights advocates, Friday asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to send fact-finders to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities to determine whether the international agency should press the United States government to do more.

The commission, established by the Organization of American States, doesn’t have any authority over the U.S. government, but some civil rights advocates believe a critical report from an international commission would be embarrassing enough to force action. The OAS is comprised of all 35 independent nations in the Americas, including Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, the United States and Canada.

Lethargic response

The commission was told that the U.S. government’s initial response was lethargic at best, and that not enough has been done in the six months since the storm made landfall to help evacuees rebuild. Critics have questioned whether the race of many of the victims and the ethnicity of many recovery workers have impacted the government’s response.

“In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we saw African-Americans and immigrants not having access to basic needs such as food, water and shelter and now we have day workers living in tents and assigned tasks like removing asbestos without proper equipment or training,” said Roxanna Altholz of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California at Berkeley. “They’ve turned the Gulf Coast into one big sweatshop.”

Commission members, who investigate human rights violations in the Americas, made no commitment on whether they would send investigators to the Gulf Coast.

The Bush administration has noted that more than $100 billion has been issued or proposed for recovery efforts from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the largest commitment of federal resources ever for a major disaster.

Reaching Hispanics

In response to Friday’s commission hearing, the Labor Department issued a statement saying that the agency has opened two temporary wage and hour standards offices in the Gulf Coast, dispatched Spanish-speaking staff, worked with local organizations and agencies to help facilitate investigations of labor violations and posted commercials on Spanish-speaking radio stations on how to file complaints against contractors.

In one case, the Labor Department said that it recovered $141,887 in back wages for 106 employees of KTC Services of North Carolina. The workers were assigned debris cleanup tasks, mostly in Mississippi.

Harden said the United States Agency for International Development issued a detailed report in 2004 that committed the federal government to working to help people across the globe resume their lives after the devastation of a natural disaster. They should do no less, she said, for people who live in the United States.

Stiffed by contractors

The commission was told that the plight of immigrants after Katrina was particularly harsh.

“Immigrants were the hidden victims of Hurricane Katrina,” said Victoria Cintra, of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance in Biloxi. “Evacuation orders and hurricane advisories were only issued in English. The government threatened to deport immigrant survivors in settings where disaster assistance was being administered instead of helping them secure food, water and shelter.”
Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center, an advocacy group for immigrants, said that many workers brought to New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities from across Texas and other states were promised salaries and temporary housing to work in New Orleans, but were stiffed by their bosses.

Although the Bush administration has resumed enforcement of wage laws that require people to be paid prevailing wages when working under government contracts, Tumlin said that many Katrina contracts were let before the reinstatement, meaning lower pay scales and benefits for both local and out-of-state workers doing hurricane-related work.