5/1/09 The Times Picayune – Workers Decry "Wage Theft" In Protest At City Hall
May 1, 2009
Workers decry “wage theft” in protest at City Hall
by Gwen Filosa, The Times-Picayune
Helped by the Hot 8 Brass Band, about 50 people marched through downtown New Orleans this afternoon to protest the treatment of Latino workers in a post-Katrina city teeming with construction projects.
“Respecto y Dignidad,” (Respect and Dignity) one man’s sign read as the group gathered at the steps of City Hall, chanting in English and in Spanish demands that city leaders investigate their allegations of companies flush with recovery contracts failing to pay day laborers and construction workers.
The protest was organized by the Congress of Day Laborers and the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, and started at Louis Armstrong Park and headed toward City Hall. Along the way, the men and women stopped at the U.S. Department of Labor office, only to be greeted by a federal agent, said Saket Soni, director of the workers’ center.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent called up to labor officials warning them that “this was obviously a protest against ICE and he wanted to make sure it didn’t get violent,” Soni said.
An attorney for the workers’ center remained at the federal office to talk with officials about the greeting, Soni said.
Workers in New Orleans have been “robbed of thousands of dollars” in three cases, the protest organizers said.
“I am a father who because of wage theft can’t provide for my sick daughter,” said Mario Mendoza.
On April 15, the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice filed three complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor, naming contractors and subcontractors they accused of hiring workers for manual jobs and then shorting their pay.
The projects named in the complaints are: Savoy Apartments, formerly the Desire public housing development in the 9th Ward; the Walnut Square Apartments Project; and Oak Villa Apartments. All but the Oak Villa project have received state and federal money to build affordable housing as the city recovers from the 2005 hurricane season.
Workers today said that they only want fair treatment and protection from abuse. They didn’t single out any one company, saying that home owners have at times refused to pay them for their work. They also spoke of muggings, robberies and violence suffered since they came to New Orleans.
Such treatment of Lation day laborers is common in the South, and especially in post-Katrina New Orleans, according to a recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Under Siege: Life for Low-Income Latinos in the South” by researcher Mary Bauer found that 41 percent of respondents had experienced wage theft. In New Orleans, 80 percent said they have been ripped off by employers while working on the region’s recovery since Hurricane Katrina struck.
No other community studied reported as many cases of employer threats of violence against workers, Bauer said.