Dept. of Labor helps illegal workers in Katrina clean up to get paid

Today’s Wall Street Journal (no link available) reports that the U.S. Dept. of Labor has been actively supporting efforts by illegal workers to get paid for their work from employers who have stiffed them. Credit much of the effort to coordination between the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (no link found) and the Dept. of Labor. For instance, “In February, the Labor Department, acting on worker complaints partly compiled by activists from a Mississippi-based advocacy group, collected nearly $142,000 in back pay from a subcontractor working for Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., for Mr. Hernandez and almost 120 other workers. KBR says it didn’t have a direct relationship with the subcontractor responsible for paying the workers.” In fact, the offending employer was a sub-contractor of a sub-contractor.
The article goes on:

Hundreds of other hurricane-cleanup workers — many of them illegally in the U.S. — have also complained about wages or working conditions at other employers, advocates say. Despite the furious national debate and increased enforcement efforts against illegal immigrants, the U.S. government has become a key ally to many such workers in Mississippi and Louisiana. The Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance says that partly thanks to the threat of Labor Department muscle it has helped workers recover over $500,000 in back wages which Katrina contractors hadn’t paid both legal and illegal workers.

In recent months, federal officials have revved up enforcement actions, say worker advocates. The department says it is now investigating all prime contractors and subcontractors handling federal government-funded debris removal and a program that helps property owners temporarily patch their damaged roofs with blue tarps. In some cases, the department is sending officers to check employer log books to determine whether workers are being paid for hours worked. Some employers are being “shamed” by the alliance into paying without having to go through the trouble of filing a government complaint. In New Orleans, the department says it is working with local Latino groups and sending Spanish-speaking agents to a site that provides meals and services to Hispanic workers to show that Labor Department agents are on the job

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A Labor Department spokeswoman said that the agency doesn’t collect information on workers’ immigration status when they intervene on their behalf with employers. So it doesn’t know how many of the 241,000 workers it helped nationwide in the 2005 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, were illegal immigrants.

Long before Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf Coast areas of Mississippi and Louisiana, with a growing number of casino, seafood-processing and construction jobs, were drawing Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal. Coastal Mississippi was home to between 20,000 and 30,000 recent Hispanic immigrants, estimates Vicky Cintra, a coordinator in Biloxi for the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

After the hurricane, contractors from elsewhere in the country swooped into the region, many bringing along labor contractors who filled trucks with workers that they recruited back home or in stops on the way. Ms. Cintra says a conservative estimate is that the population of Hispanics, mostly cleanup laborers or semi-skilled workers, doubled after Katrina, and that about 70% are undocumented. The figure is particularly difficult to estimate because the region has attracted many Central Americans, some of whom qualify for a special government-issued temporary-protected status under U.S. immigration laws.

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