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Worker
11.18.05
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BRANCACCIO: NOW on PBS.

In the struggle to rebuild the Gulf Coast, a major battle over what's fair for workers.

How is it so many big companies in the hurricane zone get to hire undocumented immigrants for low pay and house them in shocking conditions? And where does that leave local residents?

SAM SMITH: This is my city. I've lived here all my life. I wanted to be a part of this.

BRANCACCIO: And… three decades after Watergate, John Dean talks about the issues that have another presidency on the defensive.

JOHN DEAN: You know, I must say that Watergate was embarrassing because of its stupidity. What's going on right now is embarrassing because of its inhumanity.


BRANCACCIO: Welcome to NOW.

You know about outsourcing — where better-paying jobs in this country disappear, the work going to low-wage workers in developing countries. Well, a disturbing variation on the outsourcing theme is playing out right here in the USA — in New Orleans. Thousands are being hired to rebuild after the hurricane. But many Louisiana workers have been left out. Who's getting the jobs? In many cases, undocumented immigrant workers are moving in, lured by the promise of good jobs for good money on big rebuildiing contracts. But many of the jobs have low pay, no benefits, and awful working conditions.

Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer William Brangham have our report.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Sam Smith fled his home in New Orleans before Katrina hit. From afar he watched helplessly as his beloved city filled up with water.

This is the first time he's been inside his house — its destroyed. He's not sure if can rebuild it. But Smith does want a chance to rebuild his life and his hometown.

SAM SMITH: Definitely, definitely. I mean, I wanted to be a part of the reconstruction of my city. This is my city. I've lived here all my life. I wanted to be a part of this.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But the New Orleans he's come back to is totally changed. Most of the city's residents are long gone. Many neighborhoods sit abandoned like ghost towns.

The energy has shifted here to the reconstruction, endless rows of dump trucks poised to cart off the ruins of the city. Twelve million tons of debris to move, before the hundreds of thousands of buildings can be rebuilt.

And who's doing all this work? Thousands of construction crews and workers, lots of them are Latinos.

The almost overnight arrival of all these people has sparked tensions between these out-of-state workers and local ones. But some argue the Bush administration's actions in the aftermath of Katrina have actually made these problems worse, creating a legal Wild West where companies can get cheap labor, while workers get taken advantage of, or get left out.

SAM SMITH: Here's something I can salvage...

MARIA HINOJOSA: Sam Smith is an electrician. Two weeks after Katrina hit, he got the call he'd been hoping for.

SAM SMITH: Well, a friend of mine called and he said that he had been in touch with the union hall. And that there was work coming up. And it's supposed to be a long term job, and it was going to be at one of the air bases in New Orleans.

MARIA HINOJOSA: There was work to be done at the Belle Chasse Naval Air Station outside of New Orleans. Tiger Hammond, an official in Smith's union, started rounding up local workers.

TIGER HAMMOND: Everyone of these members, in some way, shape, or form, of course, was affected by either Hurricane Katrina, or Hurricane Rita.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The electricians were subcontracting for a company called BE&K. BE&K is a subcontractor for a branch of Halliburton. The workers were told they'd have nearly two years of work, at their normal wages — about $28 dollars an hour, including benefits.

MARIA HINOJOSA: But just a few days into the project, they started to notice that they weren't the only people doing electrical work.

SAM SMITH: Well, it was obvious that a lot of the people that were working there — a lot of electricians that were doing the work were Hispanic

MARIA HINOJOSA: It's not unusual that other workers would be on tha base. There were lots of companies operating there as well. But what was strange was these other, predominantly Latino workers, told the union guys they were making around $14 an hour without benefits. That's a lot less than what Smith and his union buddies were earning. Now, on a federally funded project, that wage discrepancy should've been illegal because of something called The Davis-Bacon Act.

Davis-Bacon says that any government contracted job has to pay the local average wage. And the local average wage for electricians in New Orleans is $28 an hour, not less.

But at the urging of conservative members of Congress, President Bush had waived Davis-Bacon after Katrina hit. The idea was to keep reconstruction costs as low as possible. With the law waived, companies could now hire cheaper workers.

MARIA HINOJOSA: How much time after Davis-Bacon was waived did you start noticing that there were other workers coming in?

TIGER HAMMOND: I'd say within-- within the week, about, you know, five to six days later we started seeing an overflow of workers coming side by side.

MARIA HINOJOSA: The union guys worried their jobs were on the line. And sure enough, three weeks into the job they were let go. The supposed two years of work? Gone.

SAM SMITH: I mean, what did we do? Why were we being let go when there was obviously a lot of work still there to be done? It definitely wasn't our work or our performance.

TIGER HAMMOND: They call that the almighty dollar. Okay. If I can get me an employee to come take the job of a guy like this that makes $28.09 an hour and I can give a guy $14 an hour, half the wages, I want the guy at half the wages. It's common sense economics for those big corporations.

MARIA HINOJOSA: BE&K says the union electricians were let go because their work was "substantially complete" - not because they were replaced by cheaper labor.

But the workers didn't buy it. They took their complaints to Washington DC and joined the growing, bipartisan criticism over the suspension of Davis-Bacon. A month later, President Bush reversed course: the act was reinstated.

Back in New Orleans, soon after the electricians were let go, immigration officials appeared at the naval base. They detained sixteen alleged undocumented workers, including four employed by BE&K.

SAM SMITH: I don't have a problem as far as anybody else coming to this country, as so many immigrants have, to make a living. I don't have any prejudice against Latinos or any other ethnic race. I'm just saying that this is my town. I should be working here.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Taking jobs from Americans is an accusation often leveled at immigrant workers… but we wanted to know, how did these people who aren't 'from here,' suddenly 'get here' to 'take' people's jobs?

When I talked with these guys, the same story kept coming out: they came, they said, because they were actively recruited. Labor contractors fanned out across the country, dangling promises of great jobs and great pay in New Orleans. Immigrants hungry for work jumped at the offers.

Undocumented immigrants like Pablo:

This beat up Bible is the only thing Pablo still carries from his home in Nicaragua. He left his wife and kids behind when the bank threatened to repossess his land. El Norte — the North — was his only hope.

He landed in Cincinnati a year and a half ago - but the $7/hr job he had suddenly paled when a labor contractor showed up with the promise of better pay down in New Orleans. So Pablo hopped in the contractor's van and headed south.

But after his first week of roofing, when payday arrived, that labor contractor was no where to be found. Pablo was abandoned, with no pay.

MARIA: What can you do in that situation where you work and you don't get paid?

PABLO: Bueno, como yo soy nuevo, nosotros no hicimos nada, pues. No pudimos hacer nada. nosotros nos sentimos indefensos. No sé, no podemos actuar porque... sí es cierto, nosotros somos los indocumentados. ¿quién podemos a recurrir? Estamos más de catorce que nos hicieron eso mismo, que no nos pagaron. Pues, ni modo, a quejarnos a la suerte nada más.

Well, since I'm new, we didn't do anything. We couldn't do anything. We feel defenseless. We can't act because… yes, it's true, we are undocumented. We won't accomplish anything by complaining. Who can we go to? This happened to about fourteen of us, that we didn't get paid. But, what can you do? Complain about bad luck, and that's it.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Pablo's now working with these other guys, helping rebuild this destroyed hotel.

These men all tell me similar stories of when they first got here — stories of broken promises. Getting stiffed on their pay, living in awful conditions. They're describing the darker side of work in America — and the scary thing is, they're describing conditions at the hands of some of the biggest construction and cleanup firms in the country. As we did our research, a lot of corporate names came up. But one in particular stood out: LVI.

LVI Services is a big cleanup company. They come in whenever disasters hit — hurricanes, earthquakes, even 9-11.

On the Gulf Coast, they were one of the first companies on site, deploying over 2000 workers.

Labor organizer Frank Curiel has talked to dozens of those LVI workers. And he too heard story after story of worker's complaints. Curiel took these photos at one warehouse where LVI was housing people.

FRANK CURIEL: Workers started telling us they were living in conditions where lot of people housed in very small areas. Very confined areas. In one warehouse, there was 200 workers. They had four outhouses. Hadn't been cleaned in four days. They contribute to our country. But yet what they receive in return is exploitation.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Exploitation, Curiel says, because he believes many of them are undocumented. The majority of LVI workers he spoke with told him they did not have legal papers.

Many argue that the Bush administration has made it even easier for companies including LVI to hire illegal workers. Right after Katrina, the administration suspended for 45 days the requirement that companies check the legal status of potential employees. And it told companies: we won't come after you if undocumented workers show up on your payroll.

But we wanted to see LVI's facilities for ourselves. Were the conditions as awful as we had heard?

One evening, we showed up at this LVI housing camp. The first thing you notice is that the camp is surrounded by what looked like a moat — actually a stretch of swamp full of alligators.

The only way in, it seemed, was blocked by armed guards.

MARIA: Ok, but you're not with the New Orleans police.

MAN WITH POLICE UNIFORM: I didn't say that. They'll talk with you. In just a few minutes

MARIA HINOJOSA: Their uniforms identified them as police, but we couldn't get a straight answer as to who they were.

MARIA: OK, you're saying, you won't tell me if you're with the New Orleans police.

MAN WITH POLICE UNIFORM: They're going to tell you. They're going to answer all your questions. They do the press releases.

MARIA HINOJOSA: I watched as hundreds of workers — who sure looked Latino — were bussed into the camp at the end of the workday.

I also met these two guys walking out of the compound. They told me they were undocumented. They said they'd been promised $12 an hour, but were only getting paid ten. They said the overtime pay they were owed never appeared in their checks.

A manager from LVI was finally came to speak with me -- Ivan Garcia.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Well we just spoke to a couple of people who said that they're staying here who said that they don't have legal papers.

IVAN GARCIA: Well, let's find out who they are so we can get 'em out of here.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Well, but there are many. We've heard-- we've heard that there are many of them. I mean, are you saying that LVI doesn't know that they're hiring undocumented immigrants?

IVAN GARCIA: I'm not saying that. But there's-- I mean, everybody has-- everybody should have papers to work here.

MARIA HINOJOSA: You know that are many people in that camp right there who are undocumented. I mean, you know that.

IVAN GARCIA: Well, I have no comment. I'm done. I gotta get in there. I gave you some questions. I answered some questions.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And after we were called over by this man, I had even more questions.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Hey, did you want to talk to us?

AL BROWN: Yes, ma'am.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Al Brown Said he was a supervisor at LVI. He was leaving the camp, furious with the housing conditions LVI was providing — cargo trailers little more than metal boxes on wheels.

AL BROWN: We got here, there was 42 people per trailer. Stacked three high. There's one bunk on the bottom, one bunk in the middle, one bunk on the top from front to back of the trailer. Each bunk is about the size of a twin bed for a kid. Or smaller. Okay?

So, I mean, there's a lot of illegal things that are goin' on. There's a lot of people here that don't have the proper identification. There's a lot of people here that don't have the proper paperwork in order to be in the United States. You know, this is-- this is-- an ongoing problem with LVI.

I never got to see inside the camp that night, but the next morning, Al Brown, called me and said he had video of those cargo trailers. Later, he showed it to us.

AL BROWN'S VIDEO: I'm recording this to show the living conditions that LVI employees are forced to live up under after coming from a job site working ten to twelve hours a day.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Brown claimed the place was run like a detention center - with roll calls and curfews.

AL BROWN'S VIDEO: And there's 42 men per room with no ventilation, no windows, only a 2 vent fan that's located at the front of the trailer.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Brown also said he heard dozens of complaints at the company that paychecks were routinely coming up short. And, it happened to him too. He showed me one of his paychecks, which shows he worked 40 hours one week. But Brown swears he worked 57 hours that week. He's says he's missing 17 hours of overtime pay.

AL BROWN: They're being manipulated by the supervisors. The people who take the time. That's who's manipulating the time sheets.

MARIA HINOJOSA: And there's more. Brown says LVI also put workers in harms way.

Here's how workers are supposed to be protected at job sites which are full of potentially toxic substances —things like molds and asbestos. But Al Brown says he regularly LVI workers being sent onto job sites without this protective gear.

MARIA HINOJOSA: What would happen to workers if they raised concerns or complaints about the conditions?

AL BROWN: They'd send you home. They'd send you home. You're fired.

MARIA HINOJOSA: We asked for an interview with LVI, but in the end the company chose not to sit down with us.

In a written statement, they rejected accusations they failed to provide enough protective equipment for workers. LVI said they "work diligently to ensure that all health and safety regulations...Are met or exceeded."

On the issue of payment LVI said it was "not aware of any discrepancies between promised and actual wages paid to our employees."

And undocumented workers? They said "LVI services complies with all state and federal requirements."

LVI did not deny workers are housed in those cargo trailers, But wrote "LVI services provides our employees with a safe, clean place to relax after a day's work."

Read LVI's complete response. (PDF)

Meanwhile, on the streets of New Orleans, undocumented immigrants like Pablo continue to work on the reconstruction. They embody one of America's great contradictions — a country built, and now being rebuilt, with immigrant labor — but a country it seems that cannot embrace and protect the immigrants themselves.

MARIA HINOJOSA: Están enojados por eso. ¿Qué es tu respuesta? What do you say to people who say, 'You don't have a right to be here. You shouldn't be here. You're not from New Orleans. You don't have documentation. You shouldn't be here'?

PABLO: Bueno, yo lo que diría es que se ponga la mano en la conciencia como persona. Nosotros aquí no venimos a robarles, a quitarles nada. Nosotros venimos a dar nuestro trabajo y a ayudarles aquí en esta calamidad que está ahorita Nueva Orleáns. Por ayudarle a la familia para ayudarles a ellos mismos también.

PABLO: Well, I'd say to look inside their conscience as human beings. We are not here to steal, to take anything away. We are here to give of our labor and help in this disaster that New Orleans is going through. We come, above all, to work so we can help our families, so we can help them too.

MARIA HINOJOSA: As for Sam Smith, he says that even though he may have lost his union job to workers like Pablo, he sees a connection between them.

SAM SMITH: How many people have come to this country for a better life? So should I just put a sticker on Latinos and say that they're the only group of people that shouldn't be here? No. I mean look at we went through as blacks. We pull ourself up and we've-- we've taken the job. We worked for the less amount of money, we did it.

MARIA: You see yourself perhaps in the eyes of these other workers?

SAM SMITH: I do. I do. They're just gonna be that class of people that the blacks were for so many years. They're just tryin' to make it. Willing to work. Able to work. Give ya all they got. But never get anywhere. And that's a fact.


BRANCACCIO: Here we are, with more than three good years left in George W. Bush's second term, and the engine of the presidency is running rough, with the administration's approval ratings falling somewhere south of 40 percent. For the authority to get things done, that is not where you want to be with the public.

John Dean knows what it feels like to work in an administration in trouble. Until he was fired during the Watergate scandal, he served as Richard Nixon's White House counsel. He has some thoughts on why the current president seems to be in such a pickle.

BRANCACCIO: John Dean, thanks for doing this.

JOHN DEAN: Pleasure.

BRANCACCIO: So an important vote in the U.S. Senate this week. The Senate essentially reining in the White House's war powers. The White House has to now go back to the Senate periodically to tell them about progress on the war and when the troops are coming home. There are also new rights for detainees overseas, access to the court system. What do you make of this?

JOHN DEAN: Well, certainly the Senate can't make foreign policy. They can influence foreign policy because they have the purse string. That became very clear in Vietnam when finally the Senate and the House had had enough and they cut the funds off and ended the war. Here we're not there yet. But they've made it very clear they want a president to have some kind of policy that shows the American people that troops are coming out.

They've also expressed very clearly that this unusually harsh treatment is not gonna be tolerated. You know, I must say that Watergate was embarrassing because of its stupidity. What's going on right now is embarrassing because of its inhumanity. And I think the Senate's responded to that.

BRANCACCIO: They're responding to this very important debate — we've covered a lot of this on the show — of what are the rights of detainees who have been detained in the U.S. war on terror. The administration would like it to be pretty open book, they get to do what they want.

JOHN DEAN: They're lobbying for less than would be present under the Geneva Conventions which in Iraq certainly doesn't work. That would be subject to the Geneva Conventions. So, I think it's an untenable position for the Vice President to be up there lobbying against those minimum standards of humanitarianism. And I think the Senate just made it clear they're not gonna tolerate it. Hopefully the House will stand up and do the same.

BRANCACCIO: There are three years left of the Bush administration. There are a lot of problems in this country and around the world that need to be tended to by public policy. It's too much at stake to allow an administration just to flounder around. Do you have any advice for the White House?

JOHN DEAN: They do have some problems. And one of the things that has trouble me from the outset is their policy of secrecy. They have been as secretive an administration that I've ever seen. Probably the most secret or secretive in modern history. This is now coming back to haunt them. Unless they get some transparency, unless they become more open--

BRANCACCIO: Some glasnost.

JOHN DEAN: Yes. That would be good. They're going to have continuing problems, as I see it.

BRANCACCIO: John, I've been reading your columns. You still have questions about the Vice President's role in the whole investigation surrounding the outing of a CIA agent which led to the indictment of I. Lewis Libby, the Vice President's right-hand man.

JOHN DEAN: I do. And I do that-- have those questions because of looking very closely at the indictment itself-- it's a very unusual indictment. Typically a federal indictment is a very tightly, bare bones, drawn document. Nothing's superfluous. Yet this indictment includes a lot of language about the Espionage Act, which is a very broad statute that makes it a crime either to intentionally or negligently to release national security information. There's nothing in the case against Libby that relates to the Espionage Act.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, he wasn't indicted for the Espionage Act.

JOHN DEAN: He was not.

BRANCACCIO: So what's it doing in the indictment?

JOHN DEAN: Good question. And that's why I have-- I think this is, to me, an indication that he may well have Cheney in his sights and be headed in that direction.

BRANCACCIO: For an administration that seems politically embattled, any hint that this investigation gets wider or is more complicated than we first thought is bad for them.

JOHN DEAN: I think any investigation of the White House is very difficult and potentially troubling because a prosecutor can run into things that are totally unexpected. Obviously an obstruction of justice case is not one that-- one looks for that runs into when investigating something like this.

I think the other thing is that I think really this investigation is sort of a defining moment between the use of leaks and official secrets, if you will. We don't have an Official Secrets Act. This case and how Fitzgerald treats it could resolve or decide that issue.

BRANCACCIO: An Official Secrets Act like Britain has, what, gives the government extraordinary power to keep things under wraps?

JOHN DEAN: It gives them the ability to prosecute people who release information. And that's exactly what the Espionage Act does on its, you know, on its face. It says either intentional or negligent releases of information can be prosecuted.

BRANCACCIO: And it makes this whole case much more than just about the political authority or not of the current White House. This is about our democracy as we know it.

JOHN DEAN: It's about our democracy as we know it. It's about freedom of the press. And also it's gonna delve into areas of national security that typically are not open. So-- we are at the edge of a can of worms, so to speak. And we just had a peek into it. And it's-- it could look ugly down there.

BRANCACCIO: 'Cause if ever there was a fellow who knows how a small investigation turns into a big can of worms, I guess it's you.

JOHN DEAN: Well, we wrote the book on what not to do. I hope they've read it.

BRANCACCIO: Well, John Dean, thank you very much.

JOHN DEAN: Thank you.


BRANCACCIO: For more on this, check out our Web site at pbs.org.

And next week on NOW, a little known federal law gives military recruiters unprecedented access to high schools. But what are they telling the kids?

ARLENE: They're telling them that there's a pool and basketball court in Iraq, and they won't have to go to war. Just endless, endless lies.

BRANCACCIO: And that's it for NOW. From Los Angeles, California, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you again next week.

BRANCACCIO: Connect to NOW online at pbs.org.

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