Gulf Watch: Advocacy group fights post-Ike worker abuse

A history of worker abuse is repeating itself along the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of workers who were hired to clean up the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in Texas say they have been robbed of wages, injured on the job and stranded with no place to go.

It is what is being called the "disaster after the disaster," contractors employ low-wage, often immigrant, workers to clean up debris, repair damaged roofs and restore flood-soaked buildings and then renege on promises to pay workers after that work is completed, leaving these workers with no money and nowhere to go.

The abuse occurring in Houston and other Texas Gulf Coast cities is one workers also faced in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In fact, the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, a nonprofit working to recover uncollected wages, say that some of the scamming contractors cited for worker abuse in Katrina have also turned up in worker complaints in Texas.

"Some of the workers told us 'this was the same company that abused me after Katrina'," Francisco Arguelles with the Justice Center told Fox 26 News in Houston.

The Associated Press reports that on top of being denied wages other complaints range from workers who were brought in from other cities and promised housing, then forced to sleep outdoors on concrete sidewalks to others who contracted skin and eye infections and rashes from working in contaminated buildings. Workers are often not provided protective gear and employers refuse to pay for medical treatment.

The Associated Press offers an example of one such perpetrator:

In Texas after Ike, one Florida-based company, Timberwood Carpentry, recruited 1,000 workers from Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia and Texas for cleanup work in Port Arthur, Galveston and Texas. It offered lodging, food, transportation and months of work, Boston said. However, once workers got to Port Arthur, there were no hotel rooms. Instead, they had to sleep outside or in cars. About 160 workers reported wage theft, with a total of $121,681 in pay withheld from workers, according to the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center. Of that, only $35,770 has been recovered.

The Justice Center said nine other companies doing Ike-related business owe about $36,000 to 60 other workers. The center is working on behalf of those workers to mediate their pay disputes with the companies, which include cleanup, roofing and home repair firms.

In 2007 the National Immigration Law Center, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, and the Advancement Project published a report called "And Injustice for All: Workers' Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans" documenting poor working conditions for immigrant workers rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Chicago-based Interfaith Worker Justice also released a report in 2007, Working on Faith : A Faithful Response to Worker Abuse in New Orleans, which surveyed 218 reconstruction workers in the summer of 2006, found that 47 percent reported they didn't receive all the pay they were entitled to and 55 percent said they received no overtime pay.