November 4, 2005

Hunger Can Gore You Even Harder

By Javier Sierra

That’s what many bullfighters answer when asked why they risk their lives in the bullring.

And that’s what could be said by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Latino laborers who are fighting a fearsome beast —the pollution left behind by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the Gulf in general and New Orleans in particular.

These workers, most of them undocumented, are on the front lines of the fight to recover New Orleans from the storms’ disastrous consequences. They are taking on the bulk of the cleanup efforts —“the dirty work many Americans won’t take,” as the Associated Press put it.

“They are being exploited,” says Matt McClendon, a field organizer for the Laborers’ Union. “Latinos come to work hard for their fair share. But their living conditions are unacceptable. They are victims of their employers’ intimidation, and it’s a shame nobody is doing anything about it.”

New Orleans and other Gulf areas are a magnet for thousands of Latino laborers from Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, California and northern Mexico. Now the demand for cheap, abundant labor is huge because the task is huge and the conditions increasingly dire -the longer it takes to complete the cleanup efforts, the more pollution will settle in affected areas.

Latinos already comprise the vast majority of the cleanup teams in New Orleans, attracted by promises of $15 an hour, free and clean accommodations, and three meals a day. But in many instances, promises are written on the wind.

“I have seen many Latino workers, especially undocumented ones, fired for no reason at all,” says Frank “Pancho” Curiel, another Laborers’ Union organizer and a veteran of the struggle for fair workers’ rights led by César Chávez in the California fields. “This is worse than the conditions Chávez had to deal with. They lie to and exploit them with impunity because the workers are defenseless, they have no papers.”

The abuse, however, not only comes from employers but also from politicians. Facing the influx of Latino workers into his city, Mayor Ray Nagin worried, “How do I ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?” Nagin, an African-American, should look at himself in the mirror before repeating that question.

The truth is that thousands of skilled laborers from New Orleans refuse to be part of the cleanup efforts, which include cleaning restaurant refrigerators full of tons of rotten fish teeming with maggots and washing human excrement from the floors of the Superdome.

Workers are also exposed to a poisonous cocktail from thousands of abandoned cars, gas stations, millions of cubic yards of trash and, above all else, the facilities of the petrochemical industry, whose historically polluting practices earned the Mississippi Delta the nickname “Cancer Alley.”

These toxins ended up concentrated in the sludge, and eventually the dust, left behind by the receding floodwaters. has said that Residues in New Orleans are so toxic that the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals warned that “unintentional injuries pose the greatest current health risk.” In other words, workers better hope they don’t get cuts or other open wounds.

In some instances, cleaning companies make sure their employees use adequate protective equipment. But frequently, this is not the case.

“Many workers lack the training or the necessary gear to do this cleanup work,” Curiel says. “These people are being exposed to asbestos, which causes cancer, and toxic mold, which causes respiratory diseases, and they will pay the consequences in the future.”

Workers are also operating without the information they need to make a healthy decision. During a recent visit to New Orleans to inspect working conditions for Latinos, Sierra Club President Lisa Renstrom saw several laborers working without any special equipment. When she asked them why they were unprotected, one of them answered, “I am not worried. God takes care of me.”

The federal government is noticeably silent, and in this leadership vacuum people are forced to gamble with their health. The Environmental Protection Agency has acknowledged that dangerous toxins abound in New Orleans, but has refused to issue guidance on whether it is safe to be there and what risks the workers who choose to go there face. Latinos and non-Latinos alike look to the government to protect us, and a straightforward recommendation is needed now more than ever. This information needs to be provided in both English and Spanish.

In other words, our leaders must take hold of this fierce bull by the horns.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist.

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