United States

Hurricane Katrina Aftermath

United States

Labor Force in New Orleans After Hurricane Katrina

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in August 2005, thousands of men and women traveled to the city eager to find work in clean up and rebuilding efforts. As work got underway, the media reported that some employers in the Gulf Coast area had failed to pay their workers or to provide them with adequate safety equipment and housing. Workers alleged their employers paid them so poorly that they could not afford to buy food. Reports of abuse—coupled with the easing of labor regulations, virtually no monitoring of construction sites, and the city’s lack of adequate housing and healthcare—suggested that unscrupulous contractors could easily be exploiting their workers.

Against this background, the International Human Rights Law Clinic and the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, collaborated with the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University to conduct a study of the situation of construction workers in New Orleans. The study took place in March 2006 and examined both documented and undocumented workers. Documented workers include U.S. citizens, permanent residents, work visa holders, and those workers with temporary immigration status, while undocumented workers are immigrants who are considered to be living in the United States illegally, although some may be eligible for legal status but have not obtained it. The study was published in June 2006 as Rebuilding After Katrina: A Population-Based Study of Labor and Human Rights in New Orleans.

Research showed:

  • Nearly half of the reconstruction workforce in New Orleans is Latino, of which 54 percent is undocumented.
  • Documented and undocumented workers are vulnerable to exploitation by their employers because of inadequate legal protection and the failure on the part of federal and local authorities to monitor construction sites.
  • Undocumented workers are especially at risk of exploitation.
  • Few workers have medical insurance or seek medical care.
  • Few workers report harassment by police.
  • U.S. immigration laws are at odds with national and international labor standards.

Related Publications on Labor After Hurricane Katrina

Patrick Vinck, Phuong N. Pham, Laurel E. Fletcher, and Eric Stover. “Inequalities and Prospects: Ethnicity and Legal Status in the Construction Labor Force After Hurricane Katrina.” Organization & Environment22, no. 4 (December 2009): 470–78.

Laurel E. Fletcher, Phuong Pham, Eric Stover, and Patrick Vinck. “Latino Workers and Human Rights in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law 28, no. 1 (2007): 107–62.

Katrina Research in the News

Study Sees Increase in Illegal Hispanic Workers in New Orleans,” by Leslie Seaton, New York Times, June 8, 2006.

Human rights researchers find widespread problems after 2004 tsunami,” by Noel Gallagher, UC Berkeley News Center, October 19, 2005.

Trafficking in the United States

In 2004, the Human Rights Center collaborated with the DC-based antislavery organization Free the Slaves to carry out the first large-scale study of slavery in the United States. The resulting report, Hidden Slaves: Forced Labor in the United States, was published in September 2004 and documented the nature and scope of forced labor in the U.S. from January 1998 to December 2003. It is the first study to examine the numbers, demographic characteristics, and origins of victims and perpetrators of forced labor in the United States and the adequacy of the U.S. response to this growing problem since the enactment of the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (Trafficking Act) of 2000. The report was also published in the Berkeley Journal of International Law in 2005.

Drawing from data collected from the report above in addition to research conducted by David Tuller, the Human Rights Center also published Freedom Denied: Forced Labor in California in February 2005. The purpose of the report was to provide state legislators and policy-makers with information about the practice of forced labor in California. It also addressed the need to strengthen criminal sanctions, improve training of law enforcement on how to identify trafficking and forced labor cases, and clarify procedures through which victims can receive appropriate social services and other benefits.

Related Publications

Rachel Shigekane. “Human Trafficking.” In World at Risk: A Global Issues Sourcebook, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2009), 685-704.

Rachel Shigekane. “Rehabilitation and Community Integration of Trafficking Survivors in the United States.” Human Rights Quarterly 29, no. 1 (February 2007): 112–36.