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"Whenever somebody got sick, they would take him back to Houston and just drop him on the street," says Alvarez. "The workers aren't even given the safety equipment they're supposed to get, and the government gets charged for that equipment."
Alvarez started harassing the contractor and, with the help of local Spanish-language media, eventually forced him to close up shop.
But the calls from New Orleans kept coming, so over Thanksgiving Alvarez drove east and hooked up with day laborers in Kenner and other NOLA suburbs. It was there he learned about two Hispanic contractors who weren't paying laborers for their work, stringing them along with promises of "Mañana, mañana." And that's when he did his thing.
"Juan is legit and smart as a tack," says Diana Dale, president of the Worklife Institute, which works with Alvarez on immigrant issues. "He is excellent at negotiating on behalf of vulnerable workers for withheld wages."
Over the next few days Alvarez hung around pickup sites and eventually found the contractors looking for more workers willing to gut moldy houses. All it took was a flash of his business card and a smattering of English to get their attention.
"As soon as you mention you belong to a community organization, they don't want to have anything to do with you," he says. "They will go and try to fix the problem, because they don't want to be on TV."
Alvarez says he shamed them for selling out fellow Hispanics and managed to retrieve more than $10,000 in back wages, later writing up his success in a report for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. No small feat, but he's more concerned about what kind of stuff the laborers inhaled while gutting the buildings.
"These people are going to be sick," he says, "and no matter how much money they made, if they don't get treatment, they're going to be dying in ten years."
Marylee Orr, executive director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, says her organization has found dangerously high levels of arsenic, bacteria, heavy metals and other toxic substances in the sediment covering the city. She's especially concerned for the health of immigrant laborers, since their jobs often require them to come in direct contact with contaminants.
She says a recent survey of about 500 workers found only two respirators.
"One guy had the respirator, but he didn't change his refills out," she says. "It was almost really worse than if he didn't have anything."
Every time a truck pulls up to the Shell station at Lee Circle, in the heart of New Orleans, a half-dozen men hop in the back, drywall dust floating off their boots. They jump in before wages have been negotiated, before it's even been determined if the driver's there for workers or just gas and cigarettes. (They hop out in the latter case and sheepishly rejoin the hundred or so workers standing around, eyeing the roundabout for incoming employment.)
"I've lived here for 20 years, and I don't remember ever seeing day laborers standing by a gas station waiting to be offered a job," says Martin Gutierrez, director of the Hispanic Apostolate of the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. "Those types of things you guys probably see every day in Houston, but we don't see that here. It's a new phenomenon."
Most of the laborers at this site are Hispanic, although there are some blacks and whites. They're all looking for work on this cool January morning, all observed by a giant statue of Robert E. Lee.
A black contractor pulls up and, after some negotiating, signals for two nearby Hispanics to hop in his truck, prompting a black laborer at the back of the pack to yell out, "You gonna take these guys here over a brother? That is wrong."
Racial tensions are running high in the Crescent City. Back in October, Mayor Ray Nagin got some flak for asking business leaders how he could "make sure New Orleans is not overrun with Mexican workers," and last month he made national headlines by declaring it would once again be a "chocolate city." The mayor's comments might have been poorly worded, but they summed up the concerns of many of his constituents, who realize immigrants have something that attracts contractors: the inability to complain effectively about substandard working conditions. (Nagin's office did not return repeated calls requesting comment for this story.)
A truck from ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, pulls up to the Shell station, and out hops Scott Hagy, a mustachioed manager who's running a team of documented workers. He's just here for gas, but he walks up to a group of laborers swarming around a truck and starts hollering, asking what the contractor plans to do if a worker gets injured.
"When this guy falls off the roof and breaks his leg, how's he going to help this guy?" he yells.
Hagy elaborates once the truck has left with a worker in tow:
"The contractors picking these guys up, on the surface it appears like a good thing. But on a daily basis, these guys get stiffed. These guys break their legs. These guys get hurt. People in the homes get sued. Who's going to take care of them?