Lilies of the Field

I’ve lost track of how many billions of dollars have been spent on Hurricane Katrina. But because the world is what it is, it’s a certainty that some people are getting rich. And some people aren’t.

Manuel Roig-Franzia wrote in today’s Washington Post

The come-on was irresistible: Hop in the truck. Go to New Orleans. Make a pile of cash.

Arturo jumped at it. Since that day when he left Houston, more than two months ago, he has slept on the floors of moldy houses, idled endlessly at day-laborer pickup stops and second-guessed himself nearly every minute. …

… Arturo, a dour Mexican from Michoacan who did not want to disclose his last name for fear of deportation, stands at the nexus of the post-Hurricane Katrina labor crisis in New Orleans. A city desperate for workers is filling with desperate workers who either cannot find jobs or whose conditions are so miserable, and whose salaries are so low, that they become discouraged and leave.

Why would this be true? There’s a bunch of money, there’s work that needs to be done, there’s a whole mess of people — legal workers — who are out of work and need paychecks. Why are these elements not coming together harmoniously?

Part of the equation, we are told, is that the illegals are willing to take jobs that the native-born are unwilling to do. But let’s look:

At a New Orleans town hall meeting in Atlanta, displaced black civil rights activist Carl Galmon complained: “They’re bringing in foreign workers from South America, Central America and Mexico, paying them $5 an hour sometimes for 80 hours a week. They are undercutting the American labor force in New Orleans.”…

…For those who find work, conditions can be abominable, with laborers such as Rico Barrios and his wife, Guadalupe Garcia, slashing through the cough-inducing mold on walls in flooded Lakeview with only thin masks to shield their lungs, even though she is pregnant. “It’s hard,” said Barrios, who is from Mexico City, his face glistening with sweat.

Call me crazy, but seems to me that if some contractor offered a living wage and safer working conditions — proper masks come to mind — and helped workers find housing, then I bet they’d get plenty of applications. These contractors are getting billions in federal contracts. It’s not like these are startup companies operating at a loss until they get products on the shelves. They’re being paid to provide a service.

Seems to me the law of supply and demand would push those paychecks up a little higher. Why would anybody in America be expected to ruin their health for $5 an hour?

Roig-Franzia interviewed a number of bureaucrats and contractors who called for a change in the law so that “guest workers” like Arturo could be brought into the country legally. But I keep thinking that if the goal is to bring New Orleans back to life — which may not be the goal the Bush Administration has in mind, but let’s pretend — wouldn’t it make sense to be sure some of those billions of federal dollars were used to pay decent wages to a whole lot of American citizens who need jobs? Who would then turn around and use their wages to buy groceries and shoes and toasters and thereby help retail businesses get back on their feet?

Whenever you hear some well-manicured white guy say “our people won’t take the hard jobs, so we have to bring in foreign workers,” what he’s really saying is that “our people” aren’t desperate enough to be exploited like slaves.

In fact, according to this article in last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a whole lot of native-born Americans are hard at work cleaning up after Katrina:

Drivers from across the country have come to cash in on the cleanup.

“We ain’t getting rich, but we’re working seven days a week,” said Tommy Whitley, who arrived from St. Augustine, Fla., three months ago. “They’re supposed to let us go home a couple of days before Christmas.” …

… A subculture of entrepreneurs has sprung up in response.

Hundreds of homemade signs advertising cleanup and “home gutting” services are nailed to power poles, bearing phone numbers like “1-888-AID-MOLD.”

Some of these workers are working for contractors. But one suspects a lot of enterprising Americans went into business for themselves because they wouldn’t take $5 an hour.

I know the big shots are always going to try to maximize their personal profits by getting labor as cheaply as they can. But I can’t believe we’re even talking about bringing in foreign workers to work for $5 an hour. This is insane.

6 thoughts on “Lilies of the Field

  1. Where is Susan Powter when we need her to yell, “Stop the Insanity”?

    This is Geourge Bush’s America. This is the America that the rightwing, moral values crowd have created.

    Why does W think any one is interested in listening to him during primetime? I have better things to do like watch and old Dolly Parton schmaltzy Christmas movie.

  2. …and soon there will be a crack down on these independants becuase they take even the smallest of crumbs the big boys pie…

  3. The reason the pay is so low is that there are too many levels of subcontracting. I heard a piece about just this over the weekend on pacifica radio. Government pays Halliburton $24 to clean a given volume of muck. They subcontract to someone for $20, who subcontracts to someone for $16, and this goes on and on, with evreyone getting their cut, until the final subcontractor, the one who does the job, is only getting $4.

    So then he either hires illegals, or doesn’t pay the workers, or both.

    Ain’t capitalism grand?

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