Author examines exploitation of workers after Katrina

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Stephanie Hepburn has written a book on the exploitation of human workers, in manual labor and other fields, inspired by the foreign workers she saw imported under brutal conditions to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Stephanie Hepburn has written a book on the exploitation of human workers, in manual labor and other fields, inspired by the foreign workers she saw imported under brutal conditions to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

In February 2006, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, Stephanie Hepburn and Miles Granderson decided to make New Orleans their home. But when Granderson, a native New Orleanian, took his fiancée for an initial tour of the storm’s devastation, Hepburn was shocked to see dozens of tents pitched on the grounds of City Park near Interstate 610. People who had come to the city to fill rebuilding jobs were living in tents because affordable housing had disappeared.

An Alabama company called Storm Force was charging workers $300 per month for a small plot to camp. Showers cost $5, according to a February 2006 article in “Salon.com.”

The subhuman living conditions reminded Hepburn, whose mother was born in Colombia, of the barrios outside of Bogotá. Seeing day laborers lined up on Carrollton Avenue, hoping for casual work, got her thinking.

“Something is not right,” she said.

An attorney with a particular interest in social justice issues, Hepburn began researching how workers in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast had been exploited as a consequence of a natural disaster. Seeing suffering close to home triggered her wider investigation of forced labor around the world. Now, after six years of interviewing case workers, attorneys and victims in 24 countries, Hepburn and her co-author Rita Simon have published their findings in a book, “Human Trafficking Around the World: Hidden in Plain Sight.” The book combines data with personal stories that make the legal intricacies accessible and interesting to any reader, she said.

“The lawlessness and high demand for cheap labor that tends to accompany the aftermath of natural disasters can create an atmosphere that is ripe for human trafficking,” she said.

At least nine large cases of exploitation in the Gulf Coast region, involving more than 3,728 alleged victims from Bolivia, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, India, Mexico, Panama, Peru, the Philippines and Thailand have been documented, she said.

“The pattern is the same, whether forced work or forced prostitution,” Hepburn said.

Forced labor exploitation actually is a much larger problem, involving 78 percent of the estimated 20.9 million human-trafficking victims worldwide.

Making the post-Katrina situation even worse, Homeland Security temporarily suspended the immigration-enforcement requirement of employers to confirm employee eligibility and identity for a 45-day period while the U.S. Department of Labor also suspended enforcement of job safety and health standards in the Gulf Coast states.

President George W. Bush took the additional step of temporarily suspending the Davis-Bacon Act, which guarantees fair wages for public works projects. Some local minimum-wage earners were fired so employers could hire immigrants for even less.

When infrastructure is disrupted and populations are in flux, there is often a sudden demand for low-wage jobs as well as opportunities for worker exploitation.

“It is a perfect situation for human trafficking,” Hepburn said.

One extreme example of immigrants exploited after Katrina involved Thai nationals, each of whom had paid $11,000 to a Thai recruiter who promised them visas and three years employment in the United States at $8.24 per hour.

A North Carolina human resource company then transported them to New Orleans to perform demolition work, sequestering them in hurricane-damaged buildings riddled with mold and debris without electricity or running water. Armed guards supervised the Thais and confiscated their return tickets, temporary visas and passports.

Without adequate food, the Thais trapped and ate pigeons to survive. Having paid an enormous employment fee left them deeply in debt, said Lori J. Johnson of Legal Aid of North Carolina, Farmworker Unit who represented the victims in court. Eventually, the Thai Embassy intervened and found several of the workers trapped in a seedy Tulane Avenue motel. They eventually won their case.

Many nations have ratified the United Nation’s Palermo Protocol, which is a worldwide anti-trafficking law, but there’s a lack of enforcement, she said.

Hepburn did her research from New Orleans, locating victims by contacting caseworkers and attorneys who were working on trafficking cases in their own countries. Anonymity was often required to protect the victims. Her purpose in writing the book was simply to stimulate awareness and discussion about the issue of worker exploitation.

“For example, if a reader is a shop owner, I hope that the book will get him or her to further examine the origins of the merchandise,” she said. Hepburn hopes both retailers and consumers might question whether anyone could have been exploited or trafficked in the production process.

“We often hear about green construction, but what about expanding the concept of environmentally friendly construction to include exploitation-free construction. After all, isn’t that better for the environment where we live?”