Federal government concerned about safety and possible exploitation of immigrant workers in Sandy cleanup

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis met with immigrant day laborers on Staten Island, urging them to report unsafe conditions and missed wages. Officials want to avoid mistakes made during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, during which immigrants, many of them undocumented, performed much of the dirtiest cleanup for little pay and with inadequate protective gear.

By Erica Pearson, Thursday, November 29, 2012, 8:33 PM. Source: NYDailyNews.com

Hilda Solis in Staten Island

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis looks over damage from Hurricane Sandy on Baden Place in Midland Beach, Staten Island, on Thursday. She is concerned immigrant workers, especially the undocumented, may not come forward about unsafe conditions and missed pay despite being protected by labor laws.

As construction workers in areas devastated by Sandy rip out ruined insulation and clear moldy walls, the feds want to make sure laborers are safe and aren’t being ripped off.

In Staten Island’s Port Richmond section Thursday, U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis met with immigrant day laborers and told them she is concerned about the health and safety of Sandy cleanup workers.

“We want to know where there are problems so we can find solutions,” said Solis, who also toured a worksite in damaged Midland Beach. “Don’t be afraid to call us. Everything is confidential, and we are here to protect.”

Immigrants who are in the country illegally and unauthorized to work are protected by labor laws but may be wary of reporting missed wages or unsafe conditions.

The feds say cleanup work can be very hazardous.

“It’s exposure to mold and contaminants, but also just basic hazards like falling off of roofs, chainsaws when you are cutting up trees, getting contaminants in water, getting crushed by limbs falling down,” said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The feds and immigrant advocates are trying to prevent Hurricane Katrina’s mistakes from replaying in Sandy’s aftermath. In Louisiana, a huge influx of immigrant laborers, many undocumented, were hired by contracting firms to do much of the dirtiest cleanup for little pay.

Studies found contractors often did not provide protective gear like gloves and masks.

At the Centro del Inmigrante on Castleton Ave., Executive Director Gonzalo Mercado has been hosting OSHA safety demonstrations for workers and plans to provide hundreds of free high-quality masks and gloves to Sandy cleanup workers.

“Surgical masks are not good enough,” he said.


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