Immigrants Expected to do the Heavy Lifting in Post-Sandy Reconstruction

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Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter. This is The World. In New York and New Jersey piecing back together the communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy will be a daunting task and who will do the hard work? History suggests immigrants are likely to play a major role. Immigrant labor made a major contribution to rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and estimates suggest that one out of five construction workers in the U.S. today is an undocumented immigrant. Patrick Vinck is a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He's the author of a study that examined the role of immigrant labor in post Katrina reconstruction. Vinck says it's likely a fairly similar story will play out post Sandy.

Patrick Vinck: Immigrants will be a big part of that workforce especially for the difficult task of cleaning up which are low wage, low skill work that typically is the market for a migrant worker.

Schachter: Now one of the things that your survey focused on was the hazards that undocumented workers faced in post Katrina New Orleans. What might the immigrants expect if history is any guide now with Sandy?

Vinck: Well, let's hope that history is not a guide and we can already see that the response to Sandy has been much faster and much more effective than what we saw after Hurricane Katrina where people were stranded for weeks and held for several days before arriving in New Orleans and other affected area. So the dynamic there is a little different. That being said we also have to see what will be done in terms of the labor requirements. In the aftermath of Katrina the government dropped the requirement to pay minimum wage for example. Dropped also the requirement for companies to prove the legal status of their worker that would work for them. That has not been the case so far.

Schachter: And the hazards that the immigrants might face?

Vinck: There are a number of hazards that the worker will face. The molds that might develop as the lack of electricity and water has been standing. Hazards related to clean up itself — removing debris and large amount of materials that are dangerous in themselves but also in conditions where they're unstable. And most importantly having no protective gear for most of that work. One of the things that we saw in New Orleans is that on one hand those workers had no way to seek help if they were working in unsafe conditions and they had no way of asking for protection for the work that they were supposed to do from the contractors. So they are in a very, very difficult situation.

Schachter: But as you say the U.S. Department of Labor hasn't changed any of the rules this time around, at least not yet?

Vinck: So far we haven't seen any of the rules change. That being said immigration enforcement is still there and that very often prevents undocumented worker from seeking help, from demanding that they work in safe conditions, so they will be working in that challenging environments regardless of the requirement from the federal government. By and large we can expect better conditions than what happened after Katrina for a range of reasons. I mean we learned a lot from Katrina. The response has been much faster and much better and we can imagine that working conditions will be better but there will be abuses, there are no questions about that.

Schachter: Patrick Vinck, is there a particular story you remember from your study of New Orleans that jumped out at you?

Vinck: I think it's the conditions in which the worker were living in the city. I mean one there were [INDISCERNIBLE 0:03:40.1] and people were just through a contractor would just go there and hire a number of people but they were sleeping in tents under bridges. They were sleeping in places where there was no electricity. They were sleeping in places where water had been standing and very, very unsafe conditions. So, these are the people who rebuild the city in Katrina and we owe them a lot. So, we just would like to see that their efforts and their work will be better rewarded in the case of Sandy.

Schachter: Patrick Vinck is a researcher at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He studied the contribution of the immigrant workforce in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Mr. Vinck, thank you.

Vinck: Thank you.