Gulf Coast Slaves
By Roberto Lovato
Tuesday 15 November 2005
Halliburton and its subcontractors hired hundreds of undocumented Latino
workers to clean up after Katrina - only to mistreat them and throw them out
Arnulfo Martinez recalls seeing lots of hombres del ejercito
standing at attention. Though he was living on the Belle Chasse Naval Base
near New Orleans when President Bush spoke there on Oct. 11, he didn't
understand anything the ruddy man in the rolled-up sleeves was saying to the
Martinez, 16, speaks no English; his mother tongue is Zapotec. He
had left the cornfields of Oaxaca, Mexico, four weeks earlier for the
promise that he would make $8 an hour, plus room and board, while working
for a subcontractor of KBR, a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton that
was awarded a major contract by the Bush administration for disaster relief
work. The job was helping to clean up a Gulf Coast naval base in the region
devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "I was cleaning up the base, picking up
branches and doing other work," Martinez said, speaking to me in broken
Even if the Oaxacan teenager had understood Bush when he urged
Americans that day to "help somebody find shelter or help somebody find
food," he couldn't have known that he'd soon need similar help himself. But
three weeks after arriving at the naval base from Texas, Martinez's boss,
Karen Tovar, a job broker from North Carolina who hired workers for a KBR
subcontractor called United Disaster Relief, booted him from the base and
left him homeless, hungry and without money.
"They gave us two meals a day and sometimes only one," Martinez
He says that Tovar "kicked us off the base," forcing him and other
cleanup workers - many of them Mexican and undocumented - to sleep on the
streets of New Orleans. According to Martinez, they were not paid for three
weeks of work. An immigrant rights group recently filed complaints with the
Department of Labor on behalf of Martinez and 73 other workers allegedly
owed more than $56,000 by Tovar. Tovar claims that she let the workers go
because she was not paid by her own bosses at United Disaster Relief. In
turn, UDR manager Zachary Johnson, who declined to be interviewed for this
story, told the Washington Post on Nov. 4 that his company had not been paid
by KBR for two months.
Wherever the buck may stop along the chain of subcontractors,
Martinez is stuck at the short end of it - and his situation is typical
among many workers hired by subcontractors of KBR (formerly known as Kellogg
Brown & Root) to clean and rebuild Belle Chasse and other Gulf Coast
military bases. Immigrants rights groups and activists like Bill Chandler,
president of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, estimate that
hundreds of undocumented workers are on the Gulf Coast military bases, a
claim that the military and Halliburton/KBR deny - even after the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency turned up undocumented workers in
a raid of the Belle Chasse facility last month. Visits to the naval bases
and dozens of interviews by Salon confirm that undocumented workers are in
the facilities. Still, tracing the line from unpaid undocumented workers to
their multibillion-dollar employers is a daunting task. A shadowy labyrinth
of contractors, subcontractors and job brokers, overseen by no single
agency, have created a no man's land where nobody seems to be accountable
for the hiring - and abuse - of these workers.
Right after Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, the Bush
administration relaxed labor standards, creating conditions for rampant
abuse, according to union leaders and civil rights advocates. Bush suspended
the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers to pay "prevailing wages" for
labor used to fulfill government contracts. The administration also waived
the requirement for contractors rebuilding the Gulf Coast to provide valid
I-9 employment eligibility forms completed by their workers. These moves
allowed Halliburton/KBR and its subcontractors to hire undocumented workers
and pay them meager wages (regardless of what wages the workers may have
otherwise been promised). The two policies have recently been reversed in
the face of sharp political pressure: Bush reinstated the Davis-Bacon Act on
Nov. 3, while the Department of Homeland Security reinstated the I-9
requirements in late October, noting that it would once again "exercise
prosecutorial discretion" of employers in violation "on a case-by-case
basis." But critics say Bush's policies have already allowed extensive
profiteering beneath layers of legal and political cover.
Halliburton/KBR, which enjoys an array of federal contracts in the
United States, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, has long drawn criticism for
its proximity to Vice President Dick Cheney, formerly Halliburton's CEO.
Halliburton/KBR spokesperson Melissa Norcross declined to respond directly
to allegations about undocumented workers in the Gulf. "In performing work
for the U.S. government, KBR uses its government-approved procurement system
to source and retain qualified subcontractors," she said in an e-mail. "KBR's
subcontractors are required to comply with all applicable labor laws and
provisions when performing this work."
Victoria Cintra is the Gulf Coast outreach organizer for
Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance, which recently partnered with relief
agency Oxfam America to help immigrant workers displaced by Katrina. She
says KBR is exposing undocumented workers like Martinez to unethical and
illegal treatment, even though they are supposed to be paid with federal
Katrina-recovery dollars to clean and rebuild high-security facilities like
the one President Bush recently visited. Cintra is one of several people
fighting to recover the wages owed the workers: She drives her beat-up,
chocolate-colored car across the swamps, damaged roads and broken bridges of
the Gulf Coast to track down contractors and subcontractors. With yellow
legal pad in hand, she and other advocates document abuses taking place at
Belle Chasse, the Naval Construction Battalion Center at the Seabee naval
base in Gulfport, Miss., and other military installations.
I was with Cintra when she received phone calls from several Latino
workers who complained they were denied, under threat of deportation, the
right to leave the base at Belle Chasse. Cintra also took me along on visits
to squalid trailer parks - like the one at Arlington Heights in Gulfport -
where up to 19 unpaid, unfed and undocumented KBR site workers inhabited a
single trailer for $70 per person, per week. Workers there and on the bases
complained of suffering from diarrhea, sprained ankles, cuts and bruises,
and other injuries sustained on the KBR sites - where they received no
medical assistance, despite being close to medical facilities on the same
bases they were cleaning and helping rebuild.
Cintra and other critics say there's been no accountability from
the corporate leaders who signed on the dotted line when they were awarded
multimillion-dollar Department of Defense contracts. "The workers may be
hired by the subcontractors," Cintra says, "but KBR is ultimately
"Latino workers are being invited to New Orleans and the South
without the proper conditions to protect them," adds Cintra, who recently
provided tents to Martinez and several other unpaid Mexican workers who fled
Belle Chasse for Gulfport after being dismissed by Tovar. Cintra, a Cuban
exile and born-again Christian, has since seen a small tent city of homeless
immigrants spring up in the yard of her church, Pass Road Baptist, in
Gulfport. "This is evil on top of evil on top of evil," she says. "The Bush
administration and Halliburton have opened up a Pandora's box that's not
going to close now."
Halliburton/KBR is the general contractor with overarching
responsibility for the federal cleanup contracts covering Katrina-damaged
naval bases. Even so, there is an utter lack of transparency with the
process - and that invites malfeasance, says James Hale, a vice president of
the Laborers' International Union of North America. "To my knowledge, not
one member of Congress has been able to get their hands on a copy of a
contract that was handed out to Halliburton or others," Hale says. "There is
no central registry of Katrina contracts available. No data on the jobs or
scope of the work." Hale says that his union's legislative staff has pressed
members of Congress for more information; apparently the legislators were
told that they could not get copies of the contracts because of "national
"If the contracts handed out to these primary contractors are
opaque, then the contracts being let to the subcontractors are just plain
invisible," Hale says. "There is simply no ability to ascertain or monitor
the contractor-subcontractor relationships. This is an open invitation for
exploitation, fraud and abuse."
Congress has heard a number of complaints recently about
Halliburton/KBR's hiring practices, including the alleged exploitation of
Filipino, Sri Lankan, Nepalese and other immigrant workers paid low wages on
military installations in Iraq. And KBR subcontractor BE&K was a focus of
Senate hearings in October, for the firing of 75 local Belle Chasse workers
who said that they were replaced by "unskilled, out-of-state,
out-of-country" workers earning $8 to $14 for work that typically paid $22
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who has been an outspoken critic of the
use of undocumented workers at Belle Chasse and on other Katrina cleanup
jobs, said in a recent statement, "It is a downright shame that any
contractor would use this tragedy as an opportunity to line its pockets by
breaking the law and hiring a low-skilled, low-wage and undocumented work
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., is also against the practice, citing its
"serious social ramifications." As he told Salon, it devastates "local
workers who have been hit twice, because they lost their homes."
Seventeen-year-old Simitrio Martinez (no relation to Arnulfo) is
another one of the dozens of workers originally hired by Tovar, the North
Carolina job broker working under KBR. "They were going to pay seven dollars
an hour, and the food was going to be free, and rent, but they gave us
nothing," says the thin Zapotec teenager. Simitrio spent nearly a month at
the Seabee base. "They weren't feeding us. We ate cookies for five days.
Cookies, nothing else," he says.
Simitrio, his co-workers, and the dozens of KBR subcontractors that
employ them operate under public-private agreements like federal Task Order
0017, which defines the scope of work to be fulfilled under the contracts.
Under the multimillion-dollar Department of Defense contract, KBR is
supposed to provide services for "Hurricane Katrina stabilization and
recovery at Naval Air Station Pascagoula, Naval Air Station Gulfport,
Stennis Space Center and other Navy installations in the Southeast Region,"
according to a Defense Department press release.
But the details of the agreements remain murky. "Not only is it
very difficult to see the actual signed DoD contracts, but it is nearly
impossible to see the actual task orders, which assign the goods or services
the government is buying," says Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project
on Government Oversight in Washington. The military can ask for goods and
services on an as-needed basis, he says, which means that the contracts,
which add up to tens of millions of dollars, can remain open ended.
According to DoD press statements, the contracts call for considerable
manual labor, including "re-roofing of most buildings, barracks, debris
removal from the entire base, water mitigation, mold mitigation, interior
and exterior repairs to most buildings, waste treatment plants, and all
incidental related work."
Simitrio and any other workers on the high-security military bases
must get permission before entering the guarded gates, where they get patted
down by M-16-wielding military police. Responsibility for getting
private-sector construction and cleanup workers on the bases rests with the
general contractor - in KBR's case, security chief Kevin Flynn. One of
Flynn's responsibilities is to negotiate passes and entry for KBR
subcontractors - and their hires - to do the work stipulated by the task
Yet, following several complaints by Landrieu, and just a few days
after President Bush visited the Belle Chasse base, agents from the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raided the facility and detained
10 workers who ICE spokeswoman Jamie Zuieback said had "questionable"
Representatives of Halliburton/KBR do not acknowledge the existence
of undocumented workers providing labor for their operations on the Gulf
Coast bases. Flynn suggested speaking to the U.S. military, who he said "has
real strict control" and would know whether there were undocumented workers.
"We have workers from all ethnic groups on the base," Flynn said. "To the
best of my knowledge, there are no undocumented workers."
Steve Romano, head of housing on the Belle Chasse base, said, "We
have no relationship with [KBR] at all. I have no idea what that's about." A
similar response was given by an official at the base's health facility when
asked about undocumented workers who complained about health issues and
injuries sustained on the KBR sites. The only military person to acknowledge
seeing Latino workers was a watch commander who greeted me at an entry to
the base. The commander estimated there were 100 such workers there.
Meanwhile, representatives with the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance
say they received calls from undocumented workers at Belle Chasse who
estimated there were more than 500, or "about eight busloads" of immigrant
Texas-based DRS Cosmotech is another subcontractor that provided
cleanup crews to Halliburton/KBR in the Gulf. Roy Lee Donaldson, CEO of the
company, refused to respond to accusations of non-payment and exploitation
leveled at his company by several workers, including 55-year-old Felipe
Reyes of Linares, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. (Donaldson hung up the phone when I
identified myself as a reporter.)
"Mr. Donaldson promised us we'd live in a hotel or a house. We
lived in tents and only had hot water that smelled like petroleum," Reyes
said. The city of Belle Chasse has been identified in recent years as one of
the most toxically polluted areas in the entire region, with several major
energy companies operating there. A wide range of advocacy groups have
warned about serious health risks facing Katrina cleanup workers.
"They didn't want to pay us for two weeks of work. So we stopped
working. We started a huelga [strike] on the base" added Reyes, who along
with other workers, says he was later paid $1,100 - only part of what he
says he was owed.
Another KBR subcontractor, Alabama-based BE&K, says it is not
responsible for keeping track of the workers. BE&K spokesperson Susan Wasley
said, "I can't say that we require our subcontractors' employees to produce
documentation for us, because that's what our subcontractor as employer has
to do. That's his responsibility."
At the bottom of the KBR subcontracting pyramid are job brokers
like Tovar and Gregorio Gonzalez, who helped hire laborers for Florida-based
On Site Services, another subcontractor that reportedly failed to pay wages
owed to workers in the Gulf Coast. The job brokers find workers by placing
ads in Spanish-language newspapers like La Subasta and El Dia in Houston;
the ads typically promise room, board and pay in the range of $1,200 a week.
Job brokers also run television ads on Spanish-language stations like
Univision. And they attend job fairs in places like Fresno, Calif.
Not all subcontractors refuse to discuss their links to KBR. Luis
Sevilla is pretty open about it if you can get to the crowded hangar on the
restricted premises of the Seabee naval base where he and his crew sleep and
work. Sevilla put together crews for KBR subcontractors to remove asbestos
and do other construction work; his workers told me they are paid and
treated well. Asked about the people who own the R.V. with a "KBR" logo
outside the hangar where his workers crowd into small tents, Sevilla says,
"They contract with many, many companies." Interviews with members of
Sevilla's crew revealed a number of undocumented workers.
Despite the evidence of undocumented workers cleaning up after
Katrina, Halliburton/KBR maintains that it runs its operations within the
bounds of the law. "KBR operates under a rigorous Code of Business Conduct
that outlines legal and ethical behaviors that all employees and
subcontractors are expected to follow in every aspect of their work,"
spokesperson Norcross said by e-mail. (She did not respond to several
requests for a phone interview.) "We do not tolerate any exceptions to this
Code at any level of our company."
Standing in spitting distance of the KBR-branded R.V., which is
parked as if it were guarding the hangar, Jose Ruiz of Nicaragua knows that
his role in the Katrina cleanup is anonymous at best. "I don't have any
papers, kind of like in that song by Sting - 'I'm an illegal alien,'" says
Ruiz, who lived in the United States for many years before arriving to work
for Sevilla at the Seabee base. "That's the way it is."