This story was originally reported for and published in El Diario La Prensa.
NEW ORLEANS — U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis has given assurances that the federal government plans to protect workers’ rights during the Gulf oil spill cleanup – regardless of their immigration status.
“My purpose is to assist the workers with respect to safety and protection,” Solis said in an interview during a visit to Louisiana last week where she met with community leaders and response workers. “We’re protecting all workers regardless of migration status because that’s the federal law.”
The central concerns of the Department of Labor in the Gulf are monitoring the health and safety of workers who may be exposed to toxic substances – including oil and chemical dispersants – and upholding employees’ rights to fair pay and overtime under federal law, Solis explained.
“If there are complaints of people not being paid adequate wages or loss of overtime or wage theft, or if they feel that they’re in a harmful situation where they may be exposed to contaminants or something that might cause them fear or a health risk, they should call our OSHA office,” she added.
However, the secretary confirmed that her department was aware that agents from the local office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), had visited at least two work sites on the Louisiana coast in May to verify the legal status of Hispanic workers. While ICE activities are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Department of Labor, Solis said, “We have been talking with ICE and I know that they’re working on that issue now.”
In May, federal agents visited two large staging operations on the Louisiana Coast, in Venice and in Hopedale. The St. Bernard’s sheriff, whose office presides over the Hopedale operation, admitted last week that he had asked ICE to investigate the site because he feared “criminal elements” would arrive in the parish, lured by cleanup jobs.
No arrests were made. There are around 120 legal, Hispanic residents employed at the Hopedale site.
Solis said, “I hadn’t heard that about a sheriff. I did hear that some business contractors actually requested ICE to come in to verify employment.” This could not be independently verified.
The Secretary of Labor spent two days in Louisiana, the state that has been hit hardest by the BP oil spill, which began on April 20. Solis commented that cleanup work was a boon for Hispanic workers, many of whom moved to the region to help the rebuilding effort after Hurricane Katrina, and have been hit hard by the economic recession. “We know there are a lot of people that lost their jobs and are unemployed now so here’s an opportunity for the Latino community to come forward and participate,” she said.
In the course of her visit, she stopped to meet a crew of 20 Latino cleanup workers in Port Fourchon. Their supervisor, Victor Carías, said the secretary’s visit on Wednesday signified his crew’s work was being acknowledged. “That means they’re taking care of us, that we’re someone, they know that we’re doing our job, we’re doing it right.”
For a population that often works in the shadows, Solis’ visit was meaningful. “She just came to talk to this crew, the Spanish crew. And that’s really amazing. And I was so happy when she came over here and she asked us if we have any concern, any question, bring it to her and she will fix it,” Carías said.