Organizing Against 'Modern Day Slavery' in New Orleans

Matt Olson
Date Published: 
October 1, 2007

In a modest office in the Central Business District of New Orleans, the Workers Center for Racial Justice continues to work in partnership with guest workers and day laborers two years after Hurricane Katrina and the failure of federal levees devastated the city.  The center organizes to restore human rights to workers, putting their efforts both toward day-to-day gains and through systemic changes.  Most problems of worker abuse and exploitation persist among contractors, but earlier this year two worker organizations formed: the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity and the Congress of Day Laborers.

Daniel Castellanos-Contreras, a plaintiff in a guest worker lawsuit against a New Orleans hotel chain, spoke on a panel at the first ever U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta in June. To thundering applause, he summed up the violation of human rights for guest workers who must sign contracts with a single employer: “We’re required to obey that employer because if we don’t they can deport us and we will lose everything that we put in to come here—that we wanted to get here—and what we call that is modern day slavery.”

Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with the Workers Center, described the everyday abuses incurred by day laborers from contractors and police. “The level of intimidation and violence, it’s not only psychological, the social power dynamic, it’s very physical,” Gonzalez said, referring to contractors who threatened workers with guns to avoid paying wages.  “People don’t get protective gear ever, people don’t get lunch breaks. Any sort of labor violation you can imagine happens in New Orleans.”


The day laborer population has tripled its pre-flood levels in New Orleans and surrounding areas, expanding from workers seeking employment on two or three corners to nineteen.  The increase is a direct response to the new construction jobs available to repair some of the 200,000 homes flooded in the Greater New Orleans area. The organizers focus on the five most attended corners to address harassment by local and national police, rights to seek employment and wage theft claims.

The Congress of Day Laborers, a worker-led organization established a year ago under the umbrella of the Workers Center for Racial Justice, facilitates conversations between workers about the issues that affect them and builds leadership within that community. 

A day laborer is “someone who tries to find work from day to day,” according to the Workers Center.  “We always emphasize the fact that we work with day laborers not Latino immigrants, not with undocumented immigrants,” clarified Jacinta Gonzalez.  She further stressed the center’s openness to work on any issue with any day laborer regardless of race. 

 “A lot of the organizing we do is just to have workers have conversations with the police to resolve where they can stand.  What their rights are, make arrangements with owners of private property around there,” Gonzalez said.  “[For instance] tomorrow morning we’re going to have a meeting with the church that is located right across the street from the corner where workers stand” by Lowe’s on Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans.

In early August, a contingent of leaders in the Congress of Day Laborers went to the National Conference of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) in Washington, D.C.  They attended several workshops to develop their leadership skills, including how they communicate workers’ rights. 

The trip further prompted organizers to restructure how wage claims are processed due to both the number of claims reported and in consideration of the financial deficit often incurred when cases are taken to court.  “Most workers have at least four or five cases of wage theft where they work from anything from a few hours to weeks where they don’t get paid,” Gonzalez said. “I met one worker who has gotten paid every day he’s worked in New Orleans.”  Currently, with the assistance of NDLON, they are studying models other organizations use across the country. 

The Center also works to build solidarity between latino and black workers, considering it an investment in the long-term fight for racial justice. Similarly, they try to create spaces in which all workers feel safe from harassment.  Black day laborers compose an estimated thirty percent of those seeking employment on corners.  Harassment is a problem for day laborers regardless of race.  In an August police incident, three black laborers and seven latino laborers were arrested; in another, nine laborers, mostly black, were handcuffed and left to stand in the sun for two hours. 

Despite the similar experiences of workers on the corners, building unity remains a difficult process. “Interracial organizing, especially on day labor corners in a city, looks very different than it does when you have a more stable industry,” Gonzalez stated. “When a contractor pulls up, and latino and black workers run to the truck and they’re having a discussion over who’s going to go get a job that day and neither of them have worked all week, it has a higher level of intensity [than in other situations].”

There are simple things that go a long way: acknowledging and dignifying every person with conversation when organizing on the corner, making announcements in both English and Spanish and keeping an open invitation to “Know Your Rights” trainings and other political education provided by the Congress of Day Laborers.  The Workers Center, for instance, is hosting a workshop on African American history in New Orleans.  The Workers Center and the Congress continue to partner with several black-led community organizations such as Safe Streets/Strong Communities, Survivors Council and Peoples’ Institute for Survival and Beyond to collectively address and unite the causes of black and latino workers. 

The Workers Center has a long-term vision of a day laborer safe space, which would alleviate many of the organizing and communication difficulties that crop up in the day-to-day work from corner to corner among an inherently mobile population. 

“A day labor designated area would mostly be a place where people could actually stand and not be harassed by police, have a space where they could organize and have a conversation.  The most basic things that you need to organize are lacking in these scenarios,” explained Gonzalez.  “You have high turnover, you have very unstable situations, you have the police, you don’t have people able to transport themselves to other locations to have meetings. So any meeting means you have to orchestrate pick up times for everybody.”

Many cities have successfully created stable safe spaces, but in New Orleans amid the other instabilities, finding a location remains a secondary goal.  The problem is one familiar to post-Katrina New Orleans organizers, and as local teacher and writer Kalamu Ya Salaam said of that effort, “there is no substitute for face-to-face organizing around the needs of people within specific conditions…Our first priority is to survive. Our second priority is to struggle.”


Through the U.S. Government, contractors can hire foreign workers for domestic jobs if they certify no one will do those jobs locally.  Workers in the H-2B Visa Program, commonly referred to as the guest worker program, are often the most desperate and vulnerable, paying thousands of dollars to recruiters to get a full-time U.S. job. 

Guest workers in New Orleans and throughout Louisiana formed The Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity in late January 2007 in partnership with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice.  It is a membership organization led by guest workers from various professions who hold H-2B visas. They work closely with guest worker co-organizers of the Workers Center Daniel Castellanos-Contreras, an H-2B visa holder, and Jacob Horwitz. 

“The story that the Allianza tells is that the guest worker program is basically a program that looks a lot like slavery,” Horwitz explained.  “You have a recruiter that goes to another country—a slavecatcher—who brings people in under false promises.  When people have gotten here, they’re put in situations where they’re completely controlled.  The laws, or the visa, create and allow that situation and employers exploit it.” 

In May 2007, guest workers won a “landmark” lawsuit against Decatur Hotels, a New Orleans hotel chain. “The lawsuit was one of the tactics that the workers used. It’s really exciting that we had the decision where the judge said guest workers are also people and also workers and the law applies to them as well as everybody else.”

The latest organizing campaign pivoted around the town of West Lake, Louisiana—more than two hundred miles west of New Orleans—where recruited workers were put in run down houses and for weeks were not given work, at which point they decided to organize.  When the stories were told to community organizers and Katrina survivors in New Orleans last February, they were spurred to stop what they recognized as modern slavery.

“Together with 40 workers, Katrina survivors from New Orleans came to West Lake and went into a citizens arrest action under slavery laws and the 13th amendment,” recalled Horwitz, who lived in West Lake for almost two months. “Black folks saying ‘we won’t stand for slavery, this is slavery.’”  

The workers and supporters pressured local police to enter the office of Matt Redd, the offending recruiter, and impound the passports there.  After marching over to the sheriff’s office, all of the passports were remarkably returned to the workers with evidence tags.

The tactic was extremely successful, but workers continue to demand an investigation into Matt Redd by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.  They requested that Redd’s recruitment certification be revoked. 

“Our whole framework here [is that] in the wake of Hurricane Katrina black workers have been systematically locked out of jobs, locked out of the city,” Horwitz said. “And the guest worker program is a great example of that, whereas immigrants have been brought in but completely exploited.”

As members of the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity transfer to other locations, the Workers Center sees its role increasing nationally. “It’s not just in the Gulf Coast,” Horwitz emphasized, citing a group of guest workers that moved to Rhode Island. “One of the challenges of doing this organizing is workers are only here for a short time, that’s the whole nature of the beast. So as our members spread out, we’re still in touch with them and some of them are very well organized.”  A new campaign may revolve around how the Workers Center can turn its mobile membership network to an advantage in long-term organizing.


Local organizations have supported the organizing work and human needs of the day laborers and guest workers in New Orleans and beyond.

Since contractors rarely provide workers with protective gear, even in the particularly dangerous field of construction work, healthcare is crucial.  As an alternative to inaccessible physicians, the Latino Health Outreach Project of the Common Ground Collective treats day laborers once a week on the MLK Ave and Claiborne Ave. corner regardless of documentation.  Also, LHOP see people before every meeting of the Congress of Day Laborers.  

Educating workers about both their rights and the English language remains crucial to balancing the power dynamic between workers and contractors. The Hispanic Apostolate teaches English as a Second Language to 300 students and provides advocacy work, as does the Workers Resource Center, a local branch of the national Interfaith Workers Justice, which also provides resources for the Portuguese-speaking immigrant community.  

The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Louisiana Justice Initiative provided lawyers for the hotel guest workers in their legal victory this past May and many legal clinics, including the Pro Bono Project and the Loyola Workplace Justice Legal Clinic, review wage theft claims.