The Disaster of Relief Jayati Ghosh

How quickly and easily those in power manage to divert our attention from the real issues of the day, and from the questions that are more inconvenient for themselves. Consider, for example, the extraordinary fallout of the Volcker Report, the peculiar result of an exercise which was stage-managed from beginning to end by a US government that has shown its complete contempt for both international law and the UN itself.

Quite apart from its other effects, this has completely diverted the attention of national and international media from the huge and ongoing corruption in Iraq. Currently the real scam is happening there, whereby the Iraqi people are not only under daily physical attack but are also deprived of even basic reconstruction because of the pervasive corruption of the American military contractors so beloved of the Bush administration.

This has meant that, even while tens of billions of dollars are supposedly spent by the US on “reconstruction” and American companies rake in the profits on such activity, Iraqi citizens continue to be denied basic services, the infrastructure continues to be in a shambles (and even more is destroyed by the day) and even workers for such companies are denied their due wages.

Yet none of this is documented, much less advertised and disseminated in the international press and other media, which maintains a veil of silence and allows the rampant looting of Iraq by its current rulers – both US and local – to persist. And because so much of what happens in Iraq now is explicitly hidden and non-transparent, it is extremely difficult to get any real sense of the actual extent of what is acknowledged to be widespread corruption.

We may still get some idea, though, from the instructive yet sorry example provided by relief work within the US – in the areas like New Orleans that were hit by Hurricane Katrina. The enormous damage caused by Katrina – and the complete failure of local and national governments to look after the citizens – are now well known. But the bleeding of the region continues, and is now being extended, by the manner of the post-disaster reconstruction and relief work.

The recovery of the city of New Orleans has been slow, especially because the City of New Orleans is now so impoverished and without federal support that it has been forced to lay off thousands of workers who could have played a crucial role in the much-needed reconstruction. But there were other areas that were affected, where it was expected that the US government would take a much more pro-active role in ensuring a rapid recovery.

For example, among the destruction caused by Katrina, a number of US military bases along the Gulf Coast of the US were affected, with the buildings destroyed and streets and other infrastructure badly in need of cleanup of the human and other debris. Since these were military installations, it was expected that the Bush regime would spare no expense in a rapid reconstruction, given both the current importance of the military and the close association of the Bush administration with a range of military contractors.

But the sleaziness of the subsequent deals is already having its effect. Immediately after Katrina, as part of “emergency measures:, President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers to pay “prevailing wages” for labour used to fulfil government contracts. The administration also waived the requirement for contractors rebuilding the Gulf Coast to provide valid employment eligibility forms (I-9 forms) completed by their workers.

These measures operated to increase the profitability of the contractors who were brought in for the reconstruction of the military bases. The foremost among these was Halliburton – the company which has recently benefited from so many US government in the United States, Iraq and Guantánamo Bay. The company here appeared in the form of its subsidiary, Kellogg Brown Root, now known simply as KBR.

The “emergency” labour market deregulation measures allowed Halliburton/KBR and its subcontractors to hire undocumented workers (usually migrants from Mexico and other countries in Central America) and pay them very low wages well below the legal minimum wage. Usually these migrants were brought in on promises of much higher wages, but their illegal status meant that they had no bargaining power and could not register any complaints, even with non-payment.

Intense political pressure has forced a reversal of these labour market measures – President Bush reinstated the Davis-Bacon Act in early November, while the Department of Homeland Security reinstated the I-9 requirements in late October. But these policies have already allowed extensive profiteering by these favoured companies beneath layers of legal and political cover.

There are documented cases of very young workers – often as young as 15 or 16 years old – being brought in from Mexican villages (especially poor regions such as Oaxaca) by subcontractors, made to work for weeks, and then not even paid at all, forced to sleep on the streets of New Orleans because they have nowhere else to go. The subcontracting companies in turn claim that they have let the workers go because they have not been paid for months by KBR, which meanwhile has continuously been receiving payment for the reconstruction work from the US government.

So the migrant workers are exploited and denied their dues, while local workers have not only lost all their material possessions as well as sometimes their family members, but even their jobs. And these local workers are not being used for the reconstruction work because they would have to be paid the minimum wages and be given basic workers’ rights.

If this is happening to “relief work” within the US, imagine the scale of worker oppression and corruption in countries like Iraq. And yet all of us in the rest of the world still allow representatives of such regimes to preach to us about corruption and supposedly murky deals.