Interfaith group seeks ‘ethical commission’ to direct recovery effort

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- An interfaith group of religious leaders said they would ask the White House and Congress to set up an "ethical reconstruction commission" to direct recovery of Gulf Coast areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The proposal, advanced at a Sept. 23 press conference held by Interfaith Worker Justice, would put former Gulf-area residents to work and assist displaced workers; protect workers' safety and health; ensure adequate family supports for such federal programs as Medicaid and food stamps; expand the network of worker centers for immigrant and other low-wage workers; and restore all aspects of federal contract compliance -- including prevailing wage and affirmative-action requirements.

"The underside of a city whose primary business is tourism is that the jobs of so many of its people are minimum-wage jobs washing dishes, making beds, cleaning hotel rooms and waiting tables," said Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, former head of Catholic Charities USA until he left three years ago to become the Jesuits' New Orleans provincial superior. "When you mix poverty with hurricanes, the combination is deadly."

Father Kammer added, "We will need to ensure that schools teach, that those in political office serve their communities before all other interests, that reconstruction resources are targeted to the common good and to those most in need, and that all of us recognize the lingering chasm that racism has created in our nation and respond to it in ways that reach across all the divisions that separate us."

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who heads the Network Catholic social justice lobby, said, "As we stand here, countless immigrant communities have been devastated by Katrina and are about to be impacted by Hurricane Rita. Tens of thousands of these victims are undocumented workers in restaurants and other industries who have seen their livelihoods swept away."

"Thousands more are their children and other family members who have lost everything and are thus in immediate need of help. After they have given us so much, it is unconscionable to turn our backs on them now," Sister Campbell added.

"The response of our government to their pain has been wholly inadequate," she said. "The Department of Homeland Security has stated that immigrants, no matter how desperate their plight, are not immune from deportation proceedings when they provide required information for government aid. ... As a nation founded on principles of fairness and the common good, we cannot allow this injustice to continue."

Participants at the press conference reserved their harshest criticism for President George W. Bush's suspension Sept. 8 of the federal Davis-Bacon Act in 154 county and civil parish jurisdictions affected by Hurricane Katrina. The law mandates that federal contractors pay the "prevailing wage" in the locality where the work is done.

Randall Scott, executive director of the Workers Injury Law & Advocacy Group, said the suspension of Davis-Bacon would mean not only "inadequate wages," but loss of other benefits such as medical insurance, a lack of oversight of holdbacks on funding to protect workers and "an open invitation for contractors to misclassify workers, exposing them to catastrophic losses for themselves and their families when the are injured or become ill."

The New York Times reported Sept. 26 that more than 80 percent of the $1.5 billion in contracts signed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for Katrina-related rebuilding costs were awarded without bidding or with limited competition. An Interfaith Worker Justice backgrounder on its ethical reconstruction commission proposal noted pending legislation in the House that could categorize all no-bid contracts granted in national emergencies as "commercial items" whose "purchase" scrutiny would be outside the scope of allowable governmental audits.

Kim Bobo, the founding director of Interfaith Worker Justice, urged that the Gulf Coast be rebuilt using the same principles used by Old Testament prophet Nehemiah, who rebuilt Jerusalem and its walls.

"First, Nehemiah did a comprehensive assessment of what was needed. He didn't give contracts to his friends before thoroughly assessing the problems," Bobo said.

"Everyone had a share in the rebuilding" of Jerusalem, she said, and "Nehemiah redistributed the wealth and resources for generating income."

While "it doesn't make sense to give folks fields and vineyards" as in Nehemiah's time, Bobo added, "it does make sense to create jobs that pay living wages and benefits. The ethical reconstruction commission will stop the federal giveaway of rebuilding dollars to a handful of well-connected contractors and focus its work on giving people the tools and resources to feed their families."

Copyright (c) 2005 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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