One Wednesday at around 3 PM, Daniel Castellanos and approximately 150 of his co-workers showed up at one of F. Patrick Quinn III’s Louisiana hotels. Having missed their first two meetings, Quinn had agreed to meet with them and listen to their complaints about their working conditions. Most employees had to work at that hour, but they decided to skip their shifts, believing that the meeting would perhaps help “fix their problems”. Only, when they arrived at the location, they were informed that Quinn would not be able to meet with them. His excuse? He was “eating goose.” The workers were incensed. “He was here [in his hotel] eating goose and drinking champagne. And we were starving.”
In 2005, a few months before the meeting, Daniel Castellanos, a Peruvian engineer, saw an advertisement in the newspaper. A New Orleans company was looking to hire temporary workers to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. Each worker would be paid $16 per hour, for a minimum of 60 hours per week, in addition to overtime. “[This] is a lot of money”, he thought. More than he was making in Peru. It would make a big difference for his family. Castellanos, therefore, decided to leave his family at home and move to New Orleans for 10 months. It was not long after he got there, however, that he realized that reality did not come close to the advertisement.
Upon his arrival, Castellanos and his co-workers were quickly informed that their original contracts would be ignored, and that, if they wanted to work, they would have to sign new ones. The new contracts were in English – a language that most workers did not speak – but they had no choice. The sixteen dollars per hour became six and the sixty hours per week became twenty. As for their lodging, it was in the employer’s destroyed “five-star hotel”. Five-star, Castellanos’s supervisor joked, because the hole in the ceiling meant that he and his 8 roommates could count five stars in the sky from their beds.
“We say this is modern-day slavery. You have to follow [their] rules. If you don’t, it’s going to be very bad for you.”
That the workers slept on their employer’s property only exacerbated the situation. “This meant that they controlled me [at all] times,” Castellanos recounts. The supervisors had placed cameras on the premises to follow workers’ every move and used proximity to dictate their sleep and waking hours. Workers were told when to sleep, and their supervisors would knock on their doors, sometimes at two in the morning, ordering them to work. When the workers complained, they were threatened with, at best, deportation, and at worst, death. Following multiple death-threat calls to Castellanos’s room, one of his roommates started hiding a knife under his pillow. The other seven fled. “Basically, we say this is modern-day slavery,” Castellanos says. “You have to follow [their] rules. If you don’t, it’s going to be very bad for you.”