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Day Laborers Face Broad Array of Risks

by Brendan Coyne

Feb. 15, 2006 – Subject to harassment, low pay, dangerous work, arrest and more, day laborers may be the most at-risk group of workers in the nation, according to a study released last month. The report, "On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States," is the first-ever nationwide look at how the largely Latino immigrant day laborers fare.

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Published by the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, "On the Corner" surveyed 2,660 workers at 264 day-labor sites across the country and found abuse at the hands of employers, area residents, police officers and others to be rampant. The researchers said there were 39,452 workers at the sites visited; Just forty-three of the sites were formal labor centers; the others were unofficial gathering points more typical of the trade.

As the day-laborer population grows, local governments and nonprofit advocacy groups have opened centers for workers in locations across the country. Offerings at such sites vary, but many provide workplace-safety training and English language classes. Advocates maintain that the centers are a vital tool for immigrant workers.

Still, only 21 percent of the nation’s day laborers pick up work at these centers, which often provide a place for would-be workers to assemble, set a base wage rate, impose orderly job allocation and monitor labor standards.

According to the report, however, in most towns, would-be workers wait for contractors to pick them up in store parking lots and other open areas near busy streets.

Last year, controversy over one such site in the Washington, DC suburb of Herndon, Virginia propelled the heavily Hispanic town into national headlines. A Herndon arm of the Minuteman Project, a national movement advocating stricter border controls, now monitors the center regularly, photographing workers and reportedly asking for identification at times, the Washington Post reported.

Almost half of the day laborers interviewed for the study reported not being paid at some point immediately prior to the study; 44 percent said they were denied breaks, water and food while working. In addition, 20 percent of the day-labor workforce is injured at work each year, losing time at work for which they are not compensated, the report said. Over half of the injured workers do not get medical assistance.

Day laborers are mostly Latino, and three-quarters of the estimated 117,600 looking for work each day are undocumented, according to the study. Almost 60 percent are from Mexico and another 28 percent are from other Central American nations.

According to the study, the median hourly wage for day laborers is $10, but because the work is inconsistent, most make under $15,000 annually. Over 40 percent of those interviewed reported being married or living with a partner; 63 percent have children, many of them US citizens.

As the day-laborer community grows, several organizations have been trying to insure their safety and inform them of their rights. The National Day Laborers Organizing Network applauded the researchers for undertaking the report and called on communities to embrace the growing workforce segment.

"Now that the study has shed light on the staggering inequality faced by low-wage migrant workers, the national day-laborer community will renew its call for more worker centers, enforcement of labor laws, and realistic immigration reform which values the contributions of migrant workers," Pablo Alvarado, national coordinator for the group, said in a statement. "We call all responsible members of our society to support the day-worker community in these endeavors."

The report was conducted by researchers with the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Illinois at Chicago and New School University in New York City with financial support from several organizations, including the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Survey participants were given $10 for answering over 100 questions.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Report originally appeared in the February 15, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Brendan Coyne is a contributing journalist.

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