Immigrant Day Laborers: Myths and Realities

Abel Valenzuela Jr.

Since at least the 1990s, immigration has been an emotional, hot-button issue, with pundits, elected officials, and think tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies mounting a growing anti-immigrant campaign. Their spin often relies on shoddy research and rhetorical arguments that present immigration as simple, ahistorical, and unconnected to broader structural forces. In its battle against “illegals,” the anti-immigrant right has unleashed not only cowboy justice along the U.S.-Mexico border, but also urban protests at worker centers and home improvement stores where mostly immigrant men gather in search of work.1 Groups like Save Our State, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, and the Minutemen have targeted these day laborers (jornaleros) as the face of undocumented immigration, blaming an easy target.

These groups assert, with little evidence, that day laborers are all illegal immigrants, that their solicitation of employment is criminal, and that creating worker centers for day laborers—that is, formal sites where both workers and employers are encouraged to gather and negotiate hiring—will only attract more illegal immigration. Others on the right argue that day laborers displace workers who might otherwise be employed in the construction, landscaping, or moving industries, as if job growth, particularly in these industries, were fixed. Then there are those on the fringes who claim that day laborers are murderers and rapists who threaten the neighborhoods where they search for work. These claims are all false, used to incite residents and elected officials.

To supply factual information on the day labor industry, including the workers and their employers, several colleagues and I launched the National Day Labor Survey (NDLS), in which we interviewed more than 2,600 workers across the United States. It’s the only survey of its kind, and its findings provide the first-ever portrait of these men and their work.2

We estimate there to be about 120,000 workers either seeking or performing day-labor assignments. They are predominantly immigrant and Latino. Most were born in Mexico (59%) and Central America (28%), but the third-largest group (7%) was U.S. born. Two fifths (40%) had lived in the United States for more than six years, and almost 10% had been here more than 20.3

Most day laborers are hired to work residential construction and remodeling jobs, hence their propensity to gather at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowes. They seek work in robust economies where demand for their labor is high. Contractors hire them to replace crew members who call in sick; to finish small detail work; to clean up construction sites; or simply to reduce labor costs. They also assist homeowners, renters, and other clients outside the construction business, moving, cleaning, and performing other handyman-type jobs.

Beyond this basic information, the survey also provides objective, empirical data that debunks many of the myths promulgated by both the far-right vigilante organizations and the mainstream media.

Below, I present some of the more common myths surrounding day labor. Although the anti-immigrant right is not the source of all of them, these myths have nonetheless entered the public discourse on day labor. Then, drawing on the NDLS and more than 10 years of research, I include a short discussion that can better inform public debate and provide the basis for thoughtful policy approaches.

Myth 1: Day labor is confined only to large, immigrant-heavy cities
The NDLS located day laborers in 139 cities in 20 states, including the District of Columbia.4 We identified 487 day-labor hiring sites and conducted surveys at more than half of them. Day laborers search for work in the communities where they live, be they inner cities, rural areas, suburbs, exurbs, or industrial-growth areas in cities as diverse as Atlanta; Hempstead, New York; Houston; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Portland, Oregon; San Jose; and Seattle. The largest concentration of day laborers is in the West (42%), followed by the East (23%), the Southwest (18%), the South (12%), and the Midwest (4%).

Myth 2: Day labor attracts only uneducated, illegal immigrants
According to the NDLS, a small percentage of day laborers lack formal schooling (6%). But the remainder were educated either in the United States or in their country of origin. Less than one quarter (22%) have five years or less of schooling, while 30% have six to eight years and 42% have nine or more.

One of the anti-immigrant right’s rallying cries is that day laborers are illegal and therefore hiring them or opening a worker center is also illegal. The NDLS found that up to one quarter (25%) of all day laborers either are here legally or have an adjustment to their immigration status pending (11%). In the South, almost half are documented. Hiring workers from curbside markets is not illegal, as several state courts have ruled in lawsuits brought by MALDEF and the ACLU.

Finally, more than three quarters of the immigrant day-labor workforce (78%) learned about informal hiring sites after migrating to the United States. Contrary to frequent assertions by critics, day labor and its hiring sites are not the “magnet” that draws immigrants to this country. The idea that immigrants would travel thousands of miles, pay thousands of dollars, and risk their lives crossing a desert to look for work on street corners is preposterous.

Myth 3: Day labor is good, safe work
In denouncing day laborers, the anti-immigrant right suggests that they are stealing jobs that others covet. As our study outlines, day labor is hardly lucrative, abuses are rampant, and the work is sporadic. While the length of any given assignment is short, usually one day, most day laborers string together enough assignments to earn a living, albeit one below the poverty line. Most of them make about $10 an hour or more, but their earnings are constrained by low wages at the bottom of the income distribution and the difficulty of securing consistent daily work, even during the busy summer season. In a good month, their median earnings rise to $1,400; in a bad one, they fall to $500. Their annual earnings likely do not exceed $15,000, placing most day laborers among the working poor.5

On top of their meager earnings, day laborers regularly suffer employer abuse.6 Almost half reported at least one instance of wage theft (nonpayment or underpayment) in the two months prior to being surveyed, and 44% were denied food or water breaks. Violence is also common. While the keen competition to get work sometimes causes fights among day laborers, employers and passersby also take their frustrations out on them. Day laborers often speak of violence after employers have taken advantage of them, belittling their work performance or paying less than the contracted price.7

Merchants and police often target day laborers while they seek work. Almost one fifth (19%) report being insulted by merchants, and 15% have been refused services by local businesses. They also report being insulted, cited, and arrested by police.8 Also, the growth of racist, anti-immigrant vigilante groups has resulted in sabotaged community forums and volatile protests—complete with picket signs, U.S. flags, bullhorns, and video surveillance—at sites where day laborers congregate.

Furthermore, as temporary construction workers, day laborers face an industry known for its high rates of injuries. One in five day laborers say they have gotten hurt on the job, and more than half of those who were injured in the past year did not receive medical care. More than two thirds say they missed work as a result. Day laborers are hired to undertake dangerous jobs where there is little, if any, meaningful enforcement of health and safety laws.

In an opportunistic and convoluted spin, some on the right have objected to day labor, they say, because of the exploitive conditions workers face. They argue that day laborers would be better off not coming to the United States, since employers can abuse these undocumented, vulnerable, easy alternatives to U.S. workers. They further argue that without immigrant day laborers, employers would be forced to upgrade their wages and curtail their abuses. Since when has the political right championed the rights of workers, especially those of a minority and/or immigrant background?

Myth 4: Day labor is a new phenomenon
Looking for work in public spaces is a time-honored tradition in the United States and elsewhere in the world.9 Indeed, day labor has existed for centuries, dating back to medieval times.10 In the United States, less formal “temps” or day laborers can be traced back to at least 1780, when “common laborers”—cart men, scavengers, chimney sweepers, wood cutters, and stevedores—are said to have sought new jobs each day.11

Since at least the mid-1800s, shape-up sites in New York and other Northeast ports provided a system of hiring dockworkers for the day or half-day by seemingly arbitrary selection from a gathering of men.12 Under this casual labor system, longshoremen seeking work were forced to gather on the docks every morning to await the “shape-up” call from a hiring foreman. After World War II, temporary workers (i.e., Kelly Girls) proliferated and now constitute a significant proportion of the U.S. workforce.13 Outside of its unionized segments, the U.S. construction industry has long employed a large share of on-call workers. And as the NDLS illustrates, day laborers are today numerous and found throughout the United States.

Myth 5: Demand for day labor is fleeting and mostly underground
Portraying day labor as an underground phenomenon makes it seem illegal or beyond the enforcement of police, OSHA, and other government agencies. Yet day labor is ubiquitous, found in neighborhoods and street corners across the United States, and day laborers’ activity, while unregulated, is an everyday occurrence, and well-known to city officials.

Similarly, suggesting that this market is fleeting would lead one to believe that it has no history in the United States and that it is growing primarily because of increased inflows of unauthorized immigrants.

The truth is, day labor in the United States involves the complex interaction between labor supply and demand, patterns of industrial change, the boom in residential construction and home improvement, and increased migration to the United States.

For decades, U.S. employers have relied on immigrant labor to fill jobs in a range of occupations, and that demand has not abated. In fact, it has grown as rising costs remake the terms of competition in many industries, pushing employers to find new strategies for remaining competitive. Industries as diverse as agriculture, textile manufacturing, child care, restaurants, food processing, and construction do this by hiring undocumented immigrants at low wages.14 The boom in day-labor hiring sites partly results from the growing demand for contingent workers in construction and in allied activities like landscaping and material hauling, as well as the phenomenal growth of do-it-yourself home improvement stores like Home Depot.

Meanwhile, because job opportunities in the local economy have deteriorated, workers are increasingly turning to day-labor hiring sites and other sources of contingent work like temp agencies and labor brokers. Plant closings and mass layoffs continue to plague many cities, particularly old industrial centers, which have seen the widespread loss of manufacturing jobs and employment in ancillary industries. For many workers in cities with declining employment prospects, day labor provides a foothold in the urban economy. For others, it is a first job in the United States and an opportunity to acquire work experience, skills, and employer contacts. For still others, it represents an opportunity to earn an income when temporarily laid off.

The proliferation of day-labor hiring sites is also related to changing patterns of immigration to the United States, particularly outside of traditional ports of entry like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago. New migratory circuits have developed in the South and parts of the East and Midwest, especially in small cities and towns with abundant employment opportunities, at least in low-wage occupations. Labor migration to these areas has dramatically increased, and day-labor hiring sites have become one mechanism for organizing the supply of immigrant laborers for the construction industry and other sectors of the economy.

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Uncovering the facts is the first step in setting the record straight on day laborers. This is the precondition for an honest, thoughtful dialogue about these immigrant workers. It also provides the basis for formulating strategies to stem concerns among different community stakeholders, including local law enforcement, elected officials, merchants, residents, workers, and employers of day laborers. But there is one thing the survey makes clear: Labor standards in the day-labor market must be safeguarded, improved, and enforced.

We also found that day laborers themselves are organizing and winning campaigns to improve their work lives. They do so under extremely difficult circumstances—undertaking their activities at the intersection of a popular nativist discourse; an anti-immigrant backlash; the threat of immigration laws that are at best punitive and mean-spirited; a restructured labor market that disadvantages low-skilled immigrant workers, especially those without documents; and an industry in which employers routinely violate workers’ rights.

Worker centers have emerged as the most comprehensive response to the workplace abuses that day laborers endure. They also address community tensions that have arisen as a result of workers gathering near residential areas, storefronts, or busy thoroughfares. There are now 61 day-labor worker centers operating in 15 states. In these safe places, workers can search for employment in a hassle-free, supportive, and friendly environment. Most worker centers, often no more than enclosed or open-air venues with seats or benches, are sponsored by municipal governments and administered by local, community-based organizations or church groups. In their more developed form, they are full-service community organizations that operate a hiring hall, coordinate workers’ rights activities (filing wage claims, OSHA training), provide services (ESL courses, civic leadership), and sponsor community events (litter cleanup days, soccer tournaments, open houses).

Fundamental to the value of worker centers is their ability to intervene on both the demand and supply sides of the day-labor market. On the demand side, worker centers monitor employer behavior, increase the transparency of the hiring process, and provide an institutional foundation for holding employers accountable for workplace abuses.

On the supply side, they organize and normalize the hiring of day laborers, monitor worker quality, and provide opportunities for workers to be incorporated into the mainstream economy through employment assistance and, in some cases, skills training.

The contributions of worker centers go beyond the day-labor market itself. In the communities where day laborers work and live, these centers participate as key stakeholders in resolving neighborhood conflicts over day labor. But as community institutions, they are just one strategy in a broader organizing campaign to improve the working lives of immigrant day workers.

Through the efforts of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON; see www.ndlon.org)—an alliance of workers’ rights advocates, worker centers, community organizers—day laborers are taking matters into their own hands. Established in 2000, NDLON comprises 33 community-based organizations that mobilize day laborers in cities across the United States. Most of its leaders are former day laborers. It holds regular strategy conference calls and convenes national and regional meetings to advance the common goal of protecting workers’ rights, safeguarding immigrant rights, and defending human rights. NDLON member organizations come together as a national network for collective strategizing and planning, leading national actions, sharing best practices, and creating community-based, regional, and national alliances.

NDLON’s activities have yielded important results. These include the opening of worker centers in neighborhoods throughout the United States; organizing and educational campaigns for workers on street corners; leadership development through popular education; and providing services, including legal, that promote and defend immigrant workers’ labor and civil rights. The network is impressive for its reach and success at organizing the residential construction workforce, a segment of the labor market that traditional unions have historically shunned. NDLON’s success comes from organizing itself into a strong national network, establishing key alliances with the labor movement, exerting its influence on public policy at the federal and local levels, and waging battles in the legal arena and in the popular media to counter-attack the blitz from the far right.

With billions of dollars in wholesale and retail construction expenditures, several hundred thousand construction workers, and unchecked workplace abuses and unfair labor practices, the AFL-CIO, the Laborers, and other affiliated unions have tapped NDLON to essentially teach labor how to organize this sector. The mutual benefits are clear. Perhaps more importantly, NDLON enters the mainstream labor movement with the protections and advantages of organized labor, an alliance that may very well yield positive results in a Democratically controlled Congress and, possibly, the White House in 2008. As immigration reform continues to percolate, a more sympathetic and liberal D.C. is more likely to address the concerns of labor, including those of day laborers.

The AFL-CIO’s far-reaching political ties and resources can make a difference in presenting the work of NDLON to the public, as well as day laborers and the industry that exploits them. Day laborers’ ascension into the union ranks would go a long way to improve their work lives and to safeguard and expand their human, civil, and immigrant rights.

The catalyst for securing justice for day laborers is in place. For several years, through NDLON’s charismatic leaders, day workers have increased their visibility and improved their ability to organize and stage campaigns locally. For example, in Los Angeles, day laborers have negotiated with the city to support the operation of almost a dozen worker centers. While resources provided by the city are modest, they total more than $1 million yearly. NDLON is now working with a former council member to create a tax incentive for home-improvement stores that would earmark resources for establishing and running worker centers, with the eventual goal that city resources be eliminated. Meanwhile, New York City only recently (2006) established a commission to assess the efficacy of opening worker centers with city resources.15

Finally, through partnerships with the ACLU, MALDEF, and the National Employment Law Project, NDLON has waged key legal battles that are shaping national precedents on how federal, state, and local courts rule on local ordinances that would shut down employment solicitation, but instead prompt harassment, vigilante justice, and wasted law-enforcement resources. Class-action suits are being considered against unscrupulous employers, and other legal battles over wage claims, harassment, and other violations have given day laborers an important voice in the legal battle for justice.

While the battle has just begun, the ability of worker centers, organizers, and day laborers—a ragtag, relatively new collective—to change how elected leaders and the public perceive immigrant workers is phenomenal. Even more impressive are the victories they have won and the improvements in workers’ lives that have resulted. But this movement faces stiff challenges, most perniciously the failure to legalize the status of undocumented workers. Fair and humane immigration reform must include a path toward legalization, a policy shift long championed by the left and especially the immigrant rights movement. Without this, employers will continue to exploit and abuse with impunity.

NOTES:

  1. Most day laborers who search for employment at curbsides, in front of home improvement stores, or nearby busy thoroughfares are men and foreign born. However, there is a small (2% nationally) but growing female day labor market (see footnote 2). In New York, for example, there exist at least two hiring sites where women are the majority of workers. The jobs they undertake can include construction but are usually in the realm of domestic work—care giving and cleaning.
  2. Abel Valenzuela Jr., Nik Theodore, Edwin Meléndez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez, “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States,” technical report, UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty (2006): 1–34, www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/csup/pubs/ papers/item.php?id=31.
  3. Ibid., p.17.
  4. Abel Valenzuela Jr., Ana Luz Gonzalez, Nik Theodore, and Edwin Meléndez, “In Pursuit of the American Dream: Day Labor in the Greater Washington, D.C., Region,” technical report, UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty (2005): 264, www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/csup/pubs/papers/item.php?id=30.
  5. “On the Corner,” p.10.
  6. Ibid., p.14.
  7. Abel Valenzuela Jr., “New Immigrants and Day Labor: The Potential for Violence,” in Ramiro Martinez Jr. and Abel Valenzuela Jr., eds., Immigration and Crime: Ethnicity, Race, and Violence (New York University Press, 2006), pp. 189–211.
  8. “On the Corner,” p.16.
  9. Abel Valenzuela Jr., “Day-Labor Work,” Annual Review of Sociology 29, no. 1 (2003): 307–33.
  10. Vernon A. Mund, Open Markets: An Essential of Free Enterprise (New York: Harper Brothers, 1948), p. 96.
  11. Raymond A. Mohl, Poverty in New York, 1783–1825 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), p.18.
  12. Charles P. Larrowe, Shape-up and Hiring Hall: A Comparison of Hiring Methods and Labor Relations on the New York and Seattle Waterfronts (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1955).
  13. Mack A. Moore, “The Temporary Help Service Industry: Historical Development, Operation, and Scope,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 18, no. 4 (1965): 554–69.
  14. See Tarry Hum, “Mapping Global Production in New York City’s Garment Industry: The Role of Sunset Park, Brooklyn’s Immigrant Economy,” Economic Development Quarterly 17, no. 3 (2003): 294–309; Immanuel Ness, Immigrants, Unions, and the New U.S. Labor Market (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005); and Saskia Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo, 2nd ed. (Princeton University Press, 2001).
  15. Sewell Chan, “City to Consider Job Centers for Day Labor,” The New York Times, June 16, 2006.

Abel Valenzuela Jr. is associate professor of Chicano studies and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the director of the Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. He has researched immigrant day laborers for the past 10 years.

Tags: US immigration, day laborers, labor rights, legal battles, NDLON


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