On a typical New York morning, thousands of workers can be seen congregating on sidewalks throughout the city, waiting to be taken to worksites. Called day laborers, these workers are among the most exploited in the nation.
On March 31, Cesar Chavez Day, the New York City Council Committee on Immigration conducted a hearing to consider forming a commission to study the creation of job centers for day laborers. Convened by committee chairman Kendall Stewart, representatives of the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, worker advocates, day laborers and city residents testified on the proposed legislation.
“We want to make sure we protect these workers — these concerns should not go unheeded,” Stewart told the World. “Job centers will help ensure that employers pay workers a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Employers taking advantage or exploiting workers because they are immigrants or because they don’t speak English must be stopped.”
In this city of immigrants, setting up job centers where workers and employers negotiate working conditions and wages is a critical need. Pablo Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told the World that New York City has a surprisingly long way to go in how it deals with immigrant labor.
There are as many as 25,000 formal and informal day laborers at 57 hiring sites in this city. A recent survey found three-quarters of day laborers earn less than $10 an hour without benefits. Eighty-five percent reported experiencing abuse. Half said they were paid lower than the agreed upon salary or not paid at all.
Day laborers often operate heavy equipment without proper safety guarantees, precaution or training. Mostly immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, Africa and Asia, day laborers work long hours in hazardous and risky conditions. Eighteen day laborers have died on the job in New York City since 1999.
Quoting Cesar Chavez, the legendary leader of the farm workers union, Alvarado suggested that setting up a committee to monitor job centers is just one small step for day laborers: “You cannot ‘uneducate’ the person who has learned to read and write. You cannot humiliate those who have pride. You cannot oppress those who are not afraid anymore.”
Javier Gallardo, a day laborer and spokesman for the Latin America Workers Project, stressed the importance of day laborers’ participation in the decision-making about job centers. Other workers echoed the same theme.
“I cannot think of why some would oppose this [basic] bill,” City Councilman Charles Barron told the World. However, he said, “we have to be careful that we don’t get manipulated by the [Bloomberg] administration to support something that gives the appearance that it is for immigrants but lacks the teeth.”