Building a House for Day Laborers


SEATTLE, Washington, Feb 3 - Twenty-five centuries ago, ancient Athenians set aside part of their agora, the central public plaza, as a place where people seeking temporary work and others seeking workers could meet.

In the United States of the early 21st Century, the venue has shifted to building-supply and garden stores. But the men waiting along the curb and the trucks pulling up have come for the same purpose.

In many cities, however, the agora has evolved: jornaleros, as day laborers are known in Spanish, and local citizens have combined forces to organize structured markets for day labor. There, the problems sometimes found on the corners -- traffic slowdowns, litter, lack of security for work-seekers and employers -- can be ameliorated through better processes and protections.

These workers' centers bring a measure of order and fairness to the freewheeling, sharp-elbowed markets on the corners.

They are limited in what they can do, however, because most workers in the informal economy are immigrants without official status. This makes it harder for them to apply to formal employers or agencies, or join labor unions. And workers centers' reach remains restricted: a 2006 study estimated that their share of the national day labor market was roughly 20 percent, while 80 percent sought work on the corners.

Most of these organizations grew up during the economic boom of the nineties and first half of this decade, when the residential construction market was overheated. Now they are scrambling to adapt to a wrenching economy-wide bust. An increasing number of workers, native citizens along with documented and undocumented immigrants, are turning to the informal labor market after losing regular jobs.

Day laborers' organizations generally don't get involved directly in employment. They simply arrange a safe place for workers and employers to meet, help workers set minimum wages and rules, verify skills and reliability of workers, and help resolve complaints of both workers and employers.

Part hiring hall, part workers' cooperative, part non-profit service center, workers' centers combine several modes of organizing to build supportive communities of casual workers.

They are not trade unions, but they perform some functions of unions: enforcing base wages, providing job training, and defending workers' rights. Jornaleros rely on them for job dispatches, much like a union hiring hall, and participate in decision-making within them. Official labor unions are exploring ways to cooperate with them.

They are not charities, but most are non-profit and don't charge workers or employers. Some draw parts of their budgets from charities and foundations.

They are not government agencies. While some receive funding from local governments, they may also have conflicting relationships with some authorities.

Workers' centers are a hybrid, one that has proven hardy and productive in over 60 cities across the U.S. The first opened at least 18 years ago in Los Angeles.

In Seattle, the Pacific Northwest home to Boeing and Microsoft, CASA Latina has served day laborers for 15 years.

On a major thoroughfare just north of downtown, a trailer and a weathered one-story building open onto a gravel courtyard bounded by a chain-link fence. In the pre-dawn darkness, about 100 people gather, mostly young to middle-aged men with a few women, bundled up against a biting wind off of Elliott Bay.

At six, the daily job raffle begins when CASA Latina staff and volunteers in the trailer fill out raffle tickets from lists of registered workers on a computer.

A solid, no-nonsense woman stands in the center of the milling crowd making things happen. Guadalupe Adams is coordinator of the Workers' Center.

"They fight hard to make a living -- very honest, very hard-working," she says in Spanish. "They come here to get ahead. And many of them have been able to build their little house back home."

Around seven, a staff member brings out a big plastic jar holding the raffle tickets. Adams begins pulling out one ticket at a time and calling out the name written on it, which someone marks down on a numbered list. The winner comes forward and claims the ticket stub. Later, as jobs come in, workers will be dispatched in order of their numbers.

Only about 25 tickets are chosen. Later, around ten o'clock, one worker says that only three jobs have been dispatched so far today, which is typical lately.

It's gotten hard for many jornaleros to pay for housing and food, much less send home remittances to the family in Mexico or Central America, says Pedro Jiménez, Day Workers' Center organizer.

More day workers are ending up on the street or in homeless shelters, he observes. Many have to go to food banks for basic groceries.

Two years ago, you could work two or three days a week, says Juan Us Tiquiram, a soft-spoken, weathered man who worked in construction in Guatemala. "Now I haven't seen any work for a week and a half. I've never seen it this bad. The beginning of the month comes and you've got to pay the rent and the phone, but you can't. If you're not a hard worker, you leave."

Still, Us appreciates CASA Latina: "They dispatch jobs according to the list. It's very orderly."

Dispatches by CASA Latina are down by about 70 percent from a year ago, according to CASA Latina program director Araceli Hernandez. In October they were already down 50 percent. "Things are very bad here," she says, "but in Los Angeles the numbers are even more drastic. What's had a big impact is the number of people who have lost permanent jobs."

Of the majority of workers who don't get a job through the raffle on a given day, some go to corners outside home-improvement stores to look for work. Along the street outside the Workers' Center as well, jornaleros continue waiting for employers well into the afternoon.

Later in the morning, a crew of about 20 volunteers wearing orange vests assembles to distribute flyers in a residential neighborhood. They hope to generate more jobs by letting homeowners know their services are available.

For those who didn't get sent out today, the leafleting represents something positive they can do for the future.

Jiménez, who was a union organizer in Mexico, leads a half-hour training in Spanish for his team on distributing flyers: "We're all in the same boat. Today you're going to hand out flyers, next week it will be others' turn. It's like a chain." Deftly fielding questions like a daytime talk-show host, he asks for situations they have encountered -- a dog in the yard, a hostile homeowner -- and prompts participants to explain how to handle it.

"We have to make a commitment to work for our community," he preaches, "to put on these vests and make them sweaty for our common benefit. Who built this place? Others who came before us. So now we're going to build for tomorrow, so others who come after us will have more opportunities."

Some homeowners have come to hire day workers in response, according to a gray-haired man whose business card identifies him as "Faustino Morales, Day Worker, CASA Latina Day Workers' Center".

CASA Latina also organizes volunteer work crews to clean up surrounding parks, Morales said, which helps improve relations with neighbors and lets people see that jornaleros are contributing to their community.

With the deepening recession in the U.S., and even worse conditions back in Mexico and Central America, a few workers are taking a new tack: they are heading north to look for work in Canada, about 110 miles away. A few have been arrested at the border, according to a local radio news show. But some report finding work and feel they are treated with more respect by employers there.

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