Day Laborers, Latino
Day Laborers, Latino
No formal definition of day labor exists, although the term is mostly used to convey a type of temporary employment that is distinguished by impermanency of employment, hazards in or undesirability of the work, the absence of fringe and other typical workplace benefits (e.g., breaks, safety equipment), and the daily search for employment. More specifically, day labor involves a group of men (and some women) who congregate on street corners, empty lots, or parking lots of home improvement stores, rental truck outlets, and paint stores to solicit temporary daily work. This type of work is growing and increasingly visible in those cities throughout the United States that have large concentrations of the working poor and Latino immigrants. Day labor is unstable and poorly paid, with most workers obtaining only one or two days of work per week, with wages clustering between eight and ten dollars per hour. The work that day laborers perform is often dangerous and dirty, and it is mostly in the fields of construction, landscaping, moving, demolition, and painting. With the exception of a few studies, little is known about this labor market because the workers move in and out freely; federal agencies inadequately define day labor, and thus do not count the participants accurately; and a large proportion of these workers are foreign-born, unauthorized, and Latino, making them difficult to study.
The practice of men and women gathering in public settings in search of work dates back to at least medieval times, when the feudal city was originally a place of trade. In England during the 1100s, workers assembled at daily or weekly markets to be hired. Statutes regulated the opening of public markets in merchant towns and required agricultural workers (foremen, plowmen, carters, shepherds, swineherds, dairymen, and mowers) to appear with tools to be hired in a “commonplace and not privately” (Mund 1948, p. 96). In the United States during the early to mid-1800s, day laborers recruited from construction crews worked as track repairmen for railroad companies. Casual laborers (often out of work from construction jobs) worked in a variety of unskilled positions (e.g., brakemen, track repairmen, stevedores at depots, emergency firemen, snow clearers, or mechanic’s assistants). Some of these workers were recent immigrants, particularly Chinese and Mexicans in the West and Germans and Irish in the East (Mohl 1971). Between 1788 and 1830, hundreds of day laborers (or “stand-ups,” as they were known then) worked along the waterfront. More than half of New York City’s male Irish workers were day laborers. In 1834, a “place was set aside on city streets in New York where those seeking work could meet with those who wanted workers” (Moore 1965). This exchange worked for both men and women, with employment for women (primarily African Americans) concentrated in the domestic labor market sector.
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 (a minimum of four hours) by a seemingly arbitrary selection from a gathering of men. 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 signaling for the men to gather around him, usually in the shape of a circle or horseshoe, to be selected for work for the day or a four-hour shift. The number of men seeking work typically outnumbered the available jobs (Larrowe 1955).
Contemporary day labor in the United States (since at least the early 1970s) is not much different than it was in the past. Most of the participants are men, most are recent arrivals in the country, and most of their work is primarily in the construction industry. To the extent that women participate in day labor, their work is still primarily in domestic help. The growth and development of day labor in the United States and elsewhere has very real implications for thousands of workers and their employers. In its simplest form, day labor provides a distinct service to employers who wish to forego traditional forms of hiring workers and prefer not to undertake the time-consuming and costly activities associated with “regular” employment. The gains from hiring day laborers are clear: Day laborers are plentiful, easy to find, and relatively inexpensive to hire, and employers are spared liability and bureaucratic paper work. A subcontractor needing help to finish a project can easily hire a day laborer for several hours or several days to tidy up, remove debris, clean the site for inspection, or for other types of unskilled and skilled tasks. A job or project that would normally entail paying a regular worker at a higher rate is easily circumvented via this market. Similarly, a homeowner wishing to move from one home to another or uproot a tree in his or her backyard need not hire an expensive contractor for such seemingly simple but labor-intensive jobs. Day laborers also find some benefit from this type of labor market, particularly if they would not otherwise be employed. In addition, day laborers get paid in cash (usually untaxed), they can walk away from a job if dangerous or particularly dirty, and they can negotiate a wage for a day of work. Finally, for some day laborers, this occupation provides a level of flexibility that a regularly scheduled job does not, autonomy from a difficult employer, and the opportunity to learn different skills.
Based on a national survey of day laborers conducted by Abel Valenzuela and colleagues in 2006, some key facts about the men (and the few women) who undertake this line of work are available. For example, on any given day, approximately 117,600 workers are either looking for day-labor jobs or employed as day laborers. Most day laborers congregate at informal hiring sites that have formed in front of home improvement stores and gas stations, along busy thoroughfares and near expressway on-ramps, or in parks and other public spaces. Because there are a small number (64 nationally in 2006) of officially sanctioned “worker centers,” a minority of workers seek work at these formalized hiring halls, where day laborers and employers arrange the terms of employment for the day. The day-labor hiring site is a dynamic labor market whose size and dimensions change by the season, week, day, and even hour. The daily flow of workers through a site can vary dramatically as workers leave the site once they receive a job assignment and new job seekers are drawn to the site in their search for employment.
The largest concentration of hiring sites and day laborers is in the West, while the Midwest is the region with the fewest number of sites and workers. The day-labor workforce in the United States is predominantly male (just 2% are female) and largely comprised of migrants from Mexico and Central America (see Figure 1). More than half (59%) of day laborers surveyed were born in Mexico, 14 percent were born in Guatemala, and 8 percent were born in Honduras. U.S.-born workers comprise 7 percent of the day-labor workforce, though in the southern region of the country almost one in five day laborers were born in the United States. Three-quarters of the day-labor work-force were undocumented migrants. However, about 11 percent of the undocumented day-labor workforce had a pending application for an adjustment of their immigration status. It has not been possible to determine how many of these workers may indeed be eligible for temporary or permanent immigration relief.
Overall, day laborers tend to be relatively recent immigrants. Almost one in five (19%) migrated to the United States less than one year before they were interviewed at a day-labor hiring site, while 40 percent have resided in the United States for one to five years. Less than one-third of day laborers (29%) have resided in the United States for between six and 20 years, and 11 percent have resided in the United States for more than two decades.
Day laborers experience a high incidence of workplace injury. One in five day laborers suffered an injury while on the job. Rates of work-related injury are highest in the Midwest, where one-third of the day laborers have been hurt on the job. Most day laborers are aware that their work is dangerous, but the pressing need for employment finds them returning to this market to search for work. About three-quarters of day laborers nationwide find their occupations to be dangerous, while in the Midwest, where roofing jobs are undertaken at significantly higher rates than in the other regions, an astounding 92 percent find their work to be dangerous.
Employer violations of day laborers’ rights and violations of basic labor standards are an all too common occurrence in the day-labor market. Wage theft is the most typical abuse experienced by day laborers. Nearly half of all day laborers (49%) have been completely denied payment by an employer for work they completed in the two months prior to being surveyed. Similarly, 48 percent have been underpaid by employers during the same time period.
In addition to the hundreds of informal hiring sites that have proliferated across the United States, 64 day-labor worker centers, or formal hiring sites, have been established by community organizations, municipal governments, faith-based organizations, and other local stakeholders. The goal of these centers is to curtail wage theft, abuse, and hazardous working conditions. The creation of day-labor worker centers is a relatively recent phenomenon, with most having been established since 2000. Worker centers are typically located near informal day-labor hiring sites, offering both workers and contractors an alternative to the unregulated sites found on street corners and in parking lots. Indeed, location can be a crucial determinant of a center’s success, and these hiring sites are frequently established in areas where both workers and employers have ready access.
Most day-labor worker centers provide fairly basic accommodations to workers and employers. All operate as hiring halls where employers and day laborers can arrange work for the day. Available amenities and services typically include restrooms, drinking water, places to sit, telephones, classrooms, outreach to employers, and parking facilities. But even such simple provisions are a marked improvement over informal hiring sites. Moreover, they serve to establish a worker center’s presence in the day-labor market. The primary purpose of day-labor worker centers is to regulate the day-labor market by intervening in the market and establishing rules governing the search for work and the hiring of laborers. Through these core activities, worker centers are able to place a “safety floor” under conditions in the day-labor market and curtail abuses and workplace injuries.
Larrowe, Charles P. 1955. 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.
Mohl, Raymond A. 1971. Poverty in New York, 1783-1825. New York: Oxford University Press.
Moore, Mack A. 1965. “The Temporary Help Service Industry: Historical Development, Operation, and Scope.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 18 (4): 554–569.
Mund, Vernon A. 1948. Open Markets: An Essential of Free Enterprise. New York: Harper Brothers.
Valenzuela, Abel, Jr. 2001. “Day Laborers as Entrepre neurs?” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 27 (2): 335–352.
———. 2002. “Working on the Margins in Metropolitan Los Angeles: Immigrants in Day Labor Work.” Migraciones Internacionales 1 (2): 5–28.
———. 2003. “Day-Labor Work.” Annual Review of Sociology 29 (1): 307–333.
———, Janette A. Kawachi, and Matthew D. Marr. 2002. “Seeking Work Daily: Supply, Demand, and Spatial Dimensions of Day Labor in Two Global Cities.” International Journal of Comparative Sociology 43 (2): 192–219.
———, Nik Theodore, Edwin Melendez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez. 2006. “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States.” Technical Report, UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Available from http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/csup/index.php.
Abel Valenzuela Jr.