What is Day Labor?
On busy street corners in cities around the country, groups of men in work clothes gather to wave their hands at traffic, as if trying to hail a great herd of taxi cabs. They are day laborers, an unofficial work force that fills the cracks of the economy. Each morning they go in search of impromptu employers, rushing the stopped trucks and vans, jockeying to be chosen for work. Payment is negotiated individually, by the hour or job or day. They paint, they haul, they dig, they trim. They clean and polish, lay brick and tile, build and demolish, wire and plumb. They do anything they're willing and able to, depending for income on whatever comes their way.
In many communities, most of these men are immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. Although their numbers have grown over the last decade or so, day laborers, like immigrants, are not new to the American work landscape. In New York City, for instance, the historical ranks of day laborers have included 18th-century Irish immigrants, African American domestics hired in the Bronx during the Depression and Brooklyn's Italian longshoremen. These New York workers also had their "shape-ups" - street corners and wharves that functioned as open-air hiring halls.
Today, in many parts of the country, Spanish-speaking immigrants are most likely to be day laborers. The new hiring hot spots continue to be busy street corners and, in some cases, organized day labor centers. These centers strive to organize and protect workers, assigning workers from a registered list and ensuring that employers pay negotiated rates and are held responsible for the safety of their workers. These centers continue to grow slowly in number, working to organize day labor in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, Seattle, Washington D.C., Chicago and others.
Studies and anecdotal evidence both suggest these protections are sorely needed. Workplace injuries are commonly reported - at a rate as high as one in four workers each day, in the case of the nation's largest day labor agency. Nonpayment, underpayment and improper deductions for transportation and equipment are also common problems. At least five states - Texas, Florida, Arizona, Georgia and Illinois - have passed legislation specifically designed to regulate day labor and protect workers.
Day Labor: Who and Why?
Immigrants and others who turn to day labor often cannot find better work through any other means. Their main reasons: legal status, language skills, poor pay and the availability of work. In a much-cited study of day laborers in southern California, 40 percent of day laborers explained their main reason for choosing day labor was their undocumented work status, with 21 percent citing poor English skills as their main obstacle from finding other work. In most cases, the day laborers worked not only to support themselves but also to send money to families in their home country - about 31 percent of their income, on average.
The day labor landscape tends to be very localized and also shifts quickly, providing an immediate reflection of changes in the economy and immigration. While most day laborers are Spanish speakers, other groups also participate in day labor - for instance, in places like Chicago, where homeless African Americans work through day labor agencies, or in New York, where Polish and Sikh immigrants populate street corners in their search for work. For many labor advocates, the debate over how to improve, protect and incorporate day labor grows ever more relevant, as our new economy increasingly turns to temporary, part-time and contract workers for growth.