In what is being billed as the first national conference for day laborers, workers and their advocates are meeting today at Cal State Northridge to forge a national strategy for improving working conditions for an underrepresented group.
The conference, which ends Sunday, will focus on workers' rights, immigration, and law enforcement issues affecting day-laborers. In Southern California, an estimated 20,000 men solicit work on streets daily, organizers said.
The conference was organized by the National Day Labor Organizing Network, a coalition of 18 day-labor advocacy groups from New York, Chicago, Denver and other cities.
Los Angeles was selected as the host city because of local advocates' progressive efforts in dealing with day-labor issues, organizers said.
"We are coming together to create an organized vehicle that will work to improve the lives of day-laborers," said conference planner Pablo Alvarado of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants' Rights of Los Angeles.
Day-laborers across the country face similar problems in soliciting work on public streets, being cheated out of wages by employers and battling the perception that they are shiftless immigrants, organizers said.
Rather than tackling these issues in their individual cities, organizers said, they hope to create a singular voice for the day-labor movement.
"When it is time for negotiations among day-laborers, homeowners, business owners, law enforcement and elected officials, the day-laborers' perspective is never present," Alvarado said. "We need to elevate our profile."
According to a 1999 study by the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, day-laborers are overwhelmingly Latino, young and either recent arrivals or people who have been in the country for 10 or more years.
About half of day-laborers are single, while the rest have a spouse or other family members to support, the study said. A significant portion of workers are without legal documents, though an equal number hold work permits, resident alien status or are in legal limbo with regards to immigrant status.
Gatherings of day-laborers are considered a nuisance by some residents, business owners, police officers and elected leaders. Some jurisdictions have enacted ordinances prohibiting soliciting work on the street. In 1991, Agoura Hills was one of the first Southern California communities to adopt such a ordinance, said Thomas Saenz, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Soon after, the ordinance was upheld in Superior Court and later in the state Court of Appeal.
The decisions prompted a number of other government entities, including Los Angeles County, to adopt similar ordinances.
MALDEF successfully challenged the county law in federal court on grounds that a day-laborer's right to announce his availability for work is protected under the 1st Amendment.
After the federal court's action, MALDEF sent letters to cities and Los Angeles County advising them to repeal ordinances. But Agoura Hills continued to enforce its ban, prompting MALDEF to send a letter to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which patrols that city. Sheriff Lee Baca has directed deputies not to enforce the ban.
This conference could go a long way toward improving relations between government and day-laborers, said Abel Valenzuela Jr., associate director of UCLA's urban poverty study center.
"I hope this will be the beginning of a group of workers and labor leaders who want to improve the livelihood of the men in this occupation," he said.