Survey Reveals Widespread Abuse of Day Laborers

Times Staff Writer

Wage violations, workplace injuries and abusive employers are common in the day labor industry, according to the first nationwide study of laborers who search for work at busy intersections and outside home improvement stores.

Nearly half of 2,660 day laborers participating in the survey by three universities had been underpaid -- or not paid at all -- in the two months before being interviewed. Forty-four percent said they were denied food, water and breaks, and 18% said they were subjected to violence by their employer.

In addition, one-fifth of the workers interviewed said they had been injured on the job in the previous year, with the majority not receiving medical care.

"It's disturbing, " said UCLA associate professor Abel Valenzuela Jr., who co-wrote the study with researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and New School University in New York. "Employers use all kinds of unscrupulous tactics so they can get away with these unfair labor practices."

The study, which is being released today and is based on interviews with workers in 20 states and Washington, D.C., comes at a time when day laborer sites are becoming increasingly contentious. Congress also is debating immigration reform, including proposals that would crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and require day labor centers to check the legal status of workers.

On Saturday, protesters opposed to illegal immigration rallied at a new center adjacent to a Home Depot in Burbank, urging customers to boycott the store for constructing the hiring hall. Critics say illegal immigrant day laborers should be deported and their employers prosecuted. "The government has let down the country by not enforcing the law, and that just makes it easier for employers to hire the illegals," said Rick Oltman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The report details the demographics of day laborers -- jornaleros in Spanish -- revealing that three-fourths are undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Forty percent have been in the United States for more than six years, and 28% of their children are U.S. citizens.

Most rely on day labor to support themselves and their families, in many cases sending money back to relatives in their native countries. During good months, workers earn as much as $1,400. But in bad months, their income can drop to $500. The median hourly wage is $10.

There has been a dramatic increase in day laborers in the last decade, Valenzuela said, with about 117,600 jornaleros either working or looking for work on any given day. Researchers say the primary explanation for the growing day labor phenomenon is employer demand. Forty-nine percent were hired by homeowners, while 43% were hired by contractors. The two most popular jobs were in construction and landscaping, but day laborers also were hired as movers, cleaners or farmworkers.

The growth of the industry was partly fueled by low interest rates, which spurred a boom in construction and home improvement. "All of that combines to create an even greater demand for day labor," Valenzuela said.

In some communities, day labor centers have been set up by local governments and nonprofit organizations to address public health and safety concerns created by large numbers of men gathered on streets and sidewalks, said Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Labor Organizing Network.

The centers also help workers by discouraging labor violations and training them in how to negotiate for better salaries and working conditions, he said.

There are relatively few such centers -- researchers identified just 63 in the 20 states surveyed. They negotiate wages, help monitor labor standards and try to make sure jobs are assigned in a fair and orderly manner. The bulk of the centers were created in the last five years.

Alvarado said he believes abuse is prevalent in the industry in part because many of the men are undocumented. They fear they will be fired, not paid or reported to immigration authorities. "Workers are in a very vulnerable position," Alvarado said. "Because of that, people take advantage."

Braulio Gonzalez, 49, has been working as a day laborer in Redondo Beach for more than two decades. In a telephone interview, he recalled being hired two years ago to help a woman move the contents of her house into storage. Gonzalez was paid for 11 hours of work, but the check bounced. "It's not fair," he said. "But what could I do? Nothing. The lady moved."

Including wage violations, the study said that workers often are exposed to hazardous job sites without proper training or safety equipment. More than two-thirds of injured day laborers lost time from work. Laborers also report being arrested or cited by police, and insulted by employers.

The poor labor conditions prompted Valenzuela and his coauthors to propose greater labor protections for jornaleros, more access to legal services and better safety monitoring. "The growth of these hiring sites is a national trend that warrants attention from policymakers at all levels of government," the study states. "The top policy priority is clear: safeguarding, improving and enforcing labor standards in the day labor market."

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