Day labor centers see some new faces: immigrant women

Times Staff Writer

Maura Martinez spent months searching for work at clothing factories, fast-food restaurants and even a mini-market. But every employer demanded immigration papers.

So Martinez headed to the Hollywood Community Job Center to try her luck as a day laborer.

“If the men can find work here, I can too,” said Martinez, 47, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who goes to the center several days a week. “With papers, without papers, men or women, we all come to look for work.”

Immigrant women are increasingly joining the throngs of men at day labor centers across the country. But rather than compete with men, who are seeking temporary construction or gardening work, the women are searching for jobs as housecleaners or caretakers.


“What you are seeing in Los Angeles is a reflection of a larger national trend,” said Abel Valenzuela, an associate professor at UCLA who has done extensive research on day laborers. “It’s a relatively new movement.... Worker centers are expanding and opening up their doors to other types of workers, including women.”

Hiring halls provide a safe place for women to search for work, he said. Their organizers often write down the names, addresses, phone numbers and license plate numbers of employers.

As crossing the Mexican border has become increasingly dangerous and expensive, immigration advocates say, more women have joined their spouses in the United States and decided to stay. And with the high cost of living and a volatile urban job market, Valenzuela said, families are realizing that they cannot survive on just one income.

Roughly 35% of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. are adult women, according to a 2006 analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center, and about 17% of the cleaning industry is made up of undocumented immigrants.


Martinez said she considered trying to find work through a housecleaning agency, but that often requires paying an application fee or a portion of her earnings.

“Do I work for an agency or do I work for me?” she asked. “How am I going to send money to my country if I have to pay the agency?”

Besides, at the day labor center, Martinez said, no one asks for a green card.

Highly publicized workplace raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement have prompted more employers to ask for identification and to make sure it is valid, observers said. Those checks could increase if the Senate revives and passes reform legislation that would require all employers to electronically verify the eligibility of new hires. A bipartisan immigration reform bill stalled in the Senate last week.


Nationwide, there are more than 60 job centers, usually run by community groups and offering shelter and bathrooms to immigrant and other workers. Los Angeles County has 12 day labor centers, as well as dozens of street corners that attract temporary workers.

The centers are particularly controversial because they attract large numbers of undocumented workers and are typically funded or sanctioned by cities trying to balance the needs of businesses, workers and residents.

Joseph Turner, who has staged protests at day labor sites, said the purpose of centers is to violate federal immigration laws that forbid hiring undocumented workers.

“There is only one reason to be there: if you are an illegal alien and you want to work under the table,” said Turner, Western regional representative for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.


“When you have women resorting to soliciting work in the least desirable environment, it’s indicative that the problem is getting even worse and worse, that you are having a mass influx of illegal aliens looking for jobs that aren’t there.”

Sherly Harsi knew about day laborers from her husband, a contractor who regularly hires workers for construction jobs. A few months ago, she received a flier from the Hollywood job center advertising female day laborers.

Harsi called and asked for someone reliable and trustworthy to clean her West Hollywood home. She agreed to pay at least $10 an hour. Martinez showed up.

Harsi said she was a little nervous having a stranger in the house, so she stayed home during the first cleaning.


“I had to make sure everything went OK,” Harsi said. “It’s kind of hard to trust someone.”

Now Harsi doesn’t have any qualms about leaving Martinez alone in the house.

Leticia Escobedo, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant, goes to the Hollywood Community Job Center several days a week while her husband waits for painting jobs at another day labor corner. They send money back to Guatemala to support their 15-year-old daughter.

Escobedo, who worked at a clothing factory for several years, said she started going to the center after hurting her knee a few weeks ago. At the factory, she was paid by the piece, earning about $60 for 14 hours of work.


Even though she doesn’t find work every day, Escobedo, 32, said she makes the best of her time while she waits. She showed off the English she has learned through classes offered at the center: Good morning. Excuse me. Next stop, please.

To get more women to the center, organizer Rebecca Ronquillo said, she went to bus stops and shopping areas.

“I just looked for women that resembled my mom,” said the Guatemala native. “I was right on target.”

And to get more business, Ronquillo helps the women distribute fliers and business cards, advertising dog-walking, baby-sitting, cleaning or helping with parties.


She also keeps tabs on the women who are picked up for daily work to make sure they arrive home safely. If an employer doesn’t pay, she helps the women file wage claims.

In an industry that depends heavily on referrals and word of mouth, female day laborers in some areas have gone a step further by organizing housecleaning collectives, which they say improves their wages and makes them less vulnerable to exploitation.

“Women can establish relationships with employers, rather than having brokers in between,” said Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “Those experiences are taking place around the country.”

Alvarado said there are collectives in New York, Maryland and California, and day labor organizers are discussing how to replicate them elsewhere.


About 80 trabajadoras, or workers, are part of the women’s collective at the San Francisco Day Labor Center, baby-sitting and cleaning houses for a minimum of $15 an hour.

And, in November, several immigrant women who regularly went to the Pasadena Job Center formed a collective called Magic Cleaners through the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California, which also operates the job center.

“For the men, there was everything,” said Porfiria Gaona, 59, who manages the cooperative. “For the women, nothing.”

Women don’t generally feel comfortable waiting alongside men at day labor corners, Gaona said.


“For men, it’s socially acceptable,” Gaona said. “For women, it’s not.”

Gaona, a Mexican national who is about to become a U.S. citizen, said she and the other founders wrote a business plan, registered the company, created a logo, printed fliers and set up an office at the back of the Pasadena Job Center. They received training in how to clean with eco-friendly supplies and how to interact with employers.

Nine women make up the collaborative, cleaning houses and office buildings and meeting weekly to discuss the business and any possible new jobs.

Gaona said the collective has enough work that the women don’t have to go to the center daily to wait for jobs.


The women receive $10 an hour, and anything they earn above that goes to buy supplies or to find more business.

On a recent morning, Gaona and a colleague, Xiomara Sanchez, cleaned a two-bedroom house in Altadena. Both women wore bright green shirts with the Magic Cleaners logo. While Sanchez scrubbed the toilets, Gaona vacuumed.

In her native Costa Rica, Sanchez, 45, worked at a bank. “Sitting in an office there and then coming here and getting down on all fours to clean was difficult,” she said.

Before the collective, Sanchez said, she earned as little as $4.50 an hour cleaning houses. Now, she considers herself a pioneer in the movement for female day laborers.


Raul Anorve, executive director of the Institute of Popular Education, said he plans to replicate the women’s collaborative at the Hollywood Community Job Center and eventually at the institute’s four other day labor centers.

Despite the collective’s success, Gaona said some of the men at the Pasadena Job Center still give the women a hard time.

“Here, there is a lot of machismo,” she said. “They think this is their space and that we are going to take their work.... Women have the same right to enter this center as men.”