Monday, May 01, 2006

First National Study of Day Laborers

A guest blog by UCLA professor Abel Valenzuela, drawn from: On The Corner: Day Labor in the United States, by Abel Valenzuela, Jr., Nik Theodore, Edwin Meléndez, and Ana Luz Gonzalez (January 2006)

They attend church, raise children and participate in community activities and institutions. Yet, when America's day laborers go to work, they have experiences that would shock any other upstanding community member: police harassment, violence at the hands of employers, withheld wages and conditions so dangerous that is not unusual for them to be sidelined for more than a month with work-related injuries or to work for weeks on end in pain.

This is the vivid portrait painted by the first nationwide study of America's 117,600 day laborers. Orchestrated by social scientists from UCLA, the University of Illinois at Chicago and New York's New School University, "On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States" presents findings from a survey of 264 hiring sites in 143 municipalities in 20 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

"The goal was to document a population that, though quite visible on the corners of U.S. cities, is poorly understood by the public and by policy makers," said Nik Theodore, an assistant professor in the Urban Planning and Policy Program at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and one of the study's three lead authors. "We hope to inform policy debates so that decision-makers can devise thoughtful and effective strategies for resolving many of the problems that day laborers face."

Three years in the making, the report includes the first-ever national count of U.S. day laborers, little-known characteristics of these workers' backgrounds and troubling aspects of their working conditions across five U.S. regions: the West, Midwest, Southwest, South and East.

"Day labor has been thrust into the public consciousness, but we're concerned that the debate has gone on without an understanding of what gives rise to the phenomenon or what the many downsides are to work in this field," said Abel Valenzuela, a UCLA social scientist and study coauthor.

Among the findings:

  • Once contained to ports-of-entry cities along the East and West coasts, day labor is now a nationwide phenomenon, spilling into small and rural towns throughout America, including the South and Midwest.
  • Day labor may be widespread, but the total count of these workers is actually onetenth to one-20th the size bandied about by anti-immigration forces.
  • Wage theft is the most common abuse suffered by day laborers, with nearly half of all workers having been denied payment in the two months prior to the survey.
  • Just over three-quarters of day laborers are undocumented immigrants, meaning that the share of American citizens working in day labor is much higher than commonly supposed and that day laborers account for only a small fraction of the estimated 7- to 11-million undocumented immigrants in America today.

Valenzuela, Theodore and New School economist Edwin Meléndez directed teams of surveyors during July and August 2004 as they interviewed 2,660 randomly selected day laborers at 264 hiring sites across the nation.

Interviewers asked about the workers' educational backgrounds, family lives, occupational histories and experiences as day laborers, including injuries sustained on the job and the nature and frequency of abuse at the hands of employers, merchants, police and security guards.

Using statistical methods pioneered by researchers of another shifting and hard-to-quantify American population -- the homeless -- Theodore, Valenzuela and Meléndez were able to create a statistically valid snapshot of day labor in America today, a portrait previously considered too difficult to capture.

Many day laborers turned out to be family men. A significant number are married (36 percent) or living with a partner (7 percent), and almost two-thirds have children. Furthermore, many are engaged in community activities. More than half regularly attend church, one-fifth are involved in sports clubs and more than one-quarter participated in community worker centers. Many (40 percent) have been in the United States for more than six years.

"These guys proved to be much more active and ensconced members of their communities than commonly supposed," said Valenzuela, a UCLA associate professor of urban planning and Chicana/o studies and director of UCLA's Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.

The researchers say that the prevalence of abuse proved to be the most defining characteristic of the market. In the two months leading up to the survey, 44 percent of day laborers were denied food, water and breaks; 32 percent worked more hours than initially agreed to with the employer; 28 percent were insulted or threatened by the employer; and 27 percent were abandoned at the worksite by an employer.

"Coming into the study, we knew that the low-wage market is rife with violations of basic labor standards, but we still found the statistics shocking and disturbing," said Theodore, who also is the director of UIC's Center for Urban Economic Development.

Day laborers suffered violence at the hands of employers, fellow day laborers and bands of youths who see easy marks in the workers who are paid in cash for a day's work.

"I don't know of any other occupation so susceptible to so many abuses," Valenzuela said.

Injuries were also common. In the year leading up to the study, 20 percent of day laborers were injured on the job, and of those two-thirds missed work as a result. In fact, accidents sidelined injured workers for an average of 33 days and caused them to work in pain for an average of 20 days.More than half did not receive the medical care they needed for the injury, either because the worker could not afford health care or the employer refused to cover the worker under the company's workers' compensation insurance.

The Midwest displayed the highest rates of abuse in almost every category. Also with the highest overall injury rate, the region's laborers were the most likely to face physical risk. A whopping 92 percent said they considered their work to be dangerous.

"The dangers and injuries in the Midwest may have to do with the fact that roofing jobs are undertaken at significantly higher rates than in the other regions," Theodore said.

Anti-immigration forces have portrayed illegal immigration as the driving force behind day labor. But the researchers found a market fueled by a growing zeal for home improvement and by employers under pressure to cut wages and benefits. The report characterizes the market as "employer-driven" with more than two-thirds of day laborers hired repeatedly by the same employers, including contractors in the building and landscaping trades.

The researchers call for greater worker protections, better monitoring of safety conditions and increased access to legal services to adjudicate workers' rights violations.

"Many day laborers believe that avenues for enforcement of labor and employment laws are effectively closed to them," Valenzuela said. "This belief is reinforced by the general climate of hostility that exists toward day laborers in many parts of the country."

The researchers also advocate support for strategies that can help day laborers make the transition from the informal economy into better jobs and what the report calls realistic immigration reform, including the normalizing of the immigration status of undocumented workers.

"Employers are often able to deter workers from contesting labor violations by threatening to turn them over to federal immigration authorities," Theodore said. "Even when employers do not make these threats overtly, day laborers, mindful of their undocumented status, are reluctant to seek recourse through government channels. We want to change that."

Professor Abel Valenzuela
UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty

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