Economy & Trade, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour, Migration & Refugees, North America

LABOUR-US: Demand Dries Up For On-Demand Workers

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Washington, Dec 23 2008 (IPS) - Outside a Home Depot store, it's a typical December morning in Seattle: cool and gray with a light sprinkle falling. At 7:30, about 50 men wait at the entrances to the parking lot. Most wear jackets, jeans and work shoes, and some carry day packs with tools, water and lunch. They stand silently with hands in pockets, alone or in knots of three or four, baseball caps or sweatshirt hoods deployed against the chilly mist.

Occasionally someone lights up a cigarette; here and there a conversation unfolds in Spanish. A young man with a ponytail and his sleeves rolled up shoots the breeze with another, gesticulating with both hands and pacing. They all scan the street for approaching cars and trucks.

Three hours later, around 10:30, a crew-cab pickup truck finally pulls up. A stampede of men engulfs it, shouting and jockeying for position. The driver points to four, who jump into the cab. Others try to squeeze in the door behind them, and the new hires have to fend them off to close it. As the truck drives off, the others retreat back to the sidewalk, a few grumbling, most silent.

Who's On the Corner?

In 2006, researchers at three United States universities published the results of a survey of 2660 day labourers in 139 municipalities across the country. "On the Corner: Day Labour in the United States" estimated a national total of 117,600 day labourers working or looking for work on any given day, with 60 percent concentrated in the West and Southwest. The median hourly wage was 10 dollars, and median monthly earnings varied widely by season between 1,400 and 500 dollars.

Almost half of workers surveyed reported an instance of wage theft by employers in the past two months. One in five suffered a work-related injury in the past year, for which over half did not receive medical care.

Day labourers' most common occupations included construction labourer, gardener and landscaper, painter, roofer, and drywall installer. Forty-nine percent were employed by homeowners or renters, and 43 percent by construction contractors. Over four-fifths relied on day labour as their sole source of income.

The great majority of day labourers were Latin Americans, the study found, with 59 percent originally from Mexico and 28 percent from Central America. Three-quarters were undocumented immigrants. Seven percent were natives of the U.S. Sixty-three percent had children, and 28 percent of the children were U.S. citizens.

Very few women seek work on the corners, although the number has been growing, according to advocates. Some workers centres, however, have helped immigrant women to organise cooperatives that do house cleaning, sewing and catering.

A young man from Chihuahua jokes: "You have to be fast and strong to get a job here." Lately, he says, only two or three vehicles are stopping to hire people on an average day. Most hire only one or two workers.

Until recently he had a regular job with a small contractor two to three days a week, but he was laid off. "The whole country is like a gigantic hospital," he says, full of people with problems. When he can afford bus fare, he'd like to go back home to Mexico and his family to live.

The transaction around the pickup truck is the signature of an informal but high-profile marketplace that opens for business every morning outside home-improvement, paint, gardening and equipment-rental stores across the United States.

The resulting work is dispersed among neighbourhoods and job sites: a crew laying down roofing on a new condominium development, a couple of workers mowing a lawn, labourers helping to pour a concrete retaining wall.

The cheapness and productiveness of day labourers has kept many homeowners, as well as residential construction and gardening contractors, coming back for more over decades. And it has reduced the cost of living for millions.

Although day labour markets have existed in the United States for at least 170 years, their recent boom has been partly a response to the housing bubble of the past decade, fueled by an increase in immigration from Mesoamerica. The plentiful supply of cheap labour, in turn, has helped to lower costs and drive increased housing construction.

When the bubble began to deflate, day labourers were among the first and hardest-hit casualties. "Day labour is where the rubber meets the road in the economic downturn," observed Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Labourer Organising Network, a consortium of support organisations across the country.

As residential construction and discretionary income flat-lined, most network members reported sharp drops in jobs, beginning a year ago and accelerating this fall.

"We're having people losing their houses, people not investing in their homes. So that's having a huge impact on the day labourer population nationwide," said Veronica Federovsky, NDLON West Coast coordinator. She estimates that total day labour hours could be down 60 percent from a year ago: not only is the number of jobs reduced, but remaining jobs tend to last only a day or two rather than several days or weeks.

In some areas, worker centres that support day labourers are encountering a new trend: some employers are offering lower hourly wages. With a recent base wage of around 10 dollars for unskilled work, even many workers who could find jobs were already struggling to pay the rent, buy food, and send a little home to their families in Mexico or Central America.

As demand drops for day labourers, supply appears to be swelling with workers laid off from jobs in the formal economy. Nationally, unemployment has risen from 4.7 percent to 6.7 percent in the past year. Now day labourer advocates are seeing more U.S. citizens seeking work on the corners along with immigrants.

In an atmosphere where federal raids on workplaces have branded immigrants as criminals, local treatment of day labourers in the economic downturn has varied widely across the country. In Arizona, aggressive street sweeps by one sheriff have intimidated and angered immigrants and citizens across the political spectrum. Aurora, Colorado, a suburb of Denver, recently passed an ordinance aimed at clearing day labourers out of the centre of town.

Other cities, though, have resisted pressures on local law enforcement to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. Los Angeles recently passed an ordinance requiring new and renovated big-box home-improvement stores to create plans for accommodating the day labour markets they have attracted. This could include providing shade, water, restrooms and other basic amenities for day labourers.

Existing centres outside such stores already offer a "host of benefits to both workers and consumers, such as better wages, an orderly hiring process and more reliable workers," according to Professor Abel Valenzuela, Jr. of the University of California, Los Angeles.

In response to the economic crash, some workers say they are planning to return to Mexico or Central America. In the past, it was common for workers to make the trek home in the off season and return the next year, but now the increased costs and dangers of crossing the border make circular migration a more difficult option.

In northerly cities like Seattle, some day labourers have traditionally left for the southern U.S. in the winter. But now local economies are even worse in much of California and the Southwest.

The coordinator of an organisation of Mexicans abroad, Al Rojas, told the Mexican daily La Jornada that he expected thousands of migrants to leave the U.S. in coming months because of the collapse of construction.

Immigration to the U.S. from Mexico has already dropped off dramatically, 42 percent in the past two years according to the Mexican government's statistical institute. The U.S. Census Bureau found that immigration from all countries declined by nearly one half in 2007.

Many day labourers, though, say that economic conditions at home are even worse than here. The best among bad alternatives? Come back to the corner tomorrow and hope for work.

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