Tough Times Threaten Day Labor Centers

Emily Udell

When the housing market crashed and burned, Arizona was among the hardest hit states in the nation. And because of the downturn in development in the state, a six-year-old center built by and for day laborers in Phoenix may have to close.

Salvador Reza, who runs the city’s Centro Macehualli, recently appealed to supporters for funding to keep the center open. The group hopes to sell the land on which the center sits to a buyer who will allow it to continue to operate.

But for now, the dreams the center’s operators had of developing it into a site with housing and training for day labor workers have been put on hold. In late July, Reza estimated that the center could keep its doors open for only three months without a buyer.

A recent Associated Press article identified the problems faced by workers at Centro Macehualli as part of a national trend (WARNING: the AP story has a rather unfortunate and offensive lead that rather distracts from the issue at hand, but it does document the struggles that have confronted several day labor groups across the country.

The city of Austin, Texas, shuttered one day labor facility as part of an effort to close the city’s budget gap, a move that concerns local workers rights advocates. Another city-run day labor facility in Passiac, N.J., also recently folded.

The workers at the New Jersey center had also hoped to eventually offer English and worker-safety classes and provide other resources for day laborers and their families.

This heart-breaking quote from a story that ran in a New Jersey newspaper comes from Cesar Garcia, a 24-year-old day laborer from Mexico:

The center was working in that the police stopped bothering us; they’d say: Move along, go to the center,” instead of ticketing us. I think we only have ourselves to blame that we didn’t have enough know-how to sustain it.

Another Oakland, Calif. center, was shuttered in late July — at least temporarily. The 10-year-old Oakland Day Labor Program, which is the city’s oldest center for day laborers, could no longer afford the rent in the warehouse it occupied. That center also offered other social service referrals for workers and their families, as well as making some 1,100 permanent and temporary job placements per month.

The city also cut funding it gave to the center, but the Bay Area Volunteers of America, which runs the program, is looking for a new home.

Advocates for day laborers say that the economic downturn has hit some of those on the fringes the hardest and the competition for work has increased opportunities for exploitation.

Unfortunately, factors like the halt of the construction boom, city budget crunches and scaled-back giving by groups and individuals have put some of these centers in tenuous financial situations.

A 2006 study —the first of its kind — found that day laborers across the nation were routinely subjected to wage theft, abuse and hazardous working conditions. At that time, nearly 80 percent of these workers gathered to find work in a formal setting.

The study found that:

Worker centers have emerged as the most comprehensive response to the challenges associated with the growth of day labor. Community organizations, municipal governments, faith-based organizations and other local stakeholders have created and operate day-labor worker centers to reduce workers’ rights violations and to help communities address competing concerns over day labor.

It documented 63 centers in 17 states. The loss of even a handful is a troubling trend.

Emily Udell is a writer for Angie’s List Magazine in Indianapolis. In 2009, she finished a stint drinking bourbon and covering breaking news for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky. Her eclectic media career also includes time at the Associated Press, Punk Planet (R.I.P.), The Daily Southtown in southwest Chicago, and Radio Prague in the Czech Republic. She co-hosted and co-produced In These Times’ radio show Fire on the Prairie” from 2003 to 2006.
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