Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, identify valid effectiveness measures, determine important intervention points, and select an appropriate set of responses for your specific problem. The literature on day laborers provides a general picture of the market for them, the conditions of day-labor work, the laborers themselves, their employers, the places where they assemble, and the link between day laborers and human smuggling.
Day laboring dates back to at least the medieval times, when laborers assembled in daily or weekly markets throughout Europe to be hired for farming and herding tasks. In the United States, day laboring dates back to the late 1700s, when common laborers (many of them immigrants) such as chimney sweepers, wood cutters, and cart men sought jobs daily. During the mid-1800s, “shape-up” sites in northeastern port cities had a system of hiring dockworkers for daily or half-day shifts.†
† For more on the history of organized day labor, see Larrowe (1955), Mohl (1971), Mund (1948), and Valenzuela (2003).
Today’s market for day laborers exists wherever there is a need for construction and agricultural workers. The jobs include home construction and/or refurbishment, landscaping, roofing, painting, and harvesting and other farming activities. In some regions, day laborers work in factories on production lines.
For low-skilled or illiterate workers, day labor sites provide an easily accessible way to find employment. For employers, day labor sites provide easy access to a relatively large pool of workers whom they can hire when needed and release when not.
The specific conditions of day labor employment vary, but the arrangement is generally the same regardless of place or employer. Day laborers are usually paid in cash at the end of each work day. The wages paid to day laborers vary and depend on the time of year, the skill of the laborer, and the location of the day laborer site. By some estimates, the pay can reach $80 to $100 a day, exceeding federal and state minimum-wage ceilings. However, in markets where there are many more laborers than jobs, wages may be bargained lower, resulting in pay that is below minimum wage. Employment generally lasts from one to three days, is unstable, and provides no benefits or worker protections. Employers may sometimes mistreat day laborers, may not pay them for their work, may make them work without regular breaks, and may require them to work under hazardous conditions.
Despite the chaotic appearance of day labor sites, the daily procedures are relatively structured. Laborers usually gather at the site at around 6 a.m., waiting for prospective employers to pass by in pickup trucks or vans. As prospective employers arrive, groups of laborers crowd around the vehicles pointing to themselves and indicating their availability for work. Employers select laborers for different reasons, some of which include the laborers’ skills and ability to speak English. Often, employers will return to the site and look for men they have hired previously. Many laborers wait several hours before getting a job. Some laborers do not secure jobs at all and usually leave the site in the afternoon. It is common for some laborers not to secure work for several days, and periods of unemployment lasting several weeks have been reported. The rate at which the laborer will be paid is often negotiated during the selection process, but is sometimes agreed to on the way to the jobsite or at the jobsite itself, once the laborer has seen the nature of the work. The employer often provides lunch.
The exact number of day laborers is uncertain; however, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has estimated that approximately 260,000 wait each day on street corners for employment. In Los Angeles, some 20,000 to 22,000 day laborers are estimated to seek work every day. Most day laborers are male, entered the country illegally, are young, are uneducated, and either cannot speak English or have poor command of the language. Because of their illegal status, they largely lack access to formal employment. Most day laborers are Hispanic, though this varies somewhat by region. For example, in Chicago one study reported that the majority of day laborers were African American.
Day labor appeals to workers for many reasons. First, day laborers are paid in cash at the end of each work day. Getting paid daily is beneficial because laborers can use the money immediately to pay for food and other needs. Receiving payment in cash also eliminates the need to establish a bank account. This appeals to illegal immigrants who are wary of formal institutions and/or lack the documentation needed to establish accounts. Second, payment in cash means that day labor work is “under the table” and tax-free. This creates further incentives for immigrants who have worked for much less in their home countries. Finally, day laborers have the power to negotiate their wages for each job. They are free to accept or decline a job and to walk off the job site, should they choose. This negotiation power allows them to undercut the market rate, while at the same time make much more money than possible in their homeland.
Comparatively little is known about those who employ day laborers, but one study found that contractors hire the large majority of them. Private employers are the next largest group of hirers. Employing day laborers is appealing because they are easily accessible, are hardworking, can be hired when needed, and are cheaper to employ since employers are not required to provide benefits packages. Employers often rehire the same workers once they have established a relationship and the laborers’ work skills are established.
Day laborer sites exist mostly in metropolitan areas. Sites are often located adjacent to paint stores, plant nurseries, truck rental stores, and home improvement or hardware stores. Laborers may congregate in the store parking lots, marketing themselves for specific types of employment. For instance, those in front of paint stores are looking for painting jobs, whereas those in front of home improvement stores are looking for general construction jobs. It is efficient for day laborer sites to be located near such establishments because it allows prospective employers to pick up supplies and workers all in one stop. However, the congregation of large numbers of laborers sometimes causes problems for merchants, who might take actions to keep the laborers off the premises, thereby displacing them to nearby street corners and sidewalks.
Day laborer sites also exist in public parks, vacant lots, and residential neighborhoods. These sites may exist for a variety of reasons; they are easily accessible to laborers and/or employers, have simply been there for many years, or have informally been allowed to exist by community members. Municipalities, church groups, and other community-based organizations have established a smaller number of day laborer sites to help deal with the large numbers of day laborers. These sites are usually regulated and pose the fewest problems for the community.
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