Day Labor: Undocumented, Unprotected, Unconscionable

January 27th, 2006 by

From time to time the Insider has focused on the many compelling issues relating to undocumented workers. If you enter the words “immigrant workers”in our blog’s search engine, about 30 responses pop up. There are probably 10 million undocumented workers throughout the country, performing some of the most hazardous and least desirable jobs. They usually work without the protection of any training, personal protective equipment or the fundamental rights and benefits accorded to most people who work. It’s a dangerous situation that requires constant monitoring. In fact, the issue calls for a blog of its own.
We are pleased to see that our colleague, Peter Rousmaniere, has undertaken responsibility for just such a blog. His immigrant worker blog was launched earlier this week and promises to provide a steady focus on the myriad issues confronting undocument workers. While the Insider will continue to track immigrant workers occasionally, for readers in need of a daily dose, Peter’s site will prove indispensable.
Day Labor
Peter guides us to a recent national study of day labor: On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States. This is a detailed survey of 2,600 day workers from across the country, written by scholars from UCLA and the University of Illinois. It’s not surprising to find that among the day laborers surveyed, fully three quarters are undocumented workers. The workers report wide-spread harassment and abuse, including non-payment and underpayment of wages and frequent injuries that go both untreated and unreported.
According to the study, most day laborers are hired by contractors (43 per cent) and by “homeowners” (49 per cent) – but the homeowner category probably includes the ad hoc crew pulled together by an unincorporated, uninsured and in all likelihood, equally undocumented supervisor. What are these people doing? Landscaping, house cleaning, roofing, carpentry, painting, demolishing buildings and cleaning up debris from hurricane Katrina. Although they are invisible and below the radar screen in most conventional respects, they are working everywhere.
The study points to a number of solutions for improving the plight of these workers:
– better enforcement of existing labor laws, including fair labor standards and workers comp
– better education and advocacy for immigrant workers through worker centers such as the Brazilian immigrant center highlighted in Peter’s blog
– improvement in the immigration laws – not from the enforcement side but in finding ways to legitimize undocumented workers.
I suspect that the prevailing “head in the sand” approach to undocumented workers derives from a combination of racism and blunt economics: heck, many of these workers cannot speak English and anyway, it saves money. To be sure, it’s cheaper for the consumer when the worker is paid in cash, does not receive any benefits and is on his own when it comes to injuries. Cheaper, but unconscionable. The first step toward solving this huge problem is paying proper attention to it. Peter’s new blog will help us do just that.