Bebeto Matthews / AP

Lined up on ‘la parada’: Advocating for NYC’s day laborers

Seeking work on city street corners, immigrants struggle for temporary jobs and fight, with help, for a fair wage

Every day is a new beginning for Israel Sislema, a 43-year-old immigrant from Ecuador. By 5 a.m., he is usually waiting at the corner of Roosevelt Avenue and 69th Street in Queens, N.Y., hoping to find work.

One day recently, hundreds of other immigrants stood for hours along the sidewalk with him. Some leaned against a church wall, hands in pockets, trying to stay warm. Others sat on the cold pavement. When a truck pulled up, the men sprang to life and dashed toward it. The lucky few jumped in the back, and the truck pulled away.

Sislema did not make it. It was Friday, and he hadn’t found any work all week. “That’s just how it goes,” he said.

Such is the life of the day laborer. It’s a grim existence for the more than 100,000 men and women who show up at selected street corners ("paradas" in Spanish) around the United States on any given day. Many are undocumented immigrants waiting patiently for the long-promised immigration reform that would allow them to emerge from the shadows. For these willing workers, finding a job is just the beginning.

According to one national study on day laborers, stolen wages, accidents, injuries, physical threats and abuse are just a few hazards of the trade. Then there are the deportations — ramped up under the Obama administration to an unprecedented average of 1,100 a day. Amid this dark picture, however, they are now getting organized. Several groups are trying to educate these vulnerable workers on their labor rights and help them stand up together against abusive employers.

“People think these workers are so vulnerable that they would never stand up for themselves,” said Nadia Marín-Molina, the New York representative of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON). “But they do have rights, and they are willing to fight for them.”

All workers, regardless of immigration status, are protected under U.S. labor laws — they have the right to be paid and the right to a safe working environment, free from abuse. Exercising these rights isn’t so easy, but as Marín-Molina explained, these workers have very little, so it could be argued they also have very little to lose. “I don’t have a job for tomorrow, they often say, so what does it matter if I lose the one I have today?” said Marín-Molina.

NICE provides services for day laborers and the undocumented.
Bebeto Matthews / AP

One of the biggest problems the laborers face is getting paid for their work, but collective action can make a big difference. Every day at the intersection of Marcy and Division avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, up to 100 women stand at the corner looking for housecleaning work. The competition for jobs is fierce, but even when they come, the women say they are often paid less than they were promised, and sometimes they are not paid at all.

“The informality of the arrangements between these women and their employers [mostly local households] creates a space for wage theft and other abusive practices,” said Ligia Guallpa, the executive director of the Workers Justice Project (WJP).

Guallpa has a personal connection to the issue. Both of her parents were day laborers, so she is fully aware of the abuses the workers face. The WJP was established in New York in 2010 to fight for the rights of low-wage immigrant workers. Guallpa and other WJP staff make regular visits to the Williamsburg corner to teach the women how to act collectively to stop wage theft and other abuses. If an employer owes more than two or three workers back wages, they will bring a group of women together to go to that employer's house and simply demand that he pay.

“It’s not sophisticated,” Guallpa said. “But it works, and it gives a lot of power to the women.”

Another WJP priority is to raise the average hourly wage. As more and more women keep showing up at the corner, however, it can be hard to persuade them, never mind their employers, to stick to a minimum hourly rate. As Guallpa explained: “When you have 50 or 60 workers on a corner competing for one or two jobs, the women are sometimes forced to accept pay and conditions that are not compatible with human dignity. That is the reality of the corner.”

Mothers stroll past the Bay Parkway Community Job Center.
John Moore / Getty Images

But advocates and organizers are not put off by the harsh realities of life and work on the margins. “Even with this dog-eat-dog reality, organizing is essential,” said Valeria Treves, the executive director of New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), which has offices near the Roosevelt Avenue corner. Last year, NICE began a new venture to host and dispatch workers from its offices early in the mornings, giving the informal process a more formal, better organized setting. “It’s a much better alternative to the corner, but we don’t have a whole lot of room here to bring in enough workers off the streets,” she said, indicating the cramped offices.

In 2006, a New York City panel commissioned a study on this immigrant workforce. Two of the key recommendations were to build day labor centers to act as intermediaries between job seekers and their casual employers, and to give the workers the dignity of shelter. NICE and other immigrant advocacy groups are still waiting for funding for these centers to materialize. In the meantime, they are working with the limited space and resources they have.

One of the most established centers in the city is run by the WJP on Bay Parkway in Brooklyn. Although it is nothing more than a humble trailer, it makes a big difference to the member workers.

On one bitterly cold morning, the center was packed with men, huddled around the heater, sipping freshly brewed coffee. “It’s much better in here,” said Luis Morales, a soft-spoken Colombian immigrant, who wears his years of day laboring on his lined face.

But the center does much more for workers like Morales than provide free coffee and heat. “When you get picked up on a corner,” he said, “they can make you work all day with no break and then maybe not even pay. Here, we always get paid.”

Another reason the centers are important for workers is to decrease their risk of deportation. Under the Secure Communities program, which was established in 2008, police and sheriffs’ departments in most jurisdictions across the country are authorized to enforce immigration law. “Now they don’t have to wait for people to commit a crime to arrest them,” said Pablo Alvarado, NDLON’s executive director. “They can ask anyone for papers and then arrest them based on their immigration status. The corners are the first places where police are experimenting with these new powers.” NDLON’s highest priority, according to Alvarado, is to stop these arrests and subsequent deportations — before immigration reform finally passes and many of the workers might get a chance to get legalized.

In the meantime, these men and women continue to show up at the corners every day, ready to work. At the Roosevelt Avenue parada, by the time 10 a.m. approaches, most of the remaining workers already know that their chances of getting a job that day are fading. They stay on anyway. Sometimes they stay until dark. “You have to stay positive,” said Sislema. “You have to believe that tomorrow will be better.”

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