Misconceptions about day laborers are common. “On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States” is a report published in January of 2006 by UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty.
The report provides many basic facts about day labor today and dispels many common myths and misconceptions about this labor force as it exists across the country. The full report is available here.
Listed below are several commonly held stereotypes about day laborers, and research that sheds light on the reality behind these myths.
Day Labor: Myths and Reality
Myth 1: Day laborers are recently arrived, undocumented immigrants who are desperate for work and homeless, or on a temporary respite or layoff from “real” jobs.
Though some day laborers fit this description a larger number do not. “On the Corner” finds that day laborers are diverse, and these individuals take on temporary employment for a variety of reasons. Approximately 48% of all day laborers in Southern California, the area of the country with the highest concentration of day laborers, have been in the United States for over five years, and 10% have been here for more than 20 years. Among day laborers surveyed, 26% have worked in the day labor market for six or more years, and 90% of these workers pursue day labor as full-time employment. The UCLA study also reports that 95% of day laborers in Southern California are not homeless and 42% are married.
In addition to these figures, the National Day Labor Organizing Network estimates that the majority of day laborers support families from afar by sending them an average of $2,630 per year.
Myth 2: Day laborers steal American jobs.
One of the main concerns raised about immigrant day laborers is that they take jobs away from American citizens. Many argue that day laborers undercut the wages of similar workers, making themselves unfairly more attractive to potential employers. However, there are fewer Americans available to take on low-skilled labor jobs, and day laborers are filling a need in the American economy. Even with high unemployment, there are some jobs that a majority of American workers refuse to do: farm work is a prime example. In 1960 about 50% of the U.S. workforce did not have a high school diploma. Today that number is down to 12%. This indicates that fewer Americans are available to do the unskilled labor jobs such as landscaping, hotel work, and construction work.
In August 2006 the ALF-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations), the largest federation of unions in the United States, joined forces with the National Day Labor Organizing Network, a group of over 30 day labor centers across the country, in recognizing undocumented workers as a crucial part of the U.S. labor force, and even as potential union members. This statement of support for day laborers from American unions demonstrates that day laborers are increasingly seen as allies, rather than a threat, to American workers.
The Washington Post’s article on the agreement is available here.
Myth 3: Day labor work is a new labor market.
There’s nothing new about day laborers. The Center for Urban Poverty’s report indicates that day laborers were used as far back as Fifth-century Athens where unemployed men were allowed to wait for daily work in a particular area of the Agora designated just for this purpose. Economist Vernon Mund in London reported on day laborers in mid-First century London where construction workers gathered at marketplaces in the early mornings, waiting for employment. The report sites numerous other examples of day labor workers from around the world, including India where politicians take a “hands-off” policy regarding this labor market, and in Berlin, Germany where there is a highly regulated labor market, including many Polish workers seeking temporary employment.
Myth 4: Day labor work is disconnected from the labor market of traditional jobs.
“On the Corner” reports that day laborers have an extremely large presence in Los Angeles, and everyone knows who they are and what type of work they seek. According to the report, day laborers are found in almost every neighborhood in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Additionally, homeowners are not the only employers of these laborers. Almost one-half of all day labor employers are subcontractors connected to the construction, landscaping, painting, and garment industries.
Myth 5: Demand for day labor work is low.
Typically the sizeable population of day laborers and day labor sites across the United States only exists because there is a demand for that labor. Not all day laborers find employment every day, but there is still high enough demand for day labor to support the laborers. The Center for Urban Poverty reports that employers are generally satisfied with the performance of day laborers and give positive feedback about their experience with these workers.
High demand for temporary, on-call workers also results from a shift in the U.S. economy. Because of demand for market flexibility in all sectors of the economy, as well as cost pressures in the construction industry, employers are turning to alternative hiring methods, and many are employing temporary workers hired on an as-needed basis for specific jobs.
Myth 6: Local residents and storefront owners oppose day laborers.
Many of the most vocal concerns regarding day laborers come from community residents and store owners where workers congregate. Complaints focus on the impact of the workers’ presence and their effects on property values, aesthetics, and safety of the areas where they wait for work.
Some communities are addressing these concerns head-on. The past decade has seen many collaborative projects between community-based organizations, city councils and agencies, planning officials, community residents, and storefront owners to benefit both the workers and the communities. Community-based solutions often involve creating a day labor center that allows for some control over waiting sites and provide workers with a safer and fairer way to secure employment. Day labor centers can also be beneficial to nearby businesses. For example, landscaping or home supply centers might attract customers who, after purchasing supplies, know they can find workers to help with those projects.
Myth 7: Day laborers don’t care about community complaints.
Day labor populations are often viewed as “outsiders” in their communities due to cultural differences. They are sometimes perceived as unconcerned with the community’s perception of them, or with community life in general. However, studies show that day laborers do, in fact, feel ties to their communities, and try to become active and positive members in their environments. Of the day laborers interviewed in Southern California, 99% said keeping the area where they waited for work clean was a priority because fewer people would complain about them, they would be more approachable by employers, and for reasons of self-pride. This indicates that day laborers are aware that their presence on street corners and in parking lots is often a source of contention in communities.