Labor survey details abuses
Sergio de la Cruz says the abuse began when he was picked up at a day labor site in Yonkers, N.Y.
He was taken to a construction site in the Bronx, where he says his boss took his Mexican identity papers and locked him in at night. For four months, de la Cruz says he was locked into three separate sites, most of the time sleeping on a plank bed and defecating into a plastic bag.
As America's use of day labor grows, legal aid experts say this is one of the more striking complaints. But just as astonishing, they say, is de la Cruz didn't know someone could help him.
In the first national survey of day laborers, released in January, nearly half of 2,660 workers interviewed said they'd been cheated out of pay in the past two months. Almost 45 percent said they hadn't been given food and water. More than one-fourth had been abandoned at a work site.
Seventy percent said they didn't know where to report such abuse, or how.
Such figures don't surprise Lee Pliscou, directing attorney of the Marysville office of California Rural Legal Assistance. He said his office handles hundreds of complaints each year from Yuba-Sutter migrant workers who didn't get paid for their labor.
“We get complaints from the farm labor community,” Pliscou said, “but increasingly we're seeing those in other industries as well, including construction.”
Pliscou estimates the problem is larger than what his office sees, because many workers don't know where to turn for help. Others may figure a bad job is better than none at all in a region with double-digit unemployment.
“People are looking for jobs, so it's not outrageous that a person would say yes to a job that they don't know what the rate of pay is, who their employer is,” Pliscou said. “They were asked, ‘Do you want a job?' and they said yes.”
The survey illustrates a key problem in the story of day labor: About three-quarters of the estimated 117,000 day laborers in the United States are here illegally. What happens when they say they're treated illegally as well?
Many workers, recent immigrants in particular, don't know they're entitled to receive at least minimum wage even if they're hired for piecework, Pliscou said. And, “if they know they're getting cheated, they live with that because employers made illegal threats to them,” including deportation.
The Marysville center is one of a growing number that offer legal help to immigrant workers. The national survey found 63 day labor worker centers offering legal or other services in 17 states.
Most cases come by word of mouth, and sometimes quite late. Laura Stack, managing attorney of the Virginia Justice Center, recently met a Bolivian man who said he'd worked on a construction site for two-and-a-half months without pay.
“We tell them that if you're not paid in two weeks, be very, very afraid,” Stack says.
“They expect once a month someone not to pay them,” says Salvador Reza, who works with the National Day Labor Organizing Network in Phoenix. “It's gotten to a point where they see it as a business loss.”
Reza says the local day labor center takes down the license plate numbers of employers' vehicles, and workers are told to write down as much information as possible, such as names and addresses.
More frequently, people hesitate to report abuse to police because they think they'll be deported. De la Cruz, the day laborer, waited months before slipping out of the construction site.
“I didn't know I had rights,” he explained in Spanish through a translator. After begging money from people - “It was embarrassing, but it was the only way I could do it” - he made his way back to Yonkers, just north of the Bronx, and told his friends what happened.
A year and a half later, in late December, the Workers Rights Law Center helped him file a lawsuit against his employer in U.S. District Court. Even if he wins a judgment, it's unlikely he'll ever be paid.
Most cases involve labor contractors and subtractors, who operate with just cell phones and first names and often can't be found. The same situation faces Yuba-Sutter workers who attempt to collect unpaid wages from their employers, according to Pliscou.
“Nobody likes to get the hollow victory,” he said. “We try to be realistic with the workers about what's at the end of the road and how long the road's going to be. We let our clients decide if it's worth it.”