Workers across the country will meet today in Los Angeles for the first national conference of day laborers.
The focus of the four-day National Day Laborer Gathering will be on how to develop benefit programs for day laborers, many of whom are illegal Hispanic immigrants who receive low wages if they get paid at all and are forced, they say, to work under unsafe conditions.
“This is an important meeting,” said Douglas Carranza, coordinator of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the nonprofit organization hosting the event. “We are trying to end the cycle of marginalization and discrimination of day laborers.”
Also under discussion will be unionizing, legalizing immigrants and battling stereotypes. About 140 people are expected to attend.
CASA de Maryland, a nonprofit advocacy group, sent six day laborers and two staff members to the meeting.
Francisco Pecheco, CASA’s employment director, has high hopes for the conference, though he stressed that nationwide organizing efforts are in the early stages.
“These are the first steps. We are maturing,” he said. “Right now, we are looking for hope and a support system for the workers.”
Those attending the meeting hope the conference will help workers like Jorge Pena, 42, a day laborer from Honduras who never leaves his Hyattsville apartment without earplugs, gloves and work boots. A few weeks ago, he got a job making mulch. The roar of the shredder made his ears ring. He asked his employer for some earplugs. The employer told him not to return the next day.
Some advocates, including Mr. Carranza, are skeptical a traditional union would work.
“The workers move from place to place, it would be difficult to enroll them,” he said, noting that they couldn’t charge union dues to the low-income workers.
Day laborer populations in major cities have swelled in recent years. No official count of day laborers exists. But “without a doubt, there are 100,000s in the country,” he said, estimating around 80 to 90 percent of the workers to be illegal.
About 40 day-labor centers exist nationwide. Many more informal gathering spots for day laborers, usually in parking lots or street corners, exist. At least 10 informal spots exist in the Washington area, hosting several thousand day laborers.
Day laborers work mostly construction, moving and landscaping jobs. Depending on the skill involved, they earn from $8 to $22 per hour. But they often will work for less if they need the job.
The workers often take grunge work, like demolishing buildings or digging ditches, that legal workers have rejected.
About 90 percent of the workers are illegal, Mr. Carranza said. Therefore, they are not protected by employment laws. They receive no health insurance, disability or Social Security benefits. Workers pay injury costs out of pocket.