[Photo: Ligia Guallpa speaking at meeting with day laborer/members of Bay Parkway Community Job Center.]
By Rebeca Ibarra
Despite the rain, the meeting began promptly at 6 p.m. Seventeen men and one woman gathered in a 7-foot-wide trailer that sits by the water in the shadow of a king-sized Toys “R” Us in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. They used to meet in a shack that Superstorm Sandy’s ferocious winds ripped apart. They replaced it with a bright red trailer where day laborers and community organizers meet every Saturday evening to discuss the week’s agenda.
The Bay Parkway Community Job Center’s structure has changed since its foundation 12 years ago – evolving from a tent, to a shed, to a trailer – but its mission has remained the same: acting as liaison between homeowners, contractors and Latino immigrant workers. The meeting that evening revolved around the planning of the center’s anniversary party on April 11. “This isn’t going to be to be just another celebration,” said Ligia Guallpa, a young, tiny-framed woman of commanding presence. She spoke in Spanish, her voice tinged with anticipation.
“City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito and City Council Member Vincent Gentile are going to be there,” she said pressingly. “This is our first opportunity to address the needs of day laborers with the new administration.”
Immigrant day laborers have filled the gaps in New York City’s economy for years – engaging in low-paid, grueling work for an average of $60 per day, according to a 2006 study by the UCLA Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. Now that the cold has finally given way, street corners throughout the city will begin to bustle again with men in search of jobs laying brick, painting, clearing scrap, trimming hedges; if it pays, they will do it.
Guallpa’s father used to be one of those men. The child of Ecuadorian immigrants, Guallpa was brought to the Bronx at the age of 10 and grew up an American, unaware of what her parents had endured to raise her in what has become one of United States’ most expensive cities.
Guallpa, 28, was blind to the realities of the corner until, fresh out of college, she volunteered to work with the men and women who stood and waited for jobs every morning at the paradas, as they are known in Spanish, throughout the city.
“I never understood what my father went through,” Guallpa, an organizer for the Workers’ Justice Program and coordinator at the Bay Parkway Community Job Center, said. ”These are men and women who just want to work for their families.”
A 2011 Seton Hall University study of the working conditions of day laborers in New Jersey revealed that more than half of the 112 workers surveyed had been paid less than promised or nothing at all, at least once. Protective construction gear such as hardhats and goggles were never provided to 43 percent of them, and 26 percent had been assaulted by employers either verbally or physically. Working conditions of this type, however, were “less frequent in communities where community organizations provided support,” the report said.
Through Bay Parkway Community Job Center workers can negotiate contracts transparently and their salaries have been raised from $8 per hour to $22.50, Guallpa said. “Our model has helped us curb wage theft, abuse, and exploitation.”
One year after Sandy devastated New York, researchers at Baruch College released a report evaluating the role day laborers played in the aftermath of a disaster. Work is abundant after disastrous events like 9/11 and Sandy, but it often comes at the “expense of increased exposure to risks and hazards among a population that does not have regular access to doctors or healthcare,” the report noted.
“Who do you think helped clear the scraps at the World Trade Center?” Guallpa asked. “Who do you think was there to help after Sandy?”
For Guallpa, the way to relieve the plights of the immigrant worker is clear. In order for the laborers who have helped build and rebuild New York to be treated fairly they must first be recognized by the city, the state, and the country.
According to the Baruch College report, day labor centers like Bay Parkway Community are crucial in the training, informing, and protecting of immigrant workers. About 12 centers like Bay Parkway exist in the metropolitan area. However, according to a survey conducted by the National Day Labor Organizing Network, New York City stands out for not providing any public support for day labor centers.
The lack of funds was apparent at that Saturday-evening meeting in Bensonhurst. The men in the trailer, who hailed from Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, debated about who would bring tamales and soda for the anniversary party. Fruit salad, they decided, was too expensive.
“No hay plata,” Guallpa joked. ‘There is no dough.’
The men took a break from party planning to talk about a day labor center in Maryland that some had recently visited. Lights off, they sat and watched in awe a slideshow projected onto the wall. CASA Maryland looked like a real workers’ center. It had classrooms and shops where men and women were taught everything from English to carpentry. Their little red trailer paled in comparison. Money makes a difference.
CASA works with the county government under contract doing the same thing Bay Parkway does, just at a much larger scale. Guallpa has been fighting to get funding from the city for years, which is why the anniversary party was so important. This was their chance to be seen.
“We are invisible in the community,” said Humberto Hernández, 54.
The men live in the shadows, their toil eclipsed by their undocumented status. States like Arizona have sought to deprive day laborers of their livelihood by attempting to prohibit them from gathering in the streets. And though many courts throughout the country have set an immigrant-friendly precedent by scotching laws like the ones Arizona tried to implement, the message, the men say, is clear: We don’t want you. We don’t care.
“They want to throw us to the side, to discard us,” said Rubén Lozada, 44, who has lived in New York more than half his life. “But we belong to this county, we are a part of it.”
Harsh legislation may successfully alienate some immigrant workers. However, Latinos are now the nation’s largest minority and, according to research by the Pew Hispanic Research Center, “one of its fastest growing.” Though Hispanic net migration has plummeted to zero in recent years – caused mostly by a decline in Mexican migration – Latino births in the United States will continue to drive Latino population growth, the report said.
Men like Lozada and Hernández have children who were born as American citizens. They are children who face two opposing prospects: They will reap the benefits or their parents’ labor or they will suffer the consequences of the city’s failure to include immigrant day laborers in its political and social agenda.
The anniversary party took place last month. Mark-Viverito commended the little red trailer and its people for their services to the community, and said “it’s a model that we need to replicate across the city,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported.
“April 11 was a success,” Guallpa said. “Fearless, courageous and unafraid member leaders stood along the side of community partners, employers and elected officials.” Guallpa has yet to see if this praise will turn into profit for the thousands of men and women who stand at the paradas every day.