Big Boxes and Day Laborers
By The Editorial Board
The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday afternoon passed an ordinance requiring the biggest big-box home-improvement stores — Home Depot, and in other words — to deal with the problems caused when groups of day laborers gather outside to look for work.
The new law does not explicitly require the creation of day-laborer hiring sites — rudimentary, roped-off areas with shade, water, toilets and benches — but that is what the stores would most likely do to comply with the new rule. The ordinance makes the stores responsible for keeping their parking lots safe, clean and orderly for the mingling of contractors, pers and day laborers.
It’s smart for several reasons:
Basic crowd-and-vehicle control. It’s never a good idea to have dozens of men looking for work in vast, barren parking lots without trash cans or toilets. Ad-hoc hiring sites can be unsightly, chaotic, and dangerous. But setting up amenities for day laborers has been controversial, because immigration hard-liners bitterly resist simple measures that might help the people they want to lock up and deport. They would prefer to wish away the problem rather than deal with it, as Los Angeles has.
Justice and dignity for day laborers — and other low-wage workers, both immigrant and native-born. Day labor can be a brutally hard way to make a living. But rock-bottom pay, cruel working conditions and wage-and-hour abuses — the kinds of things that make Lou Dobbs weep for the native-born American worker — are discouraged when day laborers have safe, well-run places to look for work. The idea is to deny bottom-feeding employers the opportunity to exploit people off the books and out of sight, and that is exactly what hiring sites do.
There are strong practical reasons for giving day laborers basic shelter, but there is a powerful moral argument, too. Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, based in Los Angeles, puts it eloquently: “If you accept my labor, you must accept my humanity.”
Customers should not weep for Home Depot, a chain whose very business model — selling building supplies in bulk — encourages and benefits from day labor. The company has profited immensely in the globalized world and crosses borders with ease — far more easily than, say, the hard-working immigrant men so many of its customers rely on for help with drywall, painting, landscaping and other manual jobs.
Other communities with day-laborer problems should look at what Los Angeles has done, and follow its good example. It was a long battle, but worth it.
“It took four years to get a four-page ordinance,” said a relieved Bernard Parks, the city councilman who sponsored it, just before the successful vote.