“A day laborer’s life is a very sad one. A very hard one. They have this idea that when they come to the U.S. their problems are solved. They don’t realize, their nightmare is about to begin.” – Art Zepeda, CARECEN Day Labor Program Organizer
Carlos Vareli wakes up most mornings knowing he won’t find work.
Regardless, he still gets out of bed while most of Los Angeles sleeps. He might drive if he has gas money. A car allows him to pack his priceless tools, but it’s been awhile. Instead, these days he usually bikes or walks the three miles, leaving behind those tools, and his wife in their one-room apartment at Washington and Western.
At the downtown Home Depot parking lot, a last-gasp wilderness awaits.
At 7:30 a.m., the parking lot is brimming with hundreds of desperate men like Vareli; each hoping his spot will be the lucky one today. Scores of them are scattered throughout the lot, some along the driving lanes, others behind truck beds, more bursting out of the landscaped islands; every nook and cranny.
Vareli once was a professor in Central America. Today, in the U.S., he is a day laborer.
Among the jobless in Los Angeles, day laborers have been hit especially hard — “it’s never been worse,” Vareli says. While more than 26,000 L.A. County day laborers hope for a few hours of work every day, the housing crisis and recession have abandoned most to a fruitless search, made even tougher by anti-immigration sentiments, ineffective city-funded day laborer centers and an influx of Latin American immigrants, all competing against a much larger demographic than previously existed.
“I have not heard of positive signs for day laborers yet,” said Lynn Svensson of the Day Labor Research Institute. “I believe that day laborers may be the last to get the benefits of the ‘recovery’ because their wages are determined on the spot by employers.”
Still, they meet, and in record numbers. Most meet at strategic corners; maybe a busy intersection, or outside a that corresponds with their skillset. Others meet at day-laborer centers, where depending on whether the center is privately or city-run can differ drastically in service. No matter where they meet, the problems are escalating from all angles.
For a long time, day laborers have had to fight to simply solicit work from public corners. This year, in Redondo Beach, a federal appellate court struck down an anti-solicitation ordinance as being unnecessarily and overly broad.
Vareli hasn’t had a single job for four months now.
“Eight years ago, the people came here, the constructors, and when I asked them how much they could pay, they’d say ‘Oh, I can pay 10 dollars per hour,’” Vareli said. “Now, It’s impossible. They say, ‘I can pay 7 or 8 dollars an hour,’ and many people say, ‘I can go.’”
Exploitation runs rampant
In one corner of the downtown Home Depot is a non-profit day laborer center run by the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN). Despite requiring a $10 minimum wage, organizers, like Art Zepeda, witness hundreds of day laborers in the parking lot getting exploited every day by people looking for cheap help. Many are paid well below that minimum wage, if not below the state minimum wage ($8).
The parking lot is a wilderness they can’t control.
“Carlos is trying to educate them, because he went to a university, he understands more,” Zepeda said. “He’s more developed in his critical thinking. ‘Don’t do this, they’re taking advantage of you!’ he says. But they can’t see it.”
There is nothing CARECEN can do except educate.
The numbers are lopsided, with the ever-increasing ranks of the unemployed laborers vying for the attention of fewer employers seeking their help. An estimated 136 day-laborer corners dot L.A. County, but only 16 centers offer a range of employment and social services, according to experts.
Despite the recession, workers continue to come from Mexico and Central America; a pattern Zepeda has seen escalate in the last two years.
“In Latin America, a lot of these employers are used to cheap labor and exploitation,” he said. “They feel if it’s happening over there, it’ll happen here.”
Walking around at CARECEN, Zepeda detects language dialects he never used to hear before, many Mayan. It’s a demographic they’re not really prepared for, he says.
“The poverty here would be equivalent to the middle class over there,” Zepeda said of Latin America, where one in every five children lives in extreme poverty. “That’s why they continue to come.”
Vareli won’t accept the lower wages. He feels his skills and tools make him worth at least minimum wage, if not more. But he’s seen the few available jobs go to those willing to accept the lowest amount.
Many centers try to prevent exactly this scenario.
“But they (employers) don’t come here,” Vareli says, pointing to CARECEN. “They go over there to Home Depot.”
Centers struggle to find workers jobs
It’s a problem many centers are facing.
CARECEN organizers try to pull in as many corner day laborers as they can, but Vareli readily admits that most people go to the center for the free food, English classes, and family environment; not to actually look for jobs.
Antonio Bernabe, a day laborer organizer for the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, is openly critical of the city’s system, which is different than the one run at CARECEN.
“They don’t know what to do with day labor centers,” he said. “They don’t realize it’s for the people to work. They open day labor centers because the community complains because they don’t want to see people at the corners.”
For 12 years, Bernabe worked at the city-run center in North Hollywood.
“The centers help the people to survive,” he said. “Some of them have some kind of food, and churches go to help the people. Many bring food during the morning. So, some people go to survive. But then they have to go to the corners, because they’re looking for work.”
The emphasis, many complain, is that the focus is on services, not getting the day laborers work.
Not all centers, however, are ineffective, according to Svensson, who authored the study “Comparing Solutions: An Overview of Day Labor Programs.”
In her paper, she differentiates between two main models of service: the social service agency model (like the one run by the city of LA) and the union-model (as run by CARECEN). The union-model keeps work the top priority.
“The characteristics of a union-model day labor center include self-funding through worker dues, focus on work (rather than social services), a fair and strictly enforced minimum wage, and rules and policy decisions decided by workers through consensus reaching member meetings,” she said.
Despite her endorsement, CARECEN continues to struggle. As did the former day labor center at the Home Depot in Glendale, which closed in July. According to city officials, the center failed to attract skeptical workers, who preferred to seek work at nearby curbsides.
But even at those curbsides and corners, there is no escape from the economy.
Meet L.A.’s Day Laborers
Demographics now tied to poverty, not ethnicity
Most devastating to day-laborers has been the real-estate crisis, followed by the recession, say center directors. Construction has long been their bread-and-butter. However, the real estate crisis killed construction of new homes, with many day laborers scurrying to pick up new skills, or getting left behind.
The latest nation-wide study on day-laborers, done in 2006, just before the real-estate crisis, found 49 percent employed by homeowners and renters, and another 43 percent by construction contractors.
And while the necessary skills are changing for the professional day laborer, many new unskilled day-laborers are being forced into centers in a last-ditch effort to find work.
Before the recession, most day-laborers identified themselves as such; it truly was an identity, a profession.
“Most of the participants we had were day laborers, like 95 percent. It’s a living, a way of life,” said Mario Lopez, supervisor for the city-run Downtown Community Job Center. “The caricature that defines a day-laborer is someone that comes to this country looking for jobs and becomes a day-laborer and they don’t change because they like it.”
The demographics no longer lend themselves to that caricature.
They’re in and out. They’re white, black, Asian, or Latino. They’re often unprepared.
They’re all desperate for work.
“The wages are decreasing,” said Lopez. “It’s really tough right now. They’re getting less and less jobs and there’s more competition, especially from people that weren’t day laborers before.”
In 2005, the Downtown center would see 30-to-35 day-laborers every day. In 2011, that number has climbed to about 60, Lopez said.
“Right now, we know people that are losing everything; jobs, transportation, they sold their tools,” Lopez said. “It’s horrible. They are acclimating to that, but it’s horrible. It’s really sad.”
Lopez has to turn away a fair amount of people whose skills don’t match what the center offers, or who find the work too harsh because of their former job.
“Imagine someone that was an accountant or a professional working in an office and then they go to work in a warehouse loading and unloading boxes,” Lopez said. “Sometimes, people can’t see themselves doing that.”
For many, the physical strain experienced at the jobs, and desperate daily search for work is brand new. Whereas, before the recession, 83 percent relied on day-labor work as their sole source of income.
“We have a job lined up in a few minutes, where I’m going to send out four workers,” Lopez said. “I believe this crew is going to have a couple Latinos, one African American and another white guy. The African American and white guy have never done this job. So, they go with those who know so they can see how the job is done.”
Poorly done jobs hurt the professionals.
“I’ll say ‘Hey, we need a painter, Does anyone know how to paint?’” said Zepeda. “And everyone raises their hand. But out of those 20 people, only two know how to paint.”
Getting to America, and staying
For day laborers from Mexico, Central or South America, the sacrifice to reach America — and the “American Dream” — can be huge.
Trying to cross the border, undocumented immigrants can be held ransom and killed if their families do not wire money. If they do get across, they often owe “coyotes” between $5,000 to $7,000. When they do get established in Los Angeles, and find work, “they are often seen as criminals,” Svensson said. Theft of wages is common, as employers threaten to turn them in to immigration.
“The recession has, in fact, forced the wages down, as has the anti-immigrant movement,” said Svensson. “Bosses wrongly feel that workers are undocumented and wrongly think that this means workers have no rights.”
Day laborers are helpless, said Vareli.
“Contractor say ‘Hey, if you put a warning for me on Labor Commission, I’ll tell immigration.’
“People live in fear,” he said.
Holiday Season in America
Many people from Latin America also live wanting to return home, if only to see family members they left behind to chase the American Dream.
At CARECEN, no matter the dire circumstances, day laborers from all countries have, to a certain extent, a home.
“Everyone identifies with everyone else,” said Zepeda. “Everyone’s undocumented. They identify with that. Everyone speaks Spanish. They identify with that. Everyone struggles. Everyone’s poor. You create this brotherhood.
“We’re all in this. We’re all suffering, and I’m not the only one.”
With the arrival of the holiday season, the harsh realities of life in America, away from family members left in Latin America, amplify.
“We tell them, we understand you’d rather be home with your family, but unfortunately, the economic situation in your country forced you to come here,” said Zepeda. “We’re as close a thing to your family as you’re going to get. A lot of them will start talking about how ‘I want to be with my son. I haven’t seen my family in years.’
“There are a lot of emotions for a day laborer. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are a lot of tears.”
Zepeda calls himself a “trans-national parent” to the day laborers.
“They came here because they don’t want their kids to day labor,” he said. “We replace that. I do. I become a family member to them. A son.”
This Thanksgiving, Zepeda helped serve turkey to hundreds of day laborers at CARECEN, including Vareli.