Jul 29, 2015 - News

Op-Ed: A beautiful price to pay. Charlotte day laborers continue to sustain our community’s most vital industries, all while risking their lives.

Charlotte-NC-Day-Laborers

Charlotte-NC-Day-Laborers

Op-Ed by Ana Suarez, Communication Coordinator at Latin American Coalition.

“With pride,” Jose has considered himself a jornalero – or day laborer – for eighteen months. Jose came to the United States eight years ago from El Salvador and has spent the last two years living in Charlotte.

In the United States, the idea of a day laborer – a worker hired and paid one day at a time – is an old one.

In any major U.S. city, one is likely to find a group of men standing on a street corner looking for a job for the day, typically in construction or maintenance.

In Charlotte, day laborers make up a diverse group, including many Latin American and black men, ranging from ages 20 to 50. According to some, day laborers have occupied Charlotte’s street corners for the past 20 years.

Charlotte-City-of-Immigrants

When I ask Jose to describe a typical day, he laughs and says, “there are none.” Depending on the day, jornaleros may receive employment, they may not. There is always the possibility of getting kicked off the corner where they wait for work, and, if they do get a job for the day, there is no telling how it will go or how their employers will treat them.

Day job gigs often involve dangerous construction work. Sam Poler, the Latin American Coalition’s ESL Coordinator, remembers one of her students, a jornalero, who broke both arms after working on a site (after breaking one, he still returned to work). Earlier in March, three men died and one was badly injured after scaffolding collapsed on a skyscraper in Raleigh. All four men were Latino.

Protect Workers Rights

Instances like these are part of a nationwide trend: while worker fatalities in the U.S. have fallen overall,  Latinos continue to experience a high rate of work-related deaths and severe injuries.

Jornaleros’ day-to-day employment does not just come at the risk of life-threatening work, but also the not-unusual instances of being denied compensation and transportation to and from the worksite.

At the Latin American Coalition, clients frequently seek help with wage-theft cases. According to Immigrant Welcome Center Director Joanna Rivera, being denied payment or receiving less than promised is a practice perpetuated by the common notion that immigrants will work for very little. But NC labor laws state that all workers, regardless of immigration status, must receive payment (the opposite would be slavery) that is at least the minimum wage.

“We [jornaleros] don’t live under a tree. We live, as humans live. We pay rent, utilities. We are responsible for supporting our families,” Jose says.

Yet these day-to-day jobs still beat working in a factory where one can only earn minimum wage, receive no sick days, and far less flexible hours.

As a jornalero, you can take more control over your professional life, and, to an extent, be your own boss. The growth of Latino businesses in Charlotte and throughout the country is evidence of this desire for self-employment. Even when taking into account the risks of contractual work, jornaleros say they can work with more dignity as a day laborer.

Immigrant-We-built-this-too

The words honor and pride dominate my conversation with Jose.

“It is an honor and I am proud to serve the citizens of the United States. [Our work as jornaleros] is the price that we pay for coming to this country, but this price is beautiful because it makes you stronger. Eventually you can have your own business, and that’s my vision… Now I’m starting with a business. I’m not a U.S. citizen, but I am an American. That’s what politicians don’t understand. We [immigrants] have come to work,” he says.

Jose is a leader among Charlotte jornaleros. A dedicated worker, he has attended La Coalición’s ESL classes, Business Program, and now owns a landscaping business. He now hopes to study landscaping in order to improve his business.

Jose has also been one of the individuals helping La Coalición with their vision to build a Jornalero Workers Center.

Jose says that employers “would treat us with more respect because we are part of a center.” A Jornalero Workers Center would allow workers and employers to build formal, professional relationships in a space where they don’t risk getting kicked out and that they can claim as their own. The center would be a way to ensure that workers receive fair treatment, while employers can hire someone with the skills they seek. “This center would not just benefit us but it would benefit the people who hire us,” Jose says.  In addition, if workers are unable to find employment for the day, they can use the center to learn English, North Carolina labor laws, and build their professional skills.

Jose’s story is one of many. In North Carolina, tens of thousands of immigrant workers risk their lives everyday so they can contribute to the country they call home and support their families.

Want to learn more? Listen to WFAE’s Charlotte Talks today at 10am. Worker Center Coordinator Faith Josephs will talk about what La Coalición is doing to support and uplift the contributions of jornaleros.

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