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Abuse of Day Laborers Often Goes Unreported

More legal aid centers seek to help the workers lodge complaints. Almost 45% of them said they hadn't been given food and water.

May 21, 2006|Cara Anna | Associated Press Writer

KINGSTON, N.Y. — Sergio de la Cruz says the abuse began when he was picked up at a day labor site in Yonkers.

He was taken to a construction site in the Bronx, where he says his boss took his Mexican identity papers and locked him in at night. For four months, de la Cruz says, he was locked into three separate sites, most of the time sleeping on a plank bed and defecating into a plastic bag.

As America's use of day labor grows, legal aid experts say this is one of the more striking complaints. But just as astonishing, they say, is that de la Cruz didn't know someone could help him.

In the first national survey of day laborers, released in January, almost half of 2,660 workers interviewed said they had been cheated out of pay in the last two months. Almost 45% said they hadn't been given food and water. More than one-quarter had been abandoned at a work site.

And 70% said they didn't know where to report such abuse, or how.

The survey illustrates a key problem in the story of day labor: About three-quarters of the estimated 117,000 day laborers in the United States are here illegally. What happens when they say they're treated illegally as well?

"Most people don't know employment law applies despite their immigration status," says Tricia Kakalec, co-founder of the Kingston-based Workers Rights Law Center. "They want the jobs, you know what I mean? They just want to get paid."

The center is one of a growing number that offers legal help to day laborers. The National Legal Aid and Defender Assn. says there's no good estimate of such legal aid centers in the U.S., but the national survey found 63 day labor worker centers offering legal or other services in 17 states.

But finding and educating day laborers still isn't easy, says Laura Stack, managing attorney in the northern Virginia office of the Virginia Justice Center. Outreach workers make regular early-morning visits to day labor sites, but there's a lot of turnover, Stack says. "There are definitely people we're not reaching."

Most cases come by word of mouth, and sometimes quite late. Stack recently met a Bolivian man who said he'd worked on a suburban construction site for 2 1/2 months without pay.

"We tell them that if you're not paid in two weeks, be very, very afraid," Stack says.

"They expect once a month someone not to pay them," says Salvador Reza, who works with the National Day Labor Organizing Network in Phoenix.

Reza says the local day labor center takes down the license plate numbers of employers' vehicles, and workers are told to write down as much information as possible, such as addresses.

More frequently, people hesitate to report abuse to police because they fear being deported. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance says it's sometimes difficult finding workers even to repay them for their lost wages. The group has distributed thousands of educational leaflets to day laborers rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, and it has filed 20 complaints so far with the U.S. Department of Labor on behalf of hundreds of workers over wage violations.

De la Cruz waited months before slipping out of the construction site. A year and a half later, in late December, the Workers Rights Law Center helped him file a lawsuit against his employer in U.S. District Court.

De la Cruz, 36, says getting help was a long journey.

"I didn't know I had rights," he said.

After begging money from people, de la Cruz made his way back to Yonkers and told his friends what had happened. Word eventually was passed to employees at a Yonkers community center agency that gives aid to day laborers. Staff there sent de la Cruz to Kingston.

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