A group of Hispanic immigrant day laborers are appealing to the local Catholic church for help in preserving their livelihoods, in response to a dramatic drop in the availability of work stemming from municipal restrictions on public hiring.
Within the past year, the Village of Farmingdale has beefed up traffic code compliance patrols against contractors in the area, due to the formation of two shape-up sites - pick-up points for workers - on corners along Conklin Street. The village also posted signs that prohibit standing or stopping between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. along the busiest areas of Conklin, and village code enforcement officials have issued numerous tickets. The municipal actions were taken in response to complaints from surrounding residents, who complained of loitering by the workers, and said the shape-up sites were a traffic hazard.
The restrictions have driven many of the contractors away - have pushed them to look for workers elsewhere - according to the day laborers, who estimated a 75 percent drop in work in recent months.
Speaking through interpreters from the Workplace Project, a Hempstead-based immigrant worker advocacy group, four representatives of the laborers met with leaders of St. Kilian Social Outreach last Thursday to ask for help in resolving the issue.
"We've come here because this country offers justice and work," said one worker, named Eris. "It's for this reason that we are here, and we want to look after the street corners, because it is our main means of finding work and supporting our families."
Eris noted that since the ticketing of trucks began, many contractors have stopped coming to Conklin Street, and that only three regularly come now. It seems this has caused great financial hardship for the workers, who previously were able to use their meager wages to support themselves and send some money back to their families in their countries of origin - many of which are conflict-ridden and impoverished. "You see a lot of people who don't even have enough money to buy a cup of coffee or breakfast. You see a lot of crying faces," said Eris, adding. "Our families back home are waiting."
Prior to the village crackdown, of the 30 or 40 people waiting on the corners for jobs during an average morning, three or four were left without work, according to the representatives of the workers. Now, they say, out of 30 people, 28 are left standing.
The worker representatives also feel that the inappropriate behavior of some who stand on the corners, such as begging, drinking, and urinating on the ground, has created a negative image of all the day laborers. But they feel that those who exhibit such poor behavior are in the minority, and in many cases are not among those looking for work. They also feel that this has led to misconceptions about the day laborers, because most of them are decent and only want the right to earn a living.
Thursday's meeting offered a rare dialogue between the workers and those outside the Hispanic community, in which the immigrants revealed their personal reasons for so desperately needing the work the corners provide.
Juan, for example, noted that he uses the money he earns to help his family in Honduras. He pays for medicine for his epileptic sister, supports his mother, and funds school supplies for his nieces and nephews.
"The reason why we are here is because the economic situation in our countries is very difficult, and in this country, there are opportunities for us to help advance our families," Juan said. "And that's one of the reasons we find ourselves standing on the corners."
Orlando came to the United States from Mexico for a similar reason. "My mother is sick. I don't have a father. I am the only one who can help my family," he said. "The work that I do from standing on the street corners helps support my family back home."
Eris noted that it is not only economic and political turmoil that has driven him and others to look for better opportunities in the US, but also devastation from natural disasters, such as Hurricane Mitch, which took the lives of three of his family members, including his son. He added, "In our country, the salary is equivalent to $3 for a 12-hour day...we want to work with dignity and justice."
The laborers stressed that they want to be included in all decisions about the future of the shape-up sites, and to have an open dialogue concerning the issue.
Lisa Molluso, director of St. Kilian Outreach, said that the church is committed to helping the workers find a solution to the issue. She has discussed the possibility of establishing a labor hall for the day laborers, which would serve as not only a shape up site, but also as a sheltered site with bathroom facilities, as well as assistance with food, education and citizenship referrals.
As Outreach aims to help the laborers, the Workplace Project can be expected to continue to also support them. The nonprofit organization was formed in 1992 with the purpose of organizing immigrant workers to stop abuses in the workplace, for example with regard to health and safety, as well as pay discrimination and non-payment of wages. Throughout the past seven years, the Workplace Project has built a membership of over 460 workers, many of whom have attained leadership positions within the organization, according to Randy Jackson, associate director.
The organization recently undertook a day laborer organizing project in response to proposed legislation to crack down on the workers and bias-related acts of violence against them. For example, last spring the Suffolk County Legislature tried to pass a bill that would make it illegal for workers to shape up on street corners. That legislation stated that employers who would stop to pick up workers would face up to 30 days in prison or fines up to $1,000. The Workplace Project organized to stop that proposal, and it did not pass. In addition, within the past year, there have been five documented cases of immigrant workers being beaten in the streets, all within the vicinity of Farmingville, a Suffolk County community where the issue of day laborers is also prominent.
Asked if a labor hall is a possible solution to the issue in Farmingdale, Jackson responded that the best solution lies in incorporating the workers into the decision-making process, so that they can have voice and ownership over any decision that's made. "I think a decision that's made without their participation could be both a waste of time and a disaster," he said. "If it doesn't incorporate their point of view, and if they set up a site that's going to be inconvenient to both the worker and to the employer, then it's not going to work."
He added, "I think that a lot of other locations - not just on Long Island but across the country - have been quick to find a quick fix, rather than really dialogue through what could be a long-term solution. And I think that a stable hiring hall is one possible solution, but not necessarily the only one."