Undocumented laborers part of economic boom
Emilio slaps an inflatable green chair on the sidewalk, sits down, and waits for work to drive up.
“I picked it up on Fourth Street,” he says in Spanish, drawing laughter from others waiting for work on Hearst Avenue, one block from West Berkeley’s upscale shopping district. “I thought, I might have to sit here for a long time, so why not be comfortable?”
While comfort is for sale in mauve, perchance periwinkle, just a block away in air-conditioned boutiques, for Emilio it is elusive. The 31-year-old father of four may wait hours without an offer of work from contractors trolling for day laborers. But such work has become Emilio’s bread and butter.
“I can get work like this three or four days a week,” says Emilio, a gregarious man whose work keeps him thickly built and deeply tanned.
On his sidewalk, Emilio must be visible – but not too visible.
That’s because Emilio came to the United States three years ago from Morelia, the capital of Mexico’s Michoacan State, without legal documents. So while contractors come looking for him, Emilio must also make sure the Immigration and Naturalization Service –La Migra as it is known – does not find him as well. For that reason, he asks that his real name and photograph not be printed.
“Work was hard to find in Morelia, and the money didn’t go far, so I came here,” he says, watching a long-haired man in a pickup pull to the curb and wave him over.
Emilio is one of almost 50 day laborers waiting in front of Truitt and White, a West Berkeley lumber and construction supply warehouse that seethes with contractors each morning. Likewise, each morning the area becomes a small sliver of Latino culture smack in the heart of Berkeley’s rapidly expanding commercial district. It symbolizes the niche that the Latino population continues to play in the expansion of California’s new economy.
Though often scapegoats in the public eye, undocumented workers are a linchpin of the current boom.
“People need to be aware of the levels of indentured servitude going on year after year in our communities,” says District 4 Councilmember Dona Spring, who once had a “day laborer zone” in her district.
“I would like to grant amnesty to every one who has been here for five years, give them green cards and make life easier for them” Spring says. “I don’t think that people realize how much they are benefiting from immigrant labor in this country.” The AFL-CIO has advocated such amnesty.
Meanwhile, on Hearst, Emilio is still waiting.
“They come here for their supplies,” he says, pointing over his shoulder at the lumber yard, “and they come over here,” pointing to himself, “for the manpower.” But while the supplies are built into permanent structures, the Latinos are not. By afternoon, those without work return to Oakland, Richmond, even as far as Vallejo, and the gleaming, silver-sided taco truck named Esperanza also disappears. But this morning, Esperanza sells breakfast and coffee, son music spilling from inside. “KLOK, 1170 AM” announces a baritone-voiced DJ.
The radio recalls home for many laborers.
“Everything is different here,” says Emilio, who now lives in Richmond. “We are in a country that is not ours.”
Those waiting on Hearst arrived from the Mexican states of Jalisco, Sinaloa, even Chiapas in the far south. Others came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. While their stories are diverse, some political refugees of civil wars, others economic refugees in a post-NAFTA world, one narrative unites them.
“We have to subsist like this, take the work that we are given,” says Emilio.
Every day is different. Some days Emilio will get hired on for a week’s work, other days merely a two hour job. Sometimes, nothing comes along.
“On those days, I go home at 2 p.m.,” he says, “and come back the next day.”
The jobs range from gardening, painting and framing to hauling and foundation work. At $10 an hour, the pay is alluring. But each job is short term and offers no security, no health care, no vacation and no compensation in the event of an injury - not even a guarantee that work will be adequately compensated.
Emilio remembers when one patron, as he calls the contractors who hire him, offered him $30 for three hours.
“But three hours passed, and he said to keep working. I worked for 12 hours. Then, he gave me thirty dollars,” Emilio says. “I argued, and he said to take it or get nothing. What can I do? Nothing.”
Such stories are common, says Luis Mendoza, who once worked Hearst Avenue but now cashiers for Esperanza Mobile Food Services. “People get asked to do work, they do it, and then they don’t get paid. They have no protection or anyone to call.”
There are other difficulties as well.
A man pulls up in a pick up and leans out the window.
“He’s a bad one.” says Emilio. “We know all the good patron and the bad. The bad won’t give you water, underpay you and sometimes won’t give you a ride to where you need to go.”
A laborer wearing a black Guatemala baseball hat, a Raider’s T-shirt and beat leather work boots leans his head in the passenger window, talks for a while, then shakes his head and walks away.
Asked what kind of work was on offer, he shrugs.
“I don’t know. He couldn’t speak Spanish and I couldn’t speak English,” he says.
The day progresses. Another food truck arrives, more workers come. Emilio entertains as his friends, people he has come to know from months spent on this stretch of sidewalk, poke the chair or sit on it themselves. Most everyone, however, stands, casting a weary eye toward the wood-laden contractor’s trucks swinging into Truitt and White, hoping that work will come their way.