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Day laborers get a break

Molly Blank
Thursday October 03, 2002

For years day laborers like Victor Guevara have stood on the corner of Fourth and Hearst streets in west Berkeley hoping to get a days work in exchange for a day’s wages. But as the economy flattened and their numbers increased, so did complaints about their presence. 

Next month, Berkeley will become one of more than 10 cities in California that will address rather than ignore its unregulated labor market. 

“Pretending invisibility on this type of reality in our cities doesn’t solve anything,” said Father Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas, executive director of the Berkeley-based Multicultural Institute. 

Caloca-Rivas will work with city officials to relocate the workers to a pick up area west of Fourth Street on Hearst. The designation of the area, which will be equipped with toilets, is the first phase in the collaborative effort to help day laborers as well as satisfy loitering concerns of local businesses and residents. 

Also part of the first phase, Caloca-Rivas wants to create a plan to ensure that laborers are not financially abused by contractors. 

In the second phase, the institute will open a storefront labor center at an undetermined location where workers can wait for work. In preparation for this phase, the institute will offer English language classes, GED classes, job training and life skills courses. Finding and setting up a location will probably take six to nine months, Caloca-Rivas said. 

The program is funded by the city, donations and grants. 

Caloca-Rivas, who also runs a mentoring and tutoring program and a program that works to improve communication between parents and children, hopes to eventually organize workers in an independent “grassroots union model.”  

“The goal of our efforts,” he said “is self-organizing and sustainability on its own.”  

Day laborers have been organized in other cities, including neighboring Oakland as well as Los Angeles. While some of these programs have been organized with city support, others have been created after tough battles against city ordinances. 

Caloca-Rivas’ plan is one of the first to introduce an educational component into the labor program. 

The collaboration between Caloca-Rivas and the city of Berkeley began more than a year ago after a series of neighborhood complaints. The Berkeley Office of Economic Development and Health and Human Services responded by commissioning a study to learn more about the issue. 

A consultant reported back this summer, showing that the number of workers who come to Berkeley from Richmond, Oakland and other Bay Area cities has grown exponentially in recent years. 

The Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that there are three to four million undocumented immigrants in California. Berkeley officials say that many of the 80 to 200 men that gather on Hearst are undocumented. 

The city’s study also looked at day laborer programs in other cities. In Concord, a trailer with computers serves as a labor center. Laborers pay $1 per day in dues and organize themselves. In Glendale, solicitation is limited to the labor center, and day laborers pass out flyers to inform prospective employers of their services. 

Caloca-Rivas brought his proposal to the city last spring. 

“[The Multicultural Institute has] an excellent level of trust within the community, especially the Spanish speaking community,” said Delfina Geiken, Berkeley Worksource Employment Programs Administrator who is working on the project for the city “And that’s what we need … an agency that the laborers feel comfortable with.” 

In Berkeley, it was also crucial to find an agency that could engage merchants frustrated by the presence of the laborers. 

Warren White, President of Truitt and White Lumber Company said that laborers disrupt business and create sanitary and safety problems.  

“I’m not pointing fingers at the entire group,” said White. “I know it’s just a small number, but unfortunately that creates problems for the whole group.” 

Mary Sawatzki, an assistant manager at the Discovery Store at the corner of Fourth and Hearst, is concerned for her safety, but is also frustrated with the contractors. 

“[The contractors] are extraordinarily rude,” she said. “They think they have a right to block your driveway, take your parking spaces. They have no respect. They just want to get their cheap labor without benefits. To me it’s totally immoral.”  

For Victor Guervara, the pattern is work. 

“It is necessary,” says Guevara, who left his wife and three children two months ago. “I think everyone who comes here comes because it is necessary.”