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Day by Day, Laborers Seek Work on West Side

By BILL CARDER Special to the Planet
Friday June 04, 2004

The day laborers gather on Berkeley’s Hearst corridor early in the morning, hours before most of the high-priced shops and trendy cafes in the nearby Fourth Street commercial district open for business. The first to arrive is Hector Castillo, a 51-year old Honduran who sleeps in his car on a nearby side street. 

Hoping to catch an early job with one of the small building contractors or homeowners who cruise the corridor searching for cheap temporary labor, Castillo stations himself near the Truitt & White lumberyard at Second and Hearst. 

Castillo, a round-faced, friendly man wearing jeans and a sweatshirt, is looking for a small room to sleep and shower in, but says he can’t afford to pay rent because he goes to the Western Union office each week to send most of his earnings home to his wife and nine children in Honduras. He gets by for now living in his car. 

“My life is on the street, looking for work,” he said. 

Castillo is one of a growing number of day laborers (called jornaleros in Spanish)—mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many undocumented—who seek work each day on Hearst Avenue in West Berkeley. Faced with declining job opportunities, low wages, and frequent abuse by unscrupulous employers, they struggle to survive on the margins of the economy.  

On a morning in late March, more than 150 men stand in small groups or sit on curbs along a 10-block stretch of Hearst extending east from the Interstate 80 frontage road to the residential neighborhood between Sixth Street and San Pablo Avenue. Aside from a small group of African-Americans on the corner of Hearst and Second Street and one white man with long hair and a beard standing near the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks just east of the Truitt & White lumberyard, all of the men appear to be Latinos. There are no women.  

They talk quietly, looking up expectantly at each passing motorist, sometimes waving in an attempt to make eye contact with potential employers. An occasional truck or car pulls over to the curb. After a brief conversation, terms are agreed upon, and the men hired for the day get in the vehicle to be driven to their place of work. Their employers seldom identify themselves, and their wages are paid in cash. 

Most will wait all day for work. Not more than 20 percent are likely to find jobs on an average day, says Father Rigoberto Caloca-Rivas, executive director of the Multicultural Institute, a nonprofit organization working with the City of Berkeley to provide services to the day laborers.  

Castillo has supported his family with money earned in the United States for over 20 years, working previously as a dishwasher in Miami and a hospital maintenance man in New York City. He has worked as a jornalero on Hearst for three years. 

He earns $10-$15 per hour for carpentry work, painting, landscaping or digging trenches for foundations. He usually gets at least one or two jobs per week, and sometimes works every day. But other weeks Castillo gets no work at all. 

Too many workers competing for too few jobs keep wages on the Hearst corridor low. Medical benefits are non-existent, and legally required protections like overtime pay, regular breaks and workers compensation for job-related injuries are seldom provided. 

With help from the Multicultural Institute, the jornaleros have attempted to establish an unofficial minimum wage rate of $10 for their work, but so far have had little success. The contractors usually start out offering $7 or $8 per hour, and there is no way to prevent other jornaleros from accepting the lower wage if they are hungry enough, says Sergio Granados, a 22-year old Guatemalan. “We have tried to convince them not to work for less than $10, but some of them just don’t understand,” he said. 

One of the biggest problems, says Martin Ibarra, a Multicultural Institute staff member, is that many of the jornaleros are vulnerable to employer exploitation because they are in the United States illegally. Although legal experts say most state and federal labor laws protect undocumented immigrants, many are reluctant to call attention to themselves and risk deportation by filing legal claims. 

“If the contractor knows you have no legal documents, he’s more likely to take advantage of you because he knows you will be afraid to complain,” said Francisco Raudelas, a 35-year old Honduran. In a recent case cited by Castillo, a jornalero was picked up on Hearst by a contractor who drove him to Sacramento and then refused to pay him or provide him with transportation back to Berkeley. “He didn’t make a complaint because he didn’t have papers,” Castillo added. 

Fernando Martinez, a small, intense man in a blue sweatshirt and black pants, also complained of unfair treatment on the job. Employers often lie about the kind of work that will be required or hire too few men to get it done, he said. “When you get there, you find out that they want you to move concrete blocks or carry heavy furniture up six flights of stairs for $7 or $8 per hour.” 

The jornaleros put up with these conditions because they can’t find permanent jobs, said Raudales, a tall man wearing paint-stained white pants, a leather jacket, wrap-around sunglasses and a San Francisco Giants cap. “I wouldn’t be out here wasting my time if I had a regular job,” he added. 

Raudales says the jornaleros all come here to work for the same reason: their families. “The older ones send money home to support their wives and children, and the younger ones are trying to earn money to go back and start their own families,” he said. 

Castillo says he gets lonely, particularly at night when he has nothing to do but return to his car to sleep. He hopes to earn enough money this summer to bring his wife and children to this country. But eventually, he would like to return to Honduras to live in the house he has built for his family. 

Martinez, who came here to work because the economic situation in Mexico City made it impossible for him to support his wife and children, also thinks often of going home. “Mexico is always on my mind,” he said. 

But Raudales, who has not been home for two years, would like to find a steady job that pays enough to enable him to move his wife and children here permanently. “In Honduras, you have very little chance to get a good job, an education, a house,” he said. “If you are poor, you are poor. Here you have a chance.” 

The key to improving the lives of the jornaleros, says Caloca-Rivas, is education and job training to help them make the transition to better-paid permanent jobs. The Multicultural Institute conducts weekend English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and General Educational Development (GED) classes for the jornaleros and is looking for a site to provide them with job skills workshops. It has also arranged for monthly visits by a mobile health unit that provides them with free medical screening and referrals. 

These programs have improved the situation on the Hearst corridor, said Granados. But the harsh day-to-day economic reality of life on the street looking for work remains largely unchanged. 

There may be no easy answers to the problems faced by the jornaleros, but Martinez thinks the first step is relatively simple. “When they treat us as human beings, with respect, as people trying to make a life for themselves, then things might change,” he said. “We just want to be equal, to be treated like everyone else.”