On the Corner

New York’s Undocumented Day Laborers Fight for Their Piece of the Big Apple

At the corner of Bedford and Division in Brooklyn, a burgundy minivan veers out of traffic toward the curb, setting off a commotion among the 20 or so men standing on the corner. They charge forward, weaving through a line of cars at a dead run.

"Who wants to work?" shouts the driver. The men jostle for a spot at the window, calling back, "I'm a good worker," and "I'll work hard."

The driver points to five men; they quickly climb in.

Names and pleasantries are skipped: "We're loading a trailer—five, maybe six hours. How much you want?"

The day laborers speak to each other in Spanish. "Eight dollars an hour," someone says.

"No, I pay six out here all the time."

Everyone in the van knows this is a lie—seven is the norm—but the men are angling for an extra 50 cents an hour.

"You want eight, I offer six, we agree on seven." The negotiation is over. The driver pulls away from the curb, tires screeching.

One of the workers won't give up.

"No, I want $7.50."

The driver stops the van. "OK, get out. There are plenty who will work for less."

The man climbs out; the others stare through the windows at the idle workers on the curb. Silently they decide seven an hour will do.

Minutes later, the four workers are in a downtown Brooklyn factory, loading boxes into a tractor-trailer. The work site is a union shop steward's nightmare: piles of rotting garbage; hundreds of burned-out lightbulbs; and an open elevator pit, exposing the workers to a 40-foot drop. Unbeknownst to them, the building has been ordered closed because it contains asbestos.

Before the day is out, two of the laborers will be involved in a workplace accident, and the others, covered in sweat and dust, will be witness to another. There are no breaks, no unions, and no taxes—the men don't even know the boss's name. Yet, at the end of the day, they will go home $35 richer. Tomorrow they'll be back on the corner, looking for another job.

Day labor has a long history in New York, from Manhattan's 18th-century Irish immigrants to the African American domestics hired from Depression-era "slave markets" in the Bronx to Brooklyn's Italian longshoremen. All found work in "shape-ups," street corners and wharves turned open-air hiring halls.

Today the shape-ups are back with a vengeance; New York's day labor market is now probably the fastest growing in the nation. The explanation, experts say, is a shift to a service economy, the increasing use of independent contractors, and a wave of immigrants eager to work but lacking social security numbers.

Many of these laborers have come to support relatives left behind: From South America to Eastern Europe, entire families are being supported with the fruits of New York City day labor.

New Yorkers are not yet able to pick up registered day laborers in the Home Depot parking lot—as do Los Angeles residents. And an exact count of New York City's transient workers is impossible; no large-scale studies have been done, and the New York State Department of Labor has no classification for day laborers.

Yet, a two-month Voice investigation has identified at least two dozen sites within the five boroughs, supporting approximately 3000 workers, primarily landscapers, domestics, and construction workers. If one includes advocates' estimates for Long Island, North Jersey, and Westchester, the number jumps to 12,000—second only to Los Angeles, with 22,000 laborers.

And with the influx of workers, experts say, the battle over day labor and immigration is shifting to the New York area. In Farmingville, Long Island, the presence of day laborers has sparked an anti-immigrant backlash that is drawing national attention. Many New York-area activists will be heading to Los Angeles for the National Day Labor Organizing Network's first annual conference on July 27 and 28.

With the exception of the African Americans who shape up in front of the Bedford Avenue Armory, a homeless shelter, nearly all of New York's day laborers are undocumented immigrants, most of them Hispanic. New York City's largest shape-up is near 69th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, where perhaps 500 Ecuadorans gather. Hundreds more Mexicans and Peruvians fan out along 18th Avenue in Bay Ridge and at several sites in Staten Island. There are also smaller, distinctive scenes where global economics and ethnic antagonisms—some formed hundreds of years ago and thousands of miles away—are played out. What follows are portraits of three lives on the corner.


HOOPER AND LEE, WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN

Wordlessly, the negotiation has already begun. The Jewish woman, a member of the ultra-orthodox Satmar sect, looks tentatively at the Polish woman, approaches her uncertainly. The Polish woman ignores her, but monitors her advance out of the corner of her eye. The Polish woman has mouths to feed in her country. The Satmar woman needs her house cleaned. They come to do business on Williamsburg's south side, on the corner of Hooper and Lee.

"You busy, busy? You want to work?" asks the Satmar woman, looking a bit forlorn in her housedress, slippers, and wig.

The question begets a question: "How many hours?" asks Teresa, the Polish woman.

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