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.

"Four, maybe five."

"How much you pay?"

"Seven."

"No, I charge eight."

"I pay seven, my regular woman is sick today."

"Bye," says Teresa, turning her back.

The Satmar woman works her way through the crowd of Polish women, but other potential employers are arriving: housewives, husbands in long black coats, even young girls—children, really—proffering scraps of paper with their grandmother's address. Demand is high today—the Sabbath begins at sundown; the local housewives have shopping to do, dinner to cook, numerous young children to care for, and a house that needs to be cleaned. Those who wait too long will have to settle for one of the brown-skinned women who stand near the light pole, speaking Spanish, or even Marie, the Haitian woman who sits by herself on a milk crate and is always the last one chosen.

The Jewish woman works her way back to Teresa, "OK. Eight," she says. "I pay eight." "No, I change my mind," says Teresa, and turns her back again, leaving the woman staring at her platinum-blond dye job, a stunned look on her face. Loud enough for the Satmar woman to hear, Teresa says, "She tell me four to five hours, that means three and a half. And she's a liar; I see it. I finish and she pays me seven, then we fight. You like the Jewish people? I hate them. When I see them on the street, I feel nauseous. She like a witch."

Teresa's attitude is not unique. Resentment is high between the Satmar Jews of Williamsburg and a hundred or so Polish day laborers who clean for them. A half-century after the war, the slaughter of their brethren burns the Jews like a live wire. Ask nearly any Satmar to define the neighborhood and he or she will tell you, "We're a community of Holocaust survivors." They're keenly aware that Poland's large Jewish population was annihilated during the war. Ask the Polish women how they like their work, and many ignore the question: "The Jews blame us for the death camps in Poland," they say. Echoing the Polish government's longtime position, they add, "It was the Nazis that killed the Jews. Not the Polish people."

"We want to be respected," the Polish women say, fairly seething as they talk about standing on the corner like prostitutes, about scrubbing someone else's floor, about the good jobs they had in Poland before the end of Communism. ("How can they say they are so religious? God doesn't want you to be so cheap about money," says one disgruntled woman.) Now the Poles are on the street corner, asking the Jews for a job, Jews with numbers tattooed on their arms, Jews for whom the names of Polish towns—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor—are etched in memory. The irony is lost on no one.

Many of the cleaning women are divorced or widowed. They come to New York on tourist visas and so do not have green cards. The corner supplies work, friendship, and referrals—where to find an apartment, a doctor, or a cheap meal—and it keeps them off the government's radar screen. Most are of a certain age; some, like Kaya, are elderly. Her hair is thin and her teeth are bad. "I wouldn't be here if the Communists were still in power—everybody worked, we had free health care," she says, speaking through a translator. She first came to New York two years ago on a tourist visa. "The work was so hard, and I missed my family. I cried every night. I lost 20 pounds. They give everyone a false view of how life is in America," she says. A nervous breakdown sent her back to Poland.

She arrived home to find her children unemployed, her grandchildren unable to afford college. She remembers thinking, "My life is over, but my family still has their life ahead of them." She returned to Williamsburg, where she lives in a single room with three other women. Her share of the rent is $130. She makes about $1200 a month, never eats out. Worn-out dresses hang off her bony frame. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 2:30, she waits with the alcoholics and the infirm at the Williamsburg Christian Church for the free lunch. Every available dollar is sent home.

Her grandchildren are back in college. She pays for their education with 60 hours a week, scrubbing and dusting and wiping. She cleans the refrigerator gaskets with a matchstick, as she is asked, but won't scrub the floors on her hands and knees with a shmatte (rag), as the Jews request. She insists on using a mop. This costs her work and is a major source of tension between the Poles and the Jews. The Polish women speak almost no English. On a recent morning, a street corner argument went like this:

"No shmatte—mopo, yes," says the Polish woman.

"Yes shmatte, shmatte, no mopo," replies the Jewish woman.

"Yes, mopo, yes mopo. No shmatte," The Polish woman makes a face and points to her knees.

The Jewish woman makes a circular wiping motion. One last "Yes, shmatte," and the Polish woman folds, following her new boss sullenly down Lee Avenue.

The Satmars seem genuinely bewildered, even wounded by the Polish women's complaints. "We clean our own floors on our hands and knees; it's cleaner that way," says Sarah Stern, a local resident who has used Polish cleaning women for years. As for the wages: "They get off the boat and the next day they are making more than minimum wage. We usually pay them seven dollars an hour. We are poor people; the average family here has 12 children; many of the husbands make less than they're paying the cleaning woman. How can we pay them more?" A prominent local rabbi asks simply, "If they can make more elsewhere, why are they here working for us?"

They can't make more. In Greenpoint, home to New York's Polish community, "Everyone says, 'Don't go to Williamsburg. You'll make the least money there, you'll get stuck there, you'll never learn English,' " explains Tomasz Lubas, a social worker at the Polish & Slavic Center. House cleaning is the standard route into the economy for Polish women—they are scrubbing homes all over New York City. The younger women—and those who speak some English—work through agencies or word of mouth. They make $10 to $12 an hour cleaning homes on the Upper East Side or in Park Slope. Hooper and Lee is the corner of last resort.

All through the day the Polish women come and go from the corner, finishing one job and returning to find another. An hour before sunset, the sidewalks are filled with men in black coats, and the Sabbath warning siren blows, sounding out across the rooftops. The Polish women work more quickly now, finishing the last of their cleaning. If the sun has already set, and the Jews are proscribed from touching switches or machinery, they ask the cleaning women to turn on the lights and stove before they leave. The Polish women oblige, and then, with throbbing hands, pocket their money and head back to rented rooms.


118TH STREET AND 97TH AVENUE, QUEENS

The Italians and Irish are gone now from Richmond Hill. They took Jesus Christ with them, pulled his image down from the wall of the squat brick building that was once a Catholic church, at the corner of 118th Street and 97th Avenue. Today pictures of other long-haired, bearded men who fell victim to religious strife—Sikhs killed in combat with the Indian army—hang on the wall. The former church is now the Gurdwara Sahib, the largest Sikh temple in New York City. Half an onion dome has been grafted onto the aluminum-sided rectory. In tattered clothes and faded turbans, 35 men stand outside in the early morning, waiting for work.

Ranjit Singh is one of those men. When he came to New York, he knew no one, had no money, and slept on the temple floor. He left India in 1995 after twice being tortured by the Indian police, he says. "They tied my arms behind my back, threw the rope over a beam, and pulled me into the air until I passed out." His alleged crime was speaking out against government repression of the Sikh minority, which makes up about 2 percent of India's population. Violence has been a constant since the early 1980s, when the Hindu government shelled the Sikhs' Golden Temple. The Sikhs responded by assassinating Indira Gandhi. For $10,000, an "agent" arranged Mr. Singh's journey to Queens: a half-dozen plane changes in countries whose names he never learned, a walk through the Mexican desert into southern California, then on to New York by train.

The U.S. government granted him political asylum and a work permit. Yet job opportunities are limited for 50-year-old men in turbans who speak no English. A farmer by trade, Mr. Singh found a job in Jersey stocking shelves—$5.50 an hour minus train fare left him with $25 a day. He had a family to bring over, a wife and four children. He heard you could make more money standing on the corner, getting hired by the dozens of Sikh contractors who live in Richmond Hill.

In New York's construction industry, carpenters are Irish, Mohawks still work the high steel, and South Asians do the brickwork. At some point in its life, every brownstone in New York City will have to be pointed. A man on a scaffold fights a bucking, screaming electric grinder through the grid of brick and stone, cutting the loose mortar from the joints, then trowels freshly mixed grout into the gaps. The work is tedious, loud, dirty, and occasionally dangerous. Getting hired off the corner month after month, Mr. Singh, the Indian farmer, gradually became a New York City mason. Day labor paid his family's passage to Queens, as well as the rent on a small apartment until his teenage sons found work. In the late 1990s, when work was plentiful, Mr. Singh made $15,000 a year.

Some, like Mr. Singh, come for freedom. Some just come for the money. They arrive on short-term tourist visas won through a U.S. government lottery program. Union construction workers make upwards of $250 a day, and so a skilled Sikh day laborer—though undocumented and nonunion—can make a flat rate of $100 or even $125 a day. Untrained laborers start at $70, or if things are quiet, $65. The workers refuse to go lower—to do so would set a bad precedent and drop wages for everyone. On this much the workers agree. Yet for Sikhs, as for others, engendering cohesion among a transient workforce is an uphill battle.

On a recent morning, Chaumtoli Huq, an attorney at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, stood in front of the temple cajoling the men, her small frame wrapped in traditional South Asian finery, a diamond stud through her nose. "One finger alone is weak," she told a group of laborers. "A whole hand is strong—what if you banded together and demanded more money from the bosses?" But some workers were fearful; from the edge of the crowd, a laborer complained about contractors threatening to hire "Spanish" workers for $45 a day. As if to further undercut her position, a van pulled to the corner, and a dozen or so Sikhs closed in to compete for a single job.

Huq, who has brought lawsuits on behalf of Sikh day laborers cheated of their wages, persisted, urging them to keep records and mark down license plate numbers. Still, in an interview, she acknowledges the difficulty in organizing workers who are inherently in competition with one another. "When these men get visas, the whole family—sometimes the village—pools money so they can afford the trip. Some are only here on three- or six-month visas," says Huq, who is Bangladeshi. "They're trying to make every dollar they can before they return." Back in India, their labor will net them about $4 a day.

Mr. Singh's two oldest sons in America work in construction also, but do not stand on the corner. They speak some English, are younger, of course, and so have found steady work. And slowly, inexorably, they are becoming Americanized. Their father would like them to have arranged marriages, but this is doubtful; already the boys have cut their hair and do not wear turbans. This is difficult for Mr. Singh. It is difficult also to work alone on a scaffold, 75 feet in the air, eyes and throat burning from the concrete dust. He thinks about the green fields of Punjab, his two sons who stayed behind, friends who have died without his good-byes. Still, "We're not going back. . . . We love America," he says. "The work is dangerous, but it's better than getting beat up by the police."


PORT RICHMOND AND CASTLETON, STATEN ISLAND

First NAFTA flooded the markets in Hidalgo, Mexico, with Idaho potatoes, then Javier Vasquez's wife got pregnant. With local wages falling, and living doubled-up on his father's farm, he left for New York in mid-May. "Those that came to New York and returned are living much better," he says of the men in his village who have made the trip. "They have their own houses; they buy new cars."

In early June, it had been 25 days since he headed for the border, 21 from the night he watched coyotes beat a rival smuggler bloody with an extension cord, 18 since he hopped a bus heading east from Denver, and fifteen from his arrival at Port Authority. His New York City welcome wagon was a gypsy cab, whose Mexican driver charged him $90 for a journey that costs about $4 via public transit. The cabbie said he would take Javier to a place where there was much work, and many Mexicans.

The Mexicans were there, standing in small groups in the Port Richmond neighborhood of Staten Island. By noon Javier had lined up a bed for the night. The next morning he went out to the corner of Port Richmond and Castleton with the others. But he did not find work that day, or on 10 of the next 15 days either.

Hatchet-thin, in pants too short and a threadbare sweater, the Mexican farmhand's almost embarrassingly earnest and friendly attitude stands out on the corner of jaded men, many of whom have been cheated of wages, or injured and abandoned by employers. At 7 a.m. on a damp June morning, he is in the shape-up. He passes the time studying a list of English words he thinks might be useful: dig, work, grass, shovel, dirt, dollar, the numbers one through 10. The other men begin to drift in, moving wraithlike through the Staten Island mist along a seedy stretch of Port Richmond Avenue, past the rolled-down gates, used furniture shops, and a dozen storefronts where you can send money to Mexico.

They gather in small groups. The Chilangos from Mexico City stand in front of No. 1 Chinese Food, the Oaxacans near the bank. Up the block, the cholos—down-on-their-luck gangbangers, all baggy pants, bandannas, and dead eyes—are blowing a joint in a doorway. The sweet smoke washes over the others as they watch for a van or a beat-up pickup with a telltale lawnmower lashed down in the back.

Yet it has rained nearly every day for weeks, and there is little yard work. El Diario says 14 Mexicans died in the Arizona desert. Every man here crossed the same way, some with wives and children in tow. They pass the newspaper around in silence. For two miles down the avenue, there are small clusters of men staking out corners—maybe 400 in all—groups and subgroups of Mexicans, Peruvians, even a lone Ecuadoran (whom everyone calls just "Ecuador"). They lose themselves in endless strategy sessions: Should they walk a block east or west, or cross the street?

A few minutes past 8 a.m., a gleaming black Lincoln drifts to the sidewalk. The driver, a young white man with a brush cut and a gold chain, holds up one finger. Javier and two dozen others bolt from the wall like sprinters leaving the blocks. In an instant the car is surrounded by a mass of pushing, shoving bodies.

"Off the car, off the car," shouts the gold-chain man. Then, to no one in particular, "Geez, it's like a fucking zoo around here." He leans toward the window: "I need one guy. Anybody speak English, English? Wash buses all day. Buses, buses, understand? English! Anybody speak English?" The laborers want to know three things, the sum of which, for many of them, comprises the extent of their English: "How much you pay?" "How many hours?" and "You buy lunch?"

The Lincoln has four doors. Three door handles have hands on them. The gold-chain man begins to negotiate: "Sixty a day, but if it's less than eight hours—" The sentence is left unfinished as a Mexican yanks open a rear door and vaults into the car. The Lincoln pulls out into traffic and is gone, leaving Javier and the others to return to the wall.

"I thought there would be a regular job you go to each day," says Javier, speaking in Spanish and looking around despondently. "I thought things here were going to be easier." After two weeks in the U.S., his goal now is simply to make enough money to return home.

"The labor market is way oversaturated," says the Reverend William Harder, administrator of Saint Mary of the Assumption, where he has worked with the Mexican community for six years. "There are just too many men arriving. . . . Each year, the number of men standing on the street nearly doubles." Workers and advocates agree that day labor sparked a decade-old Mexican migration to Staten Island.

Much of L.A.'s day labor scene is built around freeways; the same is true on Staten Island. Without access to highways—where contractors can easily jump off to pick up workers—most shape-ups quickly die. It is likely that Staten Island's first day laborers—who appeared around 1990—were veterans of L.A.'s shape-ups. They chose a perfect location—just minutes from three bridges, an expressway, and the suburban sprawl of north Jersey and Staten Island, with thousands of lawns and pools in need of care.

The Mexican laborers quickly put down roots. "We went from having day laborers here to having people going back and bringing their families," says Reverend Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, which has worked closely with the workers. "Then they'd go back again and bring their sister's family. Now P.S. 20 is full of Mexican children." The result? A 428 percent increase in Mexicans on Staten Island, the largest jump of any group in any borough, according to the 2000 census.

Out on the corner, 11 men have been hired by midday. Thirty more drift away, to rooms where they will watch TV or nurse Coronas. The others say he is wasting his time, but Javier is desperate and stays on the street well into the afternoon. Around 2 p.m., a man approaches and asks if he wants to work. Javier spends the rest of the day stacking boxes at an import-export company, and in the evening, the patron, seeing that Javier is industrious, offers him a job—54 hours a week for $275 cash. Within the week, he is saving money to send home to his wife, the first payment on the new house. In less than a month, day labor has given him a route into the permanent workforce.

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