Area day laborers struggle against employer abuse
By Robin Bravender
Little River Turnpike is a four-lane highway in Annandale, Va., strewn with fast-food restaurants, grocery stores and apartment buildings. It is also the street where the countyâ€™s undocumented workers congregate. Every morning, groups of Latino men gather on the streets, hoping a contractor will drive by in a pick-up truck and offer them a dayâ€™s work.
The men come from all over Latin America: Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Honduras. Most of them speak little or no English. Their uniforms are work boots, blue jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps bearing the names of various American brands and sports teams: the Cleveland Indians, the New York Yankees and Tommy Hilfiger. Some of the men sit in groups in parking lots while others stretch out on the lawn in front of their apartment complex. The men say they donâ€™t like to take jobs for less than $10 an hour, but sometimes, when work is scarce, they do.
Day laborers in the United States usually make less than $15,000 per year, keeping them at or below the poverty level, according to a recent study published by the University of California at Los Angeles and other universities.
An estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States, according to a recent survey by the Pew Hispanic Center. About 10 percent of these immigrants work as day laborers, according to the UCLA study.
Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses by their employers, including denial of wages, failure to meet workersâ€™ compensation laws and verbal abuse, said Jennifer Johnson, education and outreach coordinator at the Virginia Justice Center, an organization that offers legal assistance to immigrants. Johnson has seen cases where employers have threatened workers, saying they would injure their families if they tried to take legal action. Workers often donâ€™t know their rights or are afraid to assert them because of their illegal immigration status, she said.
Labor laws vary by state, and in Virginia, undocumented immigrants are covered by laws entitling injured employees to workersâ€™ compensation, medical benefits and lost wages, said Cathy Ruckelshaus, attorney with the National Employment Law Project, an advocacy group for immigrants and other low-wage workers.
â€œWe try to make sure that all low-wage workers in this country have the same rights and remedies as other workers,â€ said Ruckelshaus. â€œImmigration status should not affect workers right to get paid.â€
But sometimes it does.
Javier Garcia, 46, an undocumented immigrant who lives in an apartment on Little River Turnpike, wears a blue cast on his left arm. He was building a deck in August when he nearly cut off his finger with a saw. Garcia said he called his employer when his accident happened, but when the ambulance came to take him to the hospital, the employer did not want to be associated with the accident, and stayed across the street, watching.
Garciaâ€™s injuries have prevented him from working. He does not have health insurance and is liable for the emergency room costs. The ambulance bill alone was more than $300.
In a 2005 lawsuit before the New York Court of Appeals, an illegal immigrant sued his employer for lost wages after he was injured on a construction job. The court ruled that the worker was entitled to damages and held the employer responsible for failing to determine the workerâ€™s immigration status.
Not all groups agreed with the courtâ€™s decision. The Washington Legal Foundation, a public interest law and policy center, said in a statement on its Web page that the courtâ€™s decision undermined federal immigration policy â€œby encouraging more illegal aliens to enter the country and seek employment.â€ Richard Samp, chief counsel at the foundation said that as an illegal immigrant, â€œYou have no right to earn wages at American wage scales because you have no right to be in this country.â€
But the Virginia Justice Center believes that undocumented immigrants should have the same rights as other workers. Johnson and outreach workers at the center attempt to educate workers about these rights. They represent workers in lawsuits and distribute educational material at day laborer sites. She said fear is the primary barrier to workers taking legal action. â€œPeople donâ€™t want to rock the boat,â€ she said, and they usually try to resolve conflicts on their own.
Arnoldo Borja, an outreach worker at the center, said he knows what it feels like to be an undocumented worker exploited by an employer. Borja immigrated to the United States from Mexico 12 years ago and worked in agriculture, construction and the food industry. At a farm in Florida, he noticed that the Mexican workers were not receiving the same mandatory safety equipment that the white workers were using. He now walks up and down Little River Turnpike almost every day, talking to day laborers in parking lots or on street corners. Borja advises the workers, many of whom he knows by name, about the services available to them through the center and answers some of their questions.
Borja said he wants to develop a dialogue between the day laborers in the community. He recently organized a meeting between day laborers and police to discuss traffic problems caused when contractors stop to pick up workers.
Borja and the Virginia Justice Center referred Garcia to an outside agency to investigate his legal rights after his accident. He is still trying to recover medical benefits and lost wages from his employer.