Day Laborers Fight for Their Rights

“It is with great pride that I announce Gov. Blagojevich has signed House Bill 3471, the Day Labor Services Act today,” said Illinois Deputy Chief of Staff of Labor, Esther Lopez.  “We think today is a historic day.  It is a law that is the most aggressive protection for day laborers in the country.”

With that declaration, day labor workers and their supporters celebrated the passage of a strengthened Day Labor Services Act (DLSA) in Illinois.  The new act, which took effect January 1, requires day labor agencies to be licensed and to maintain workers’ compensation insurance, and it increases fines for non-compliance and establishes the right of workers to sue employers and agencies that violate the law.

Winning passage of this new law was no small task.  Day labor workers and their supporters spent many hours drafting the new law and advocating for its passage.  And while these workers are hopeful the new law will help, most harbor no illusions that additional government regulation, in and of itself, will correct the widespread abuses in the industry.

While a verifiable figure is difficult to obtain, some estimate day laborers in the state number as many as 300,000.  These workers are recruited from the fast-growing Latino immigrant population and from those subsisting at the economic margins of society, typically African American workers.  The abuses of these workers cover a wide range, including short paychecks, illegal transportation costs, sexual harassment, and unsafe working conditions.

While the Illinois legislation is considered a model for the rest of the country, meaningful enforcement may be difficult to achieve.  The Illinois Department of Labor (IDOL), which is responsible for its enforcement, is comprised of about 80 staff members for the entire state.  By comparison, the Illinois State Police employs over 3,000 officers and support personnel.  Further, IDOL’s budget has been frozen since 2003, although agency administrators hope that fines resulting from enforcement of the new legislation will help underwrite additional policing of agencies and employers.

While the new law does hold some promise, it also fails to address some chronic problems for day labor workers.  Enforcement of the law hinges on workers coming forward to report abuses to government authorities.  This may sound simple, but workers fearing retribution are reluctant to speak out.  This is understandable given the predilection of some day agencies to practice cronyism in assigning work, as well of the all-too-common practice of recrimination against workers who speak against abuses.

Further, many day labor workers face the challenge of being held in perpetually temporary status by their employers.  While day labor is commonly believed to be short-term labor, many of these workers have held the same job for years or even decades.  A company may exploit workers in this way to cut its costs and to refuse to recognize obligations to its workers as well as to lower the expectations of those workers for advancement, benefits, or pay increases.

San Lucas Workers Center in Action

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Mario Johnson
A Chas. Levy Company representative demands that SLWC vacate its premises, but SLWC leader Mario Johnson insists on speaking with management to deliver the workers’ message.

Tour of Shame
Workers and their supporters march toward an employer during SLWC’s “Tour of Shame” campaign.

Photos by Greg Boozell

Ensuring aggressive enforcement of the law as well as challenging structural inequities that the law fails to address will largely depend on the ability of workers to organize themselves.  While the support of advocates and community members is valuable, only campaigns developed and conducted by day labor workers can ensure that their issues are addressed directly.

In an effort to hold employers accountable for abusive day labor agencies, San Lucas Workers Center (SLWC) initiated an employer accountability campaign.  In its past work, SLWC members found that shutting down renegade agencies provided a temporary victory at best.  Too often, the violator would be replaced by a new agency which would engage in the same abusive practices.

“We needed to figure out a way to get at the root of the problem,” says day laborer and SLWC Board Chair, Randy Smith.  “The employers are the ones that have created the environment which helps these renegade agencies flourish.”

In its accountability campaign, SLWC worker/leaders are working to hold employers that contract with abusive agencies accountable for any worker abuses or labor law violations.  The goal is to pressure owners of Chicago businesses to contract only with day labor agencies that comply with SLWC’s Code of Conduct.  Created by workers, the code requires fair treatment and full payment for any work, as well as a clear path for day labor workers to transition to permanent status.

While the campaign is in its early stage, San Lucas hopes to announce the conversion of two Chicago businesses to code-complaint agencies very soon.  Smith adds, “We want to recognize employers that do the right thing but at the same time raise the cost of cheating for those who don’t.”

The strengthened Day Labor Services Act will provide another weapon for day laborers to win fair employment conditions.  Worker-led campaigns that address conditions beyond the scope of the law can bring more substantial change.

Invisible Hand

Greg Boozell is a documentary filmmaker and former board member of the San Lucas Workers Center.  This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in the December 2005 issue of The Progressive.

San Lucas Workers Center