As early as sunrise, Latino women trickle onto the corner of Division Street and Marcy Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, hoping that by evening they will go home with more than the change in their pockets. The women stand next to a steel fence on the corner; the vines dangling from the top offer the only refuge from the sun. On a recent morning, two men in a delivery truck stop at the intersection and yell out, “How much?” Three of the females run to the vehicle and begin to bargain; the women do not agree with the deal and walk back to their steel fence.
Such bargaining is the norm at this intersection. While the women say they have been mistaken for prostitutes, the work they are looking for involves hard labor: shoveling at a construction site, stitching and packing garments in a factory, and mostly cleaning houses. The corner has become both famous and infamous among recently arrived immigrant Hispanic women seeking work. With few English skills, the women have become a target of exploitation by some of their employers.
Ligia Gualpa, 25, hopes to change that. As an international studies undergraduate student at the State University of New York at Cortland, Gualpa studied abroad in Cairo in 2007. During her six months she spent in Egypt, Gualpa worked with the Al Wafa Center, an organization that assisted Sudanese immigrants in Cairo. There, Gualpa says, she learned the meaning and benefits of community organization.
“The Sudanese community were refugees in Cairo, they were treated poorly and deprived of their labor rights,” Gualpa recalls. After six months working at the center, Gualpa and her colleagues were able to almost double the amount of Egyptian dollars the United Nations was offering to each refugee. Soon after, Gualpa decided to return to the United States and implement her newfound interest among her own people.
For two years now, Gualpa, has been a part of the Day Laborers’ Organization Project. Gualpa uses English classes as a way to gain the women’s trust and simultaneously to teach them the importance of being unified.
As the women continue to watch for potential clients, one woman cheerfully points across the street to a petite brunette, in cream-colored workout attire, rushing towards the crowd smiling. After a quick chat and a hug with each woman, Gualpa huddles the ladies together. It’s 11 a.m. on Wednesday and English class is in session.
All of the women are focused on Gualpa, who points to a white piece of paper, while yelling to make sure her voice overpowers the traffic noise at the intersection. “I charge $15 per hour,” Gualpa says, and the women repeat. She reiterates the phrase three more times; the women’s response grows louder, attracting attention from passersby. Some onlookers shake their heads in dismay, while others look with curiosity.
Benny Berk, a resident of Williamsburg who lives across from the intersection, says the women are a big help to the community because “they clean people’s houses, if they don’t do it, then we would have to do it ourselves.” Most of the women are undocumented, but the city residents and the Police Department apparently turn a blind eye, as the demand for the women is high.
According to the New York Day Laborer survey, conducted in 2003 by Abel Valenzuela of UCLA and Edwin Melendez of New School University, women account for only five percent of the 100,000 day laborers across New York State. And the women’s main gathering location in Williamsburg is growing in popularity. Since the intersection is located in a primarily Hasidic Jewish neighborhood, the women must wear more conservative clothing, especially if they are picked to clean a religious family’s home.
One of the biggest challenges for the women on the corner, according to Gualpa, is the increased competition that has come with women from outside the area. “The ladies have decided on a minimum salary of $10 per hour,” Gualpa says, “but when new groups of women enter, they are unaware of this, so they bid lower, causing future problems for the current women.”
Gualpa says she understands the hardships that the women endure and therefore works passionately to offer help, even though some residents see her as a nuisance. “When I am on the street corner teaching the English class, I have had verbal threats from passersby,” she says. “I have also had people tell me to watch my back and that I am known in the neighborhood, but I have to ignore it and move on.”
Gualpa, who receives a small stipend for her work, along with two volunteers, assists workers who step forward with reports of unfair treatment, primarily being denied pay or cheated on the number of hours. After having the worker document the days and hours she was employed, Gualpa visits the employer’s home or job location.
“Before hiring the worker, the employer could and should ask for the Social Security number,” Gualpa says. “But after the person has already performed labor, whether that person is documented or not, they must be paid.” Gualpa states the labor law and tells the employer that since he or she knowingly hired an illegal immigrant, the boss, too, can be in trouble if reported to the State Department of Labor.
In 2009, for example, an investigation by the Department of Labor led them to one commercial strip in the Bushwick section Brooklyn. More than 60 workers were owed over $350,000 in unpaid wages, the department found. According to the State Department of Labor the investigation resulted in several cases. Over the last decade, many grassroots organizations, like the Day Laborers’ Project, are partnering with the State Department of Labor by assisting in community monitoring of employer conduct.
The Division of Immigrant Policies and Affairs of the State Labor Department addresses the needs, issues, and challenges of immigrants by doing outreach in immigrant communities. “In order to this, we informally partner with organizations that serve these communities to disseminate information effectively,” says Maritere Arce, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Labor.
According to immigration lawyers, since employers who hire immigrant workers know they are afraid to come forward with complaints, wage theft has become rampant among the immigrant neighborhood. “The construction and restaurant industries are among those where wage theft is most prevalent,” Arce says. She adds that the Labor Department does not inquire about a workers’ nationality or legal status in wage theft investigation. Therefore, whether a worker is documented or not, their complaint will receive the same amount of attention.
On an early Thursday morning, Gualpa heads to a clothing factory off Decatur Street in Brooklyn. Three of the women who had been recruited from the Marcy Avenue hiring site have reported missing wages. Gualpa is familiar with this factory and its managers since she has approached them before with unpaid wage claims.
Estela Sanchez, 46, who came to the United States from Mexico eight years ago, said the company owes her $27.11. “To some people this might be little money,” Sanchez explains, “but for me this is a lot.” The company management had told Sanchez that the factory had financial problems and wouldn’t be able to pay her. After repeated attempts, Sanchez says she realized the employer was not taking her seriously, so she met with Gualpa.
“My English is not good, but Ligia’s is,” says Sanchez. “So they will listen to her.”
Evelia Torres, 27, whose job was to cut clothing threads and pack items for shipping, says she is owed wages of $29. However, the largest claim that Gualpa would be questioning the company is for Ilaria Reyes, 40, for $1,034. Reyes says she worked long hours and overtime believing that she would eventually get paid. “I had to come to work,” Reyes says. “Whatever he would give me is better than standing on the corner and making no money.”
As Gualpa and the ladies prepare to walk up the factory stairs to meet with the employer, a look of concern sweeps across the women’s faces. While Gualpa seems very calm, Reyes’s hands are trembling. The climb up the stairs and walk through the narrow and aged warehouse hallways seems to put some doubt in the women. They begin to lag behind Gualpa, slowing their pace and speaking softly among themselves. When they all finally enter the office, Gualpa approaches the manager with a smile. Sanchez stands up straight with hands folded across her chest, Torres looks on to the piles of black and khaki clothing laid on rows of tables, as if to appear distracted, but Reyes is flustered, her face a deep red color.
“See, this is the problem,” Sanchez whispers. “Women are scared to confront the bosses.”
After Gualpa patiently explains all the missing wages and dates to the factory manager, she insists on the immediate payment of at least the two smaller debts. The factory director says he will have to check with his accountant before writing any checks. Even though Gualpa does not succeed in getting any of the women paid, she says that she has achieved a broader goal – making the employer aware that there are repercussions to hiring women off the Williamsburg street corner and treating them unfairly.
“I am going to check back with him next week,” Gualpa says. “In the meantime, I will go ahead and submit the cases and run an investigation on the factory.” According to Gualpa, agents will visit the company in question, around two weeks after presenting a complaint to the State Department of Labor.
Gualpa was raised in the Bronx after her family emigrated from Ecuador when she was eight years old. She grew up seeing the neighborhood’s working men and women, including her parents, exploited on a daily basis through low wages and ill treatment. “My family came for a dream,” Gualpa says. “It’s the dream of every American, which is to feed your family, give them a right to a good education and offer them good opportunities.”
Gualpa says she wants to be the agent of change and show immigrants how to obtain the American Dream. She is now cultivating a group to campaign for a portable hiring center at the intersection in Williamsburg. With an annual budget of $150,000, the Day Laborers Organization Project relies entirely on foundation donations and fund-raising. The facility would offer the women relief from the heat and cold as well as a suitable location for employers to approach the domestic workers and agree on a set hourly pay and duration.
Gualpa knows she has a huge hurdle ahead with this campaign, since the hiring center would support undocumented workers. Regardless, Gualpa says she understands how effective a big group can be rather than just one voice. “If I can empower one lady to be a leader within her own community,” she says, “then I have empowered many.”