In Bensonhurst, Immigrant Laborers Get a Helping Hand

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In Bensonhurst, Immigrant Laborers Get a Helping Hand

Members of the Worker’s Justice Project, left to right: Alexander Onate, Manuel Castro, Patricia Lojano, Jeremia Pettway, Jose Angel Figueroa, and Riccardo Rojas. (Thomas Caramanno/The Brooklyn Ink)
Members of the Worker’s Justice Project, left to right: Alexander Onate, Manuel Castro, Patricia Lojano, Jeremia Pettway, Jose Angel Figueroa, and Riccardo Rojas. (Photo by Thomas Caramanno / The Brooklyn Ink)

The first one in gets the coffee. The next one gets the water. The one after gets the bread. And the last worker to arrive at the multicolored trailer, sitting in a parking lot overlooking the ocean off of Brooklyn’s Shore Parkway, gets the gas.

Gas fuels the generator for the trailer as coffee fuels the men and women inhabiting it, members of Bensonhurst’s Worker’s Justice Project. The Project is a Brooklyn-based organization that assists day laborers with advocating for fair wages and finding jobs. And given the nature of their work, it requires plenty of coffee.

The coffee station: a key component. (Thomas Caramanno/The Brooklyn Ink)
The coffee station: a key component. (Photo by Thomas Caramanno / The Brooklyn Ink)

The Worker’s Justice Project serves as a job site—a liaison between contractors and homeowners in need of skilled laborers and workers who need to earn a living. As its website states, the organization “empowers low-wage immigrant workers to gain a voice in the workplace and build strong and economically sustainable communities through education, organizing, leadership development, and the growth of grassroots economic alternatives.”

On a humid summer morning recently, over the breeze blowing from the nearby ocean and the persistent hum of the generator, some of the organization’s patrons and staff members reflected on the project’s mission, and its emergence as a tool for political and social advocacy. Inside the trailer, the walls are adorned with photos of workers on the job, some posing in hard hats at construction sites. Also visible are signs explaining wage laws and workers’ rights, written in Spanish, as well as a modest desk with a computer. White boxes are stacked against a wall, each containing books on topics ranging from immigration to learning English. One worker, Riccardo Rojas, 27, of Coney Island proudly said that this small “library” was donated to the project by New York City none other than Mayor Bill di Blasio.

The Worker’s Justice Project library, donated by Mayor Bill di Blasio. (Thomas Caramanno/The Brooklyn Ink)
The Worker’s Justice Project library, donated by Mayor Bill di Blasio. (Photo by Thomas Caramanno / The Brooklyn Ink)

Ligia Guallpa, the Project’s executive director, quietly sits on the outskirts of a small semicircle formed by the members. A 30-year-old native of Ecuador, Guallpa speaks only to translate for the workers or to clarify information about the organization. Though she possesses a firm grasp of the issues faced by the members—all Brooklyn residents hailing from countries like Mexico and Ecuador—Guallpa prefers to let them share their experiences in their own voices.

When laborers are hired, the Project requires the signing of an employment contract to protect workers and guarantee their pay. Workers are compensated with hourly wages (which vary by trade) and prospective employers can select laborers based on their skill set. Guallpa says that hourly rates range from $15 to $22.50, depending on the nature of the job. The project also offers opportunities for continuing education—to improve one’s trade—as well as instructions on how to access OSHA, if necessary, and workplace safety courses.

The organization has launched several community projects over the past decade, including the Bay Parkway Community Job Center, which functions as a portal connecting workers to jobs throughout Brooklyn, and the Apple Eco-Cleaning Co-op, which emphasizes domestic work for female workers. These projects allow the Workers Justice Project to serve some 500 laborers per year. They are funded through a combination of private foundations, individual donations, membership dues from workers ($25.00 per year), and city funding. The staff also includes volunteer lawyers who assist members in workplace legal issues or in recouping wages, which according to Guallpa, are common hardships for this population.

“Wage theft is huge for the day laborer community—unsafe working conditions, poor wages,” she said. “The center provides a safe space for workers to get organized.” Typically, day laborers are picked up for jobs demanding intense physical labor, and are sometimes denied pay after the work is completed. This issue became pressing in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s as Brooklyn (and Bensonhurst in particular) experienced a housing boom and more immigrants moved into the neighborhood in the hopes of finding work. Unfortunately, some were cheated.

For example, Manuel Castro, 53, who immigrated to Coney Island from Peru: Before finding the Worker’s Justice Project, he says he was cheated out of pay by a contractor who picked him up to help build a house. When Manuel threatened to walk off the job, the homeowner was confused. Manuel said he hadn’t been paid, but the homeowner recalled paying the contractor so that he could compensate Manuel. It didn’t take long for both men to figure out that the contractor had attempted to pocket Manuel’s pay for himself.

Guallpa says some members of the Bensonhurst community did not understand the needs of the new immigrants in their neighborhood when they arrived, and did not always greet them with open arms. This, in her view, created a foundation for worker exploitation, as well as a need for an institution to combat it and offer workers fair-paying jobs.

And for some of those laborers today, the Project has been more than a means of acquiring employment: It’s been a kind of savior. “One time an employer didn’t want to pay us,” says Jose Angel Figueroa, 32, of Coney Island. “So the way we responded is we did a small protest outside the job site, we showed him that we’re not alone. So he paid us back.”

Another worker, Jeremia Pettway, 32, of Bensonhurst, said he was among the small group of protestors at that particular job site with Jose. He was also the only member at the trailer that day who was fluent in English, having grown up in Pensacola, Florida. He chimed in after Jose spoke: “We got results done fast, it worked out.”

The group’s lone female member this day, Patricia Lojano, 44, of Sunset Park, smiled when she began telling her story. She came to the U.S. from Ecuador and found work cleaning homes, she said, as most female laborers do. But Patricia’s smile faded as she began highlighting the difficulties faced by women in this industry, among them harsh exposure to toxic cleaning chemicals and employment agencies that charge exorbitant fees. One time, Patricia discovered that she was being paid $5 an hour, while, she said, her non-Hispanic peers were paid $7. She choked up as she described confronting her boss about the matter.

“When I asked why I was paid less, they said, ‘There’s the door. If you want, leave,’” she said. Alexander Onate, 20, sat beside Patricia and solemnly translated for her and some of the other workers after Guallpa departed the trailer for a meeting. He began volunteering for the Worker’s Justice Project two weeks ago.

In an effort to focus attention on the plight faced by female laborers like Lojano, the Project launched The Women’s Economic Justice Initiative in Williamsburg. This particular organization plays the same role as the Project but is focused on helping women organize and advocate for issues pertinent to their work. The group’s latest cause is fighting for access to a mop, as female laborers are often forced to scrub floors on their knees. (The Project will host a panel event on August 2, launching a new study conducted by The Worker Institute at Cornell University on female laborers: “Women Day Laborers in Brooklyn: Stand Up to Clean Up.”)

Literature adorns the walls of the trailer, informing workers of their rights. (Thomas Caramanno/The Brooklyn Ink)
Literature adorns the walls of the trailer, informing workers of their rights. (Photo by Thomas Caramanno / The Brooklyn Ink)

Like Lojano, Jeremia also says he fell victim to agencies that charged large fees in exchange for job assignments. He says one agency, Labor Ready, took $25 to $30 per hour from him. At the day’s end, Jeremiah walked away with a mere $60 for his work. He barely made enough to cover his rent.

According to the National American Congress on Latin America’s National Day Labor Survey, it is estimated that there are more than 120,000 active day laborers in the United States, with most coming from Mexico and Central America. The survey estimates that workers’ earnings fluctuate but confines them to low socioeconomic ranks. According to the survey, “In a good month, their median earnings rise to $1,400; in a bad one, they fall to $500. Their annual earnings likely do not exceed $15,000, placing most day laborers among the working poor.”

The sun peaked at noon and it was time for the center to close for the day. The Project operates between the hours of 7:15 to roughly 11:30. Those who are assigned to jobs leave for work. Others, who were not as fortunate that day, will be given first dibs on tomorrow’s work, depending on the requirements of the assignment.  The workers seem to be grateful for the opportunities they find at the center.  As Lojano put it, “Here, we are free.”

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