Triangle REVA//Flickr
Triangle REVA//Flickr

Last year well over one million workers were employed by two of the largest day labor companies, and over 50% of them were homeless. These workers are in an industry characterized by low wages, no benefits, and often, unsafe working conditions. Day labor companies exploit the poor, and perpetuate a form of oppression that can be characterized as wage slavery.

The myth is that day labor is a transitional stage that allows people to better themselves, their families and the environment in which they live. The reality is that day labor perpetuates homelessness, and punishes those who seek to rise out of poverty.

The basic function of the day labor industry is to provide there is an accessible pool of labor that can be dispatched at short notice to meet the needs of a business. More and more companies are seeking to reduce their labor costs by disposing of permanent workers and replacing them with the contracted employees. Money is saved not only in the actual cost of the labor, but also in the lack of benefits, pensions, training and overtime for these workers.

One of the largest users of day labor is the construction industry. Currently over 500 companies supply temporary labor to construction sites, plus it is estimated that over one million laborers are picked up from street corners and other unofficial meeting places.

In certain parts of the country, like Florida, the Southwest, and New York, many of the day laborers are Latino immigrants, and in other parts of the country they are mostly African-American citizens. But common in all ares is abject poverty, a lack of opportunity for economic advancement, and a systemic abuse of the worker’s civil rights.

It is economically almost impossible to create large profit margins solely from the supply of day laborers; yet, in this highly completive industry, the largest day labor companies are reporting profits of tens of millions of dollars a year. In contrast, the average annual earnings for a day laborer are $8,800, with no benefits. This income is predicated on a 12 to 14 hour workday, not a standard eight hours, and assumes that the worker is available 52 weeks a year.

The labor companies have been repeatedly charged with cheating and avoiding health and safety regulations that protects these workers, and are in a series of lawsuits brought on by labor unions. The labor companies flout these laws because they are secure in the knowledge that the Department of Labor simply does not have enough resources for enforcement.

There is a need for the day labor industry, yet if we allow these policies to continue more and more American workers will find themselves at the mercy of an industry that has no qualms about abusing both the worker and the system. Day laborers need to ensure that they have a voice, and to advocate for themselves. And to those who suggest that these abuses are part of a free market should consider that without government intervention there would be no child labor laws, no environmental protection laws, and very little public transportation.