Community seeks permanent indoor base for day laborers

Advocates say immigrant workers are easily exploited by employers

December 22, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

At first glimpse of the 18-wheeler barreling down Broadway yesterday morning, about two dozen men bundled in sweats, wool caps and work boots scurried to the corner of Lombard Street.

A thin young man, who maneuvered himself to the front of the crowd, leapt into the back of the cab. The truck driver peered at the pack below and held up one finger, as if to say, "Only one today."

It's a typical morning at this 7-Eleven parking lot, which for years has been a gathering spot for day laborers desperate for work. But it's a location that might soon change, with work under way to find a permanent indoor location in the city for day laborers to find work.

Community advocates have taken notice of the throng, who they say are being exploited by employers not paying fair wages and taking advantage of immigrants from Latin America with limited knowledge of English and workplace rights.

Neighborhood residents have voiced concerns, too. Washington Hill residents complained to the city that the men are an "eyesore." In the rapidly gentrifying section of the city, this convenience store parking lot has become a symptom of underlying tension between new Hispanic immigrants and longtime residents of Washington Hill and Upper Fells Point.

Today, CASA of Maryland will release the findings of a two-year study on day laborers in Baltimore, called "A Fair Day's Pay for a Fair Day's Work: Sweating Day Laborers in Baltimore."

The study is part of a combined effort by advocates in Baltimore's growing Latino community to empower day laborers.

"These are mostly single men who need that day labor to survive and to send money to their home country," said Jeanne Velez, director of Assisi House, of St. Patrick's Church, which does outreach into Baltimore's Hispanic community. "For them, there is a sense of urgency. It's a matter of survival."

At a recent community meeting, CASA representatives asked Mayor Martin O'Malley to earmark money for a day laborer center -- a location where employers promising a fair wage can seek workers, much like a center CASA operates in Montgomery County.

The mayor has said he will help the group find a location and grant money. Meanwhile, the Mayor's Hispanic Liaison Office and other community groups have been working with CASA to find a place.

The study, which was done with the Homeless Persons Representation Project, looked at conditions of primarily Latino immigrant day laborers and predominantly African-American temporary workers, who tend to seek work at day labor sites.

The report includes interviews with workers, who reported inadequate safety equipment at construction sites and employers that have abandoned them without paying.

"There are scores of illegalities committed against these workers," said Kim Propeack, a spokeswoman for CASA.

For now, the corner of Lombard and Broadway swells with workers, reflecting the growing tide of immigrants.

Men like Serafin Ramos Camacho, 34, arrive at the 7-Eleven as early as 6 a.m., hoping to get picked up by a contractor to do construction work, or help out on a moving truck.

"I've been here five hours today; it's cold," said Camacho, who is used to the coastal beaches of his hometown, Veracruz, Mexico, where his parents and siblings live. "I want to get a construction license and make more money, but right now, it's easiest to make money here."

Camacho earns about $150 a week in the winter, when work is scarce, but he says he pays the rent with the money he saved from the summer months, when his weekly salary was as much as $800.

The grueling work takes him all over Maryland, from homes in Towson to construction sites in Annapolis. But nothing is guaranteed. Camacho said he has twice tried to cash checks from employers, only to be told the account had insufficient funds. He started talking to organizers at CASA after a contractor refused to pay him for a job painting houses.

"They only pick us up at the 7-Eleven, so we don't know the names of the office or the company," he said. "They know we are desperate, so they can use us."

But for some who live in Washington Hill, the 7-Eleven is synonymous with men loitering in the shadows of an increasingly trendy neighborhood where houses sell for up to $350,000.

About three years ago, two dozen men standing in wait at the intersection garnered hardly a passing glance. But as the numbers grew, community residents began complaining of men loitering and urinating in nearby City Springs Park, said Maureen Sweeney Smith, executive director of Citizens for Washington Hill.

Initially, neighbors wanted the men off the corner. But after talking to community advocates, they developed a better understanding of their plight, Smith said.

"All of a sudden, our focus changed; we didn't want to ruin a chance for these guys," she said. "We know this is survival for them."

In cities from Los Angeles to Atlanta, there have been angry confrontations between residents and laborers and their advocates.

Smith said she hopes that doesn't happen here.

"I have to question their motivation; perhaps there is discrimination," she said. "But I honestly think there isn't. I think we are being proactive instead of reactive. We don't want it to get to a point where it gets nasty."

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