Protecting workers

February 28, 2005

THE CITY'S BACKING of a permanent center for day laborers who hang out on street corners at the mercy of sometimes unscrupulous employers is a show of support for efforts to blunt the widespread abuse of "casual workers" operating outside formal employment settings.

These mainly homeless and immigrant workers provide cheap but hard labor for construction, landscaping, commercial cleaning and other large companies. The 7,000 to 10,000 of them in Baltimore deserve at least the minimum labor protections afforded employees with formal jobs.

While the center would also serve American-born residents, it would be one more welcome step by the city to address the needs of a growing immigrant population, both legal and illegal, that despite some social challenges is helping revitalize city neighborhoods and the local economy. This and other larger growth strategy measures will well serve the city's future.

A recent report by the Latino advocacy group Casa de Maryland and the Homeless Persons Representation Project highlighting outrageous abuses of day laborers shined a spotlight on the shadowy practices of employers, some of them "prestigious" Baltimore companies. The mayor's immigrant outreach coordinator is working with the two groups to get grants to fund workplace health and safety training, job counseling and employer monitoring, wage and hour enforcement and language classes.

City Council President Sheila Dixon plans to introduce legislation tonight to create a task force to study further ways of protecting day laborers. Last week, she got an earful of firsthand accounts from laborers denied pay and medical care by employers.

Employment centers for day laborers are becoming alternatives to street corner hiring sites in cities and towns, balancing the demand for cheap labor with the need to protect a labor pool disadvantaged by language barriers, ignorance of labor laws, and threats of deportation. Formalizing the hiring system to prevent rife exploitation of immigrants and homeless people will go a long way toward diminishing the economic desperation that fuels it, and better conditions for employees at the bottom will ease the downward pressure on employers to cut corners with all their workers.

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