Day-labor center opens

Project designed to curb loitering, offer jobs, training

December 20, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Labor groups, immigrant advocates and city leaders applauded yesterday's opening of a Southeast Baltimore employment center, a move designed to keep day workers off street corners and provide them with jobs, training and legal assistance.

Operated by the immigrant advocacy group CASA of Maryland, the refurbished brick warehouse at East Fayette and Madeira streets will offer workers an alternative to congregating at a 7-Eleven parking lot on South Broadway, a popular spot for laborers seeking temporary employment.

"Labor centers are the most cost-effective investment of government money I can imagine," said Thomas E. Perez, Maryland's secretary of labor, licensing and regulation. "We're providing employment, addressing public safety by creating an orderly process, keeping people from street corners and protecting workers."

For more than three years, advocates have pushed for a center, saying workers who gather at the convenience store are targets for devious employers who prey on immigrants who have little knowledge of English and American workplace rights. Residents also have pushed for an alternative, saying the crowded street corner is a neighborhood eyesore.

In a 2004 study, CASA of Maryland and the Homeless Persons Representation Project interviewed laborers who frequent the corner, a mix of Latino immigrants and African-American temporary workers.

The report estimated that there are 7,000 to 10,000 day laborers in the city and found that those workers earned less than permanent employees doing the same work, received inferior safety equipment and were denied overtime pay and bathroom breaks.

"The most important recommendation we made was for the creation of a worker center," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland. "At CASA, we believe there is no such thing as an expendable worker, there is no such thing as an expendable human being."

Two years ago, city leaders pledged their support and gave CASA of Maryland $88,000 to renovate the center. An anonymous donor gave $40,000.

The center's operating budget comes from foundations and $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant funds, a program in which federal money is disbursed to community groups.

CASA operates similar centers in Wheaton, Gaithersburg and Silver Spring, which are funded in part by Montgomery County.

As day labor has grown, centers have emerged nationwide. So have critics. Centers in Gaithersburg and Herndon, Va., have become flash points in the immigration debate, with opponents objecting to a taxpayer funded effort that could help illegal immigrants.

CASA officials said they encountered some reluctance when searching for sites for the center but worked hard to gain community trust. Several community groups and churches supported the center yesterday.

Other speakers said the center could work to defuse tensions between Latino and black workers.

"At CASA, they are not just talking about building bridges between Hispanics and African-Americans, but they are really doing it," said Diana Morris, director of the Open Society Institute-Baltimore. "This is a place where all sorts of people can come, where they are safe, properly paid and can make a contribution to this country."

City Councilman James B. Kraft said the center is a boon to a once blighted area.

"This lot used to be vacant, and we had a lot of problems with garbage and drug dealers," he said. "When you come here and take this spot over, you make this whole area alive."

The center will also provide English classes, skills training and workshops on tax preparation.

Andrew Palmer, a day laborer who frequents the 7-Eleven parking lot said he looks forward to the center's official opening Jan. 2. "Being on the corner is not easy," he said.

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

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