White faces in the day labour queue

Paul Raven @ 11-11-2009

I clearly remember my first day travelling in Mexico, walking out from my hostel to check out the zocalo at the centre of El D.F. and catching sight of long rows of men stood by their open toolboxes, with little signs explaining what sort of work they’d do, and for how much money. I’d never seen people queuing for day labour before; I don’t know if it’s ever happened in the UK during my lifetime.

It’s a more common sight in the US, apparently, especially in cities with high densities of immigrants, legal or otherwise. And now in Las Vegas (and elsewhere) the immigrants are being joined by US-born citizens as the economy continues its slow grind through the low times [via GlobalGuerrillas]:

In the latest sign of the Las Vegas Valley’s economic free fall, U.S. citizens are starting to show up in the early mornings outside home improvement stores and plant nurseries across the Las Vegas Valley, jostling with illegal immigrants for a shot at a few hours of work.

Experts say the slow-starting but seemingly inexorable trend is occurring nationwide.

“It’s the equivalent of selling apples in the Great Depression,” said Harley Shaiken, chairman of the Center for Latin American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

It’s grim news from an economic perspective… but there may be a positive outcome, depending on your attitude. While there’s every chance that competing with illegal immigrants for low-dollar work may exacerbate the resentment and racial tensions that certain talk-show hosts love to exploit, in some cases the reverse may occur – citizens brought low by the financial crisis coming to realise that immigrants are people just like them, in other words.

Bernabe said organizers came across one case where a local sheriff had been sending officers to answer complaints about day laborers and then found one day that the sheriff’s neighbor, a citizen, was among them. Police in that area have been less likely to harass laborers since then, he said. These events will occur more, changing people’s attitudes in the process, he said.

“For a long time, people have looked at day laborers and said, ‘The problem is the immigrants.’ Now the economy is changing. Now people may see it’s a problem of the labor market, of the rights of workers,” Bernabe said.

Buchanan, meanwhile, looks forward to a future that includes a steady job and an apartment. “I’m trying to dig my way out of this,” he said. When he does, however, he sees himself as a changed man.

“Before, I was part of the majority. Now I’m part of the minority … I’m not going to forget this. I’m not going to forget any of this.”

It’d be ironic if the recession helped people to realise that the divide that really matters isn’t the border lines drawn on a map, but the invisible one drawn between the poor and the rich – the one that cuts across nationality and ethnicity in every country on the planet. It’d be ironic, but it’d also be the best thing that the recession achieved. What social changes might we see in a country where the poor refuse to be divided and conquered by the rhetoric of the rich? Would the atmosphere of brotherhood last, or would the first signs of recovery herald a return to the status quo?

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Responses to “White faces in the day labour queue”

  1. Ian Sales says:

    Day labourers gathering in parts of the city in the hope of work were a common sight in the United Arab Emirates. Many of them were there illegally. In the late 1990s, the authorities declared an amnesty, and everyone living in the country without the necessary paperwork was sent home.

    Fifteen percent of the population left.

  2. Nancy Jane Moore says:

    You don’t have day laborers in the UK? Really? Of course, you all probably have fewer limits on who can collect unemployment payments (the dole) than we have here. In the US, you can only get unemployment if you lost your job through no fault of your own, and it’s only for a limited period of time. In some states, you don’t qualify if you worked part time or if you hadn’t been working very long. So if you’re out of work and not drawing unemployment, you have to do something.

    In the US, there are frequently local controversies about locations where people gather seeking work, usually framed as concerns about traffic problems, though there’s generally an underlying element of “we don’t want this kind of people in our town.” But people hire them, because they work cheap. And for some people — especially undocumented immigrants — it’s the only work they can get.

    There used to be — and perhaps there still are — official services that sent people out for day jobs (like temporary work agencies, only for people with more minimal job skills), but the informal process tends to be cheaper for the person hiring.

    And while it would be nice to think that shared misery would help break down barriers among people of different races and backgrounds, don’t hold your breath.