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Building Community and Power with Oakland Day Laborers

Posted on Nov 23, 2016
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by Nicole Marquez, Staff Attorney

At a time when marginalized communities are increasingly under attack, Worksafe and its partners, Centro Legal de la Raza and Street Level Health Project (collectively known as the Collaborative), are proud to share how immigrant Day Laborers in the Fruitvale district of Oakland are rising up and becoming leaders in their community. This last year, Worksafe was the only organization that received a grant from the California State Bar Trust Fund for a worker-oriented project around community redevelopment. The funding for this project, Safe, Secure and Sustainable jobs for Day Laborers, results from legal settlements with banks charged with predatory lending and other unlawful practices.

In addition to the hazards that Day Laborers face in the workplace, many encounter a host of other challenges: limited knowledge of workplace rights, fear of retaliation, immigration status, limited/lack of social safety net services, economic disenfranchisement, discrimination, limited English speaking skills, limited literacy, and more. Carlos*, a Day Laborer and member of Street Level Health Project- Oakland Worker Collective (OWC), shared that “There are always problems concerning how the employer believes the job should be completed. Sometimes when you’re waiting for work, the employers who pick you up downright lie about the volume of work or type of work you were brought there to perform. You usually get underpaid in those situations.”
(*Carlos’ name has been changed for confidentiality purposes.)

A key component of the project involves a survey led by Stanford’s Leadership Education for Aspiring Physicians Project (LEAP). LEAP students, accompanied by Street Level Health Project (Street Level), surveyed 60 Day Laborers in the Fruitvale. Street Level regularly engages in grassroots outreach to Day Laborers, and so has established a certain level of visibility and positive reputation within the community. Together, LEAP and Street Level were able to survey Day Laborers with a culturally and linguistically conscious approach.

The survey gathered information on Day Laborers’ working conditions and well-being, particularly mental health. While we plan to conduct more surveying before the project is complete, preliminary findings show alarming rates of injury and exploitation. Fifty three percent of participants reported employers not paying the promised rate or for all the hours worked. Fifty three percent also reported being required to work long hours, often without a break. Fifty six percent reported being injured on the job. Of those who reported being injured, 44% reported getting medical help; however, 75% paid their own bills, meaning only 25% of injured Day Laborers saw the cost of their injuries covered by their employers. Many also reported adverse childhood experiences, i.e. not having enough to eat, not having a place to sleep, etc., as well as current feelings of isolation and lack of a support network.

We make our communities healthier and stronger by recognizing our needs but also by highlighting our strengths. Day Laborers experience workplace violations regularly but also have strengths as individuals and as a community to be celebrated and developed. With the aim of building on these strengths, the Collaborative developed and delivered a professional training program. The program’s purpose is to increase Day Laborers’ capacity to exercise their rights and to build practical job skills.

The program consists of a series of professional development workshops, delivered by Collaborative members and other partners to a cohort of 30 Day Laborers from the OWC. Over the course of the program’s 90 hours of training, participants learned about workplace health and safety, wage theft, and immigration rights, and received skills training in permaculture, basic construction, and landscaping. At the end of the program, workers received a certificate to commemorate and recognize their participation in the program. When asked how much the professional training helped him, Carlos said “Very much. I have learned things I previously didn’t know, and when the information is coming from organizations like this, I know I can trust it.”

Some of the benefits of the program’s trainings are unquantifiable, like the pride of completing a certificate program or the confidence to stand up for one’s self, one another, and one’s community. But other benefits can be heard in the comments from participants like Carlos, who said, “I’ve worked in the Oakland Hills on dangerous hillsides where you risk sliding off properties while gardening. Before, I used to work in crawlspaces, but I don’t do that anymore because it’s much too dangerous and really scares me.”

Part of being a leader is telling one’s own story. Through this project, Day Laborers told and continue to tell their own stories by participating in civic engagement activities. OWC members participated in this year’s May Day protests, and in a Workers’ Memorial Day march and rally in Oakland titled “Reclaim Labor; Reclaim Lives” that raised special attention to the disproportionate impacts of workplace deaths amongst Latino workers. Carlos shared how he felt on Workers’ Memorial Day: "I feel I am honestly participating to create change. I was very happy that day, I now know my rights as a worker better, I know that marching at a demonstration is part of my rights as a worker. I would gladly march again to protect those rights.”

Building capacity for workers to identify and solve for themselves issues of importance is a major goal of this project. OWC members are developing their own advocacy tools and a set of demands to improve their workplaces and the broader community. They are taking ownership of and leading their movement—making visible the issues they encounter and developing solutions to address the problems in their workplaces.

At the graduation ceremony for completion of the program, OWC members identified an issue of importance: access to bathrooms. OWC leaders are developing their own change agenda around workplace access to drinking water and bathrooms. This is a problem that is pervasive among the OWC members and the Day Laborers surveyed by the LEAP students. The survey conducted by LEAP students indicates that 55% of Day Laborers have worked without access to either water or bathroom facilities. Carlos expressed the frustration of his fellow Day Laborers, “The bathroom and water situation has to change. I always bring my own water but on hot days that runs out, and employers aren’t always open to giving you more. They’re even less likely to let you use their bathroom, but I can’t as easily bring my own bathroom to work, can I?”

Recently, Worksafe facilitated an administrative advocacy and grass-roots organizing training for collaborative partners to help Day Laborers build their own capacity for bringing change. We discussed possible strategies to support Day Laborers having access to bathrooms while at work, especially in situations where Cal/OSHA does not assert jurisdiction. Access to bathrooms is a human right; all workers deserve that basic dignity, including Day Laborers. The Collaborative will continue developing a strategic plan to ensure basic dignity for Day Laborers.

The need for equity and dignity for Day Laborers is great. At the heart of this project is the strength in solidarity amongst the OWC members. This strength in solidarity is enhanced by the Collaborative partners standing in solidarity with and supporting Day Laborers. It is the spirit of solidarity that will enable us to both fight for these rights and make our community of activists, workers, and allies stronger.


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