Carlos Reyes was part of a construction crew that worked 10 to 14 hours a day in San Diego last January. They were gutting a restaurant interior for conversion to a clothing store. At the end of the week, says Reyes, the crew were paid only for eight-hour days, told “We don‘t pay overtime.” They were then left to find their own way back home to Los Angeles.

The next week, that same abusive contractor returned to L.A. to find a new set of day laborers. Though experiences like these are preferable to no work at all, Reyes hopes for something better.

That’s why he was among almost 200 of America‘s most defenseless workers — Spanish-speaking day laborers — who met last week at Cal State Northridge to assemble some clout. They are setting up a national network to protect themselves against employer rip-offs and to lobby for an expansion of their legal rights.

As it stands, day laborers frequently find themselves overworked and shortchanged even from the relatively low wages they have agreed to. Unemployment insurance is not available; nor is coverage for on-the-job injuries. The workers themselves are typically unfamiliar with their legal rights and often fearful — because of their immigration status — of attempting to assert them.

One conference attendee, Texas filmmaker Heather Courtney, produced an award-winning 48-minute documentary on the lives and backgrounds of two Austin day workers. “We do the hardest jobs and still they don’t want us,” says one of the leads. Unwanted by some, but a needed component of economic life, day workers, this conference suggests, will now be standing up assertively for their own needs.

Last week‘s conclave was part of a movement to level out the power equation. All over the Western states, and in many large Eastern cities, service agencies have initiated programs to assist day laborers — educating them about wage laws, worker rights and social-service access, trying to improve job skills, offering English classes, and shepherding them off the streets into hiring sites. Local labor centers in Pomona and Malibu and multipurpose service agencies such as CHIRLA (Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A.) were among 18 groups spearheading the Northridge gathering.

By the end of the three-plus days of meetings, attendees mapped out an ambitious agenda. Key goals, explains CHIRLA’s Victor Narro, include ensuring that any federal amnesty for illegal immigrants provides for day laborers. Few qualified in the 1986 amnesty bill. In the meantime the most urgent need, organizers say, is protecting the right to look for work and the establishment of workplace rights that others take for granted. In part, says Narro, this is a matter of self-education on wage and hour standards and the right to organize. Until now, the workers themselves have borne the brunt of law-enforcement efforts. Narro wants workers to make sure that employers comply with the law.

A legislative hearing at the Ronald Reagan State Office Building last week on abuses in the garment and building-maintenance industries made clear that scofflaw contractors are practically worry-free. Labor-law enforcement agencies are unable to access each other‘s databases, and cases drag on so long that witnesses are gone or the time limit for prosecution has expired. And because maintenance contractors need no licenses in California, the state has no recourse to address abuses short of criminal prosecution.

Day laborers had one victory to celebrate — the mid-July decision by county Sheriff Lee Baca to stop arresting workers soliciting for jobs outdoors. Baca’s decision followed a successful court challenge to a 1994 county ordinance that made it a misdemeanor to approach persons in moving vehicles for the purpose of being hired. U.S. District Judge George King agreed with the challengers, CHIRLA among them, that the law was discriminatory and unconstitutionally limited free speech. While the particular ruling did not cover similar ordinances in some of the cities that Baca‘s department patrols, the sheriff agreed to apply this legal principle universally. Such ordinances are still in effect, however, in other local jurisdictions. They’ll also be challenged in court, said advocates.

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