by JOEL MILLS
The First Workers Day Labor Center, approved and funded by the Austin City Council seven years ago, is a 5,300-square-foot complex off Interstate 35, where a full-time bilingual staff sees about 150 works each day. The center touts “quick drive-through service” for potential employers. The city announced last month it was considering a second facility in South Austin.
This might suggest Austin is generally supportive of day laborers. But the issue is controversial, as residents and businesses affected by informal labor markets have complained to public officials. Austin also pursued aggressive enforcement of anti-solicitation ordinances. Last year, the city briefly considered a ban on roadside panhandling to decrease day labor activity.
The day labor delimma in Austin is by no means unique. Day labor sparks controversies in communities across the country, as more and more people link the crowds of workers to the divisive national immigration debate. According to the 2005 Day Labor Survey, 117,600 workers gather at nearly 500 sites across the country every day.
Congressional inaction on immigration reform leaves local governments with no clear guidance on how to deal with day laborers fairly. To add insult to injury, in the past year, congressional schizophrenia led to competing bills that spell out different directions on immigration. The House passed a bill that included provisions to outlaw public day labor centers and increase penalties for illegal hiring, while the Senate passed a bill that included a guest worker program outlining a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The day labor issue is not going away. Economists say the demand for day labor will continue to rise in coming years. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that occupations with the highest job growth through 2014 will include landscaping and groundskeeping, laborers and freight, stock and material movers, maids and housekeepers, and food preparation workers, among others.
Dramatic job growth will increase demand for immigrant workers, legal and illegal. The Texas comptroller’s office recently released a report that said the state economy would have been almost $18 billion poorer in the last fiscal year without illegal immigrants. Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn noted that, without undocumented immigrants, Texas’ work force would decrease by 6.3 percent, resulting in a “noticable tightening in labor markets” and a modest decline in the value of the state’s exports.
As Congress stalls, decisions about day labor are being made in other ways. U.S. Courts have ruled local ordinances designed to aggressively restrict day labor activity unlawful. In California, a federal judge ruled that the city of Redondo Beach could not restrict laborers’ rights to seek work in public places. In New York, a judge ruled that the village of Mamaronek “acted with malicious or bad-faith intent to injure day laborers” when it closed a day labor gathering site and ordered police to aggressively patrol the area and cite people for loitering and trespassing.
Official workers’ centers like the one off I-35 in Austin provide one of the best ways for cities to balance competing interests. They address public safety and traffic concerns by keeping workers off the streets, and they address workers’ needs by offering training and education about basic labor issues. Studies in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas indicate a majority of citizens support public funding for them.
The best strategies are the ones that foster a dialogue about day labor, a distinctly local issue. Establishing healthy public dialogue educates citizens about the policy constraints facing local governments and helps identify practical solutions that have public support.