Monday, November 19, 2007

A Good Day's Work Deserves a Good Day's Pay

This week on Lincoln Avenue, I’m talking with Dr. Terry Easton. He visited YSU as part of this year’s Center for Working-Class Studies Lecture Series, speaking about his research on day laborers. Terry’s dissertation won the Working-Class Studies Association’s first annual Constance Coiner Award for the best dissertation.

His work raises interesting and troubling questions about the changing nature of work and the dynamics of race and class in American cities. Day laboring includes both jobs assigned by employment agencies that specialize in “work today, get paid today” labor, mostly in construction and landscaping, and the jobs workers get by standing on the right street corner and being picked up by a homeowner or contractor. In both cases, workers are at risk of workplace accidents, because the workers often have neither safety equipment nor safety training, and many don’t speak English. Worse, they run the risk of not getting paid at all, and when they do get paid, they usually receive just the minimum wage. Many of these workers are homeless and battling drug and alcohol addictions. Several organizations are conducting research and organizing to protect day laborers, among them the Day Labor Research Institute.

The problems facing day laborers have been exacerbated by immigration and the rapid growth of some cities, like Atlanta. While growth has increased the demand for day laborers, immigration has put black and latino workers in competition. The increasing visibility of day laborers also adds fuel to the anti-immigration debate. Yet, as Easton points out, even illegal immigrants are human beings, who deserve fair pay for their work. You may not like the fact that they’re here, but they are part of the economy. Paying them so little – and not paying them at all sometimes – helps keep the costs of construction down and contributes to economic growth.

All of this may feel distant from Youngstown. Easton focused his discussion on day laboring in Atlanta, after all. But when he spoke with Tod Porter’s economics class, Easton discovered that a number of YSU students either knew someone who had done this kind of work or had their own experience as day laborers. They could name several local agencies that manage day labor jobs, and they recognized the “standing on the street corner” version of day labor as something they had seen near big box hardware stores. Even as we tout the growth in professional jobs in the Mahoning Valley, we must remember that new construction and demand for landscapers create the conditions for low-wage, high-risk jobs.

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