The Work of Day Laborers: A snapshot of Abel Valenzuela

Star of stage and screen, and one of our own. Reprinted from the UCLA newsletter, “News About the College”, December 2005. Valenzuela has a Ph.D. in urban studies & planning from MIT. A summary of the recent national survey is in a separate post.


Growing up in East L.A., Abel Valenzuela learned to read the signs: even more mail than usual from Mexico, a flurry of long distance telephone calls, hushed conversations between his immigrant parents.

He was going to have to move over or move out. “My parents would say, ‘Look, your uncle or cousin is going to be staying with us for a few months,”recalls Valenzuela, now an associate professor of Chicano studies and urban planning at UCLA.

In all, Valenzuela calculates at least 12 different newly-immigrated relatives used his bedroom as their launching pad to the American dream. Still, he insists that he didn’t mind. “It was a burden to the family, but I was too small to notice,”he recalls with a chuckle.

Indeed, Valenzuela remembers being much more curious about the newcomers than put out by those who shared his bedroom or temporarily moved him into the living room.

“They would talk about their trials and tribulations — what they were doing at work and how difficult it was to make it in this country,”recalls the scholar who also directs UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty. “That process was really interesting — of people coming to a new country and trying to figure things out.”

Valenzuela believes the experience inspired him to take an interest in immigration and labor. That interest in turn led him to day laborers, or the workers — typically male Latino immigrants — who daily solicit temporary blue collar work from street corners near home improvement stores or busy intersections.

Today, the social scientist is considered the world’s premiere authority on the subject, having conducted the first academic study on day labor in the late 1990s and consistently blazing new trails ever since. In 1999, he grabbed attention with the first findings ever on day labor in Los Angeles. Three years later, he led a team of researchers that released the first comprehensive survey of day labor in the metropolitan New York area.

A similar Valenzuela-led survey of the situation in Washington D.C. appeared earlier this year. He has also studied the phenomenon in Japan and recently returned from South Africa where he and several colleagues are planning to co-author a research paper on the subject.

Now Valenzuela is leading a team that is poised to release the first nationwide study of day labor. Valenzuela and partners at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the New School University directed a fleet of interviewers as they fanned out last year across 250 different hiring sites in 143 cities and 22 different states.

A lot of hope is riding on the findings, which are scheduled to be released later this year thanks to funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation and The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.

“We’ve been saying day laborers are not criminals or child molesters or a nuisance to the neighborhoods where they work,”said Pablo Alvarado, a day labor activist recently named by Time magazine as one of the top 25 Hispanics in the U.S. “Abel comes in and makes the point through numbers.”

Impressive recognition for a scholar who admits that he didn’t originally plan to attend college.

When he started to get bored with the bank teller position that he landed out of high school, Valenzuela decided to change his view. Once at UC Berkeley, long an epicenter for ethnic politics, Valenzuela found himself.

“I remember my mother taking me to different protests, but she couldn’t explain all the connections,”he recalls. “In college, I learned all the background. Suddenly, everything had more meaning.”

Valenzuela had completed a Ph.D. at MIT, a leader in labor studies, by the time he signed on at UCLA as a visiting lecturer in the 1990s. Knee-deep in research of mounting relevance for the nation’s Latino population, he was one of the original five faculty members selected for the UCLA César Chávez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana and Chicano Studies.

In 2001, Valenzuela was named as director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, a unit that looks at all manner of challenges facing the poor and low-skilled in this country. Valenzuela then served as interim chair of the César Chávez Center during the 2003–2004 academic year and was instrumental in creating a full-fledged Chicana and Chicano studies department at UCLA, which was officially approved in January 2005.

“I was so proud to help establish a department that I thought had these really important historical values for the future,”Valenzuela said.

Valenzuela’s strong suit had always been statistical modeling. In looking for a way to create statistically valid research of day labor, he realized the problem facing him had already been solved by other social scientists: those studying the homeless.

“The idea is to figure out as many places where these folks gather,”he said. “It’s not perfect, but then you can go to a sample of these sites or most of them and survey men and women. And that allows you to make a comment about their representation for that region. The same approach works for day laborers.”

Valenzuela’s surveying methods are unique, too. Although students often participate, day laborers themselves take the lead in administering surveys on the theory they are more likely to get fellow immigrants to open up.

“All good researchers know that official statistics often miss groups living on the margins of American life, but few are willing to put the hard work and effort into primary data collection — especially on the scale Abel has,”said Katherine McFate, a program officer at the Rockefeller Foundation. “Abel has been a pioneer in developing methods for gathering information on this hard-to-track population.”

The national study of day labor is expected to pave the way for future research as well as more appropriate public interventions — and will probably surprise groups that have turned the day laborers into lightning rods for anti-immigration sentiment.

“If we want to understand the experience of migrant workers — or the informalization of other sectors of certain industries like construction — we need to better understand how this segment of the low-wage labor market operates,”McFate said.

While a rise in immigration is often cited as the catalyst behind day labor’s rising presence in the U.S., Valenzuela believes the primary driving force is industry’s concern with the bottom-line.

“Industries are operating under survival mode,”he said. “They increasingly feel that they need to turn to a more pliable work force in order to maintain profit margins. They don’t have to worry about benefits or severance packages. When you have these vague relationships, it’s a lot cheaper — and more flexible — for the employer.”

But the national obsession with home improvement also plays a role, Valenzuela believes.

“You see Bob Villa talking about landscaping or installing your own tile and you think, ‘I can do that! It doesn’t look that hard,’”he said, referring to the spokesman for PBS’s “This Old House.”"But if you ever start any of these home improvement projects, you realize how easy it is to get in over your head. So what do you do? You go hire a day laborer.”

Yet, such benefits for homeowners and employers often come at a steep price. In the Washington D.C. study, Valenzuela’s team found that half of all day laborers experience some kind of exploitation or abuse, ranging from non-payment of wages or getting paid less than the negotiated wage, not getting breaks, not getting water, or being abandoned at the site at the end of the day.

The answer, Valenzuela believes, is two-fold. He is an advocate of increasingly popular hiring sites. Typically city-sponsored, they gather day laborers into a single spot with restroom facilities and a waiting area.

“In addition to addressing community complaints over loitering and a lack of bathroom facilities for the men, these sites can serve as creative spaces that can be used for ESL classes, computer training and medical services.”

The other front, he believes, is education — not for day laborers, but for the communities that they serve.

In Washington D.C., for instance, Valenzuela found that more than half of those surveyed work within 15 minutes of their homes and live in neighborhoods close to the day labor sites where they seek work. And many are family-oriented fathers with children who are U.S. citizens. While many are new immigrants, a surprising amount have been in the country for ten years or more. A not insignificant portion view working day labor as a way to gain training in the building trades—a sort of paid internship. In short, the workers emerged as contributing members of the communities where they work, a picture that gives this statistical artist considerable satisfaction.

“I feel really good when I’m able to demystify some of these workers and basically humanize them,”Valenzuela said.

Monday, May 1st, 2006
randall Crane
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