During the mid-20th century, black women lined up on sad corners of New York known as the Bronx Slave Market, waiting for white “madams” to pluck impoverished housemaids from the so-called “paper-bag brigade.” These desperate domestics would work virtually any job for a day, for any wage.
Today the image of the immigrant day laborer is often associated with Latino construction workers. But on some streets, women still gather, and like their forebears, they face an underground labor market fraught with hidden risks.
A new study by Brooklyn-based Worker’s Justice Project (WJP) and Cornell’s Worker Institue, reveals surprising details about the many overlooked women in day labor. Working marginal, casual jobs with little regulatory protection, they hustle from gig to gig, typically for as little pay or as many hours the boss wants.
Researchers surveyed a sample of about 80 women day laborers who congregate at a well-trafficked informal hiring site in Brooklyn. They generally work up to 20 about hours a week, earning on average less than $900 per month. Their wages fall well short of what the women require to cover basic needs, though most are primary income earners for their families.
Nearly all the women surveyed, mostly Latinas over age 30, had worked informally as housekeepers, but some 80 percent reported also having worked in construction, warehouse, and food-processing sectors. Others performed low-wage service labor, like commercial cleaning or restaurant gigs. One common feature of all their jobs is long hours spent waiting to pick up gigs, day to day, as a long-term livelihood. About one in five women surveyed had been “frequenting the site for 6 or more years”; over two-thirds spent two to five days a week there. A typical workday involves perhaps four hours of labor without a break.
It’s easy to end up stiffed when your job lasts just one day. About 40 percent of respondents said they had been underpaid. This is roughly in line with a 2011 survey of mostly male day laborers in New Jersey that showed over half had been underpaid in the last year.
The roughly one-third of women who have worked as cleaners on construction jobs, generally a male-dominated industry, seem to suffer double discrimination. According to Worker Institute researcher Maria Figueroa, though this group is under-researched, “anecdotal information indicates that construction contractors hire the women day laborers to do certain jobs because they consider them a source of cheap labor (cheaper than men).”