Life as a day laborer – talking with Rafael

Most mornings, Rafael* waits with other day laborers on a street corner in Queens, for building owners or contractors to pick him up for work.  Rights Here spoke with him about living day-to-day-day as an undocumented construction worker in NYC.

On the same day, the Comptroller had issued a report saying that deportations in NYC have increased 150% over the past two years, with the highest increase among those with no prior criminal convictions.

“What we have to do, is be cautious, and keep quiet. Watch, listen, and keep quiet,” says Rafael. “I’m not fearful. The only fear is fear of God.”

“We have our rights. New York is the cradle of immigrants, after all. But that’s not to say that we’re ever going to push back in a dispute. The police will always give the benefit of the doubt to citizens. It’s not just the police, everyone we deal with.”

Work is slower in the Winter. On average Rafael and his co-workers get two or three days a week of work, for a daily rate of $150. That’s when the contractors pay. “We day laborers, we are prime targets for cheats,” Rafael says. “There have been times when we are driven for miles, get threatened with arms, work hard through the day in demolition or asbestos removal, and then don’t get paid.”

Chasing the unpaid wages is, Rafael said, verging on impossible. First, they are dealing with “ compañías fantasmas” – phantom companies. Second, registering complaints takes up a lot of time – time that could be spent getting more work. “I’ve been to my consulate, and they say I have to get an appointment with a lawyer…but you know, I can’t lose one or two days of work.” Despite the challenges, he says that any effort to criminalize unscrupulous contractors is welcome.

Rafael is from Ecuador, where he trained in communication studies and also worked in art restoration (hence within construction, he specializes in painting). “Many of us have professional qualifications,” he says. “It would be wonderful if people asked us more often…what are your skills, what’s your profession…what would you like to learn?”

*Name changed for anonymity

Read more: The Construction Fraud Task Force, formed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in 2015 in partnership with various city agencies, pursues criminal investigations against real estate and development firms involved in safety abuses and wage theft. In New York State, wage theft accounts for more than $1 billion in lost earnings each year, affecting tens of thousands of workers.

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