[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]
The economic crisis that capital is currently facing has had its share of high profile “victims,” with names like AIG and General Motors coming to Washington D.C. to plead their case. We hear their stories, their trial and tribulations, all the while news reports showcase faceless numbers without shining a light on the actual people being laid off or having their hours and pay cut back. Temporary labor touches nearly every industry of our society, where workers deliver our newspapers, take out our garbage, repair our houses, and produce our material goods. Finding work either at roadside hiring sites or agencies that contract out to client companies, temporary laborers typically suffer abuse, exploitation, and discrimination both in finding and receiving work. In an effort to give voice to some of most vulnerable members of our economic system, interviews were conducted with day laborers involved with the San Lucas Workers Center and ARISE Chicago, two workers centers in Chicago founded to fight abuse and exploitation.
Mark Saulys (MS) is a day laborer who has worked in the industry for years for companies like the Chicago Sun Times. He is also an active member of the San Lucas Workers Center.
TS How would you say money affects your relations with other people?
MS I would say that money is really important but sometimes you wouldn’t notice, you tend to forget. Money is really an important factor with your relations with people. You tend only to pal around with people of your own level of income and somebody else who might be considered your inferior or superior, and usually your superior, when you’re a day laborer.
TS So in regards to day labor how do you think that plays out?
MS You know, I think day labor is all about that. I think day labor is an attempt to take full advantage of that kind of thinking in our society. And applying that to exploit people in that way, to take advantage of people, and then day laborers don’t feel deserving of more and then the people who are not day laborers tend to feel that day laborers don’t deserve more. That’s how its done. Its not challenged.
TS Do you think that plays out specifically when you go into an agency looking for work or going to a hiring site?
MS Oh definitely. When you go into an agency you’re immediately told, not in so many words, but you’re told ‘you don’t deserve any rights, you don’t deserve any consideration, sit down and shut up, we’ll call you if we want you. Of course, they don’t have to hire you if they don’t want you, but in the beginning you’re treated like you don’t deserve any consideration.
TS So what power do you think the average day laborer has?
MS The average individual day laborer doesn’t have much power but day laborers who unite together have power. An individual day laborer has no power. The nature of temporary work is also such that the day laborers, the temporary workers are in competition with each other. All that makes it harder for day laborers to unite. And in fact, I would say that’s one of the great reasons for outsourcing, to make it difficult for workers to unite.
TS So going back to your original point, in terms of money affecting relations between people. How do you think money and looking for work in the day labor industry impacts relationships between the people looking for work?
MS There’s a competition looking for jobs, there’s sometimes a social competition. It’s not so much that they’re trying to outclass each other, but they’re trying to pretend that they’re not impoverished, not poor.
TS Why would they want to do that?
MS I guess it’s a matter of esteem, they do a little status symbol climbing.
TS How have you seen that played out on a work site between day laborers?
MS Well, there’s sometimes on the job. Say for example there’s attempts, there’s very commonly one or several people trying to be the lap dog of the boss. Following the boss around, they try to get what they call some kind of “straw boss” position. A straw boss is somebody who, you know that’s a word taken from slavery, was a slave was appointed as a foreman. Now he’s just a slave like the others but he’s like their foreman, he’s like their boss, a straw boss, not a real boss but a straw boss. You know what I mean?
Sergio Zetina (SZ) is an active member of ARISE Chicago and has worked in day labor for many years. His work experience has been almost solely in carpentry projects around Chicago.
SZ I came to this country as many other undocumented folk do and had a really bad accident where I needed surgery on my back and shoulder and it naturally affected my life, especially with work. I have family and four children back home. I have to do what I have to do to provide for my family back home and I’m working at it and trying to make the best of it.
TS So, how does money affect your relations with people?
SZ Primarily it is with the people I live with that it affects me. I have to pay for rent, I have to pay for food, and if I can’t pay my share of the rent it affects our relationship because our relationship starts breaking apart. It doesn’t only affect me, it affects them because I have to provide for my rent, I need to provide.
TS Is there a lot of stress that comes into play with money?
SZ There is a lot of stress, especially when the weekend comes up. If I don’t have enough money to send to my family that week, I feel really bad. Its not like I can’t provide for myself here, I can eat, I can make sure I have something to eat. But if I don’t send money that week I feel really really bad because I don’t know if they might not have food to eat, to be able to provide for themselves.
TS In terms of food, are you making your own food, are you buying stuff at a store, basically, what do you do to eat?
SZ Regularly I’m the one who cooks, if there’s not much work I buy food and cook it myself but if there’s work I don’t have much time, then I go out and buy food.
TS What about at work, during the day, trying to eat during the day? During breaks?
SZ I usually get thirty minutes to one hour breaks so if I bring my own food I eat it or I go out and buy food.
TS What type of stuff are you getting? Like a local shop or a McDonald’s?
SZ Usually when I buy food I make sure to go to a restaurant that sells Mexican food.
TS When your week is coming up, when you’re getting ready for your work week, how much are you planning in regards to money and what are you planning, if at all?
SZ My plan for me is to spend 50, 60 dollars and send to my family every week at least 200 dollars.
TS Just 50 bucks a week for everything? Gas, food….
SZ Yes. I use public transportation, I don’t have a car.
TS So do you have a monthly pass, or a day pass, or…?
SZ Right now I have a monthly pass, but that’s because the workers center gave me one.
TS So what do you do to relax, to have fun?
SZ What I do is listen to the radio, listen to shows that are humorous, some of the humor is white or black, has all this innuendo in it, you know, but it makes me laugh. Laughing is my therapy.
TS What about friends, do you go out with friends?
SZ I have friends but I don’t keep in touch with them very often. If I have some time off, I try to come into the center, give a hand, help some others. Kind of like a therapy for me.
TS Is it because you’re working so much?
SZ Usually when I have time off, I’d rather come here. When I’m at home I usually have a lot of work to do or I have a lot of work that week, I just go home and share the duties with the people I live with. I just start getting ready for the next day.
TS Do you have a check book, or just saving the money? How do you send it back?
SZ There’s an agency that I can send the money through and within ten minutes my family can get the money.
TS What about for yourself?
SZ Only cash.
TS Has there ever been a specific example where something happened? Something bad happened?
SZ No, I’m very careful.
TS So, in regards to day labor, temporary labor what has been your experience with that? In terms of the money.
SZ My experience has been that two people have not paid me.
TS What could you have done about that?
SZ There are a lot of things you can do. In one of the cases, this person hadn’t been paid himself, so I didn’t really want to give him more trouble, so I just sort of let it go.
TS And how did that affect your budget for the week, in terms of yourself and your family?
SZ What happens is that when I don’t have money to send to my family or for me to spend for myself, I go over to my friends and get money from them.
TS How does that make you feel?
SZ For any human being it’s really hard, for you to be looking for somebody else to provide for you, it’s really hard, it’s very depressing.