Day Laborers Struggling Even More These Days

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You may have heard that Houston, a city driven by the energy industry, fares better than the rest of the country during tough economic times. Somebody really should mention that to local day laborers – it seems they could use something to cheer them up.

A recent Agence France-Presse story out of New York City presents an array of mostly anecdotal evidence about how workers in the Big Apple have been struggling to get by since the economy headed south. Not to be out-anecdoted by the French, Hair Balls set out to see if day laborers in Houston are in similar straits.

The fact that we immediately found groups of them at noon on a weekday both in downtown’s East End and behind Gulfgate Mall led us to believe that things aren’t going so hot. It turns out they haven’t been for some time.

“There hasn’t been any work for four months. Nothing,” says Guadalupe Obatte, a laborer who solicits jobs in front of a gas station near where the East End day labor center used to be.

Raul Ramirez, a welder who was quick to show us his trade certification and Social Security cards, tempered Obatte’s pessimism a bit, saying there are small jobs here and there. In the week or two after Ike, the men say they drove around in a private truck, offering services door to door. After that, though, things returned to the way they’d been – a lot of waiting for a little work.

Ramirez and Obatte were smart to strike out on their own immediately after the storm – workers near the Home Depot in Gulfgate told of an abundance of work, nearly matched by an abundance of shady subcontractors who’d skimp them on pay. (Sounds familiar.)

“Day laborers are the most vulnerable population for wage theft,” Annica Gorham, director of the Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, tells Hair Balls. “There was a lot of hope after the hurricane that there was going to be a lot of work…[The wage-theft offenders are often] employers who are subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor, or private citizens who sometimes too exploit workers. What I’ve been hearing is people are refusing certain jobs when it seems like the employer is someone suspicious.”

With legit work hard to come by, guys like Roger Randon, a father of three, are finding it difficult to get by.

“After the hurricane, prices are going up. I want to earn so much, but they’re paying so little. The prices are going up, and we’re just using up our money every day,” says Randon, who served as an impromptu spokesman for a group of about 20 workers huddled on a strip-mall sidewalk.

One laborer sums up the trying situation this way: “In reality, there isn’t much work.”

-- Blake Whitaker and Keith “Pinche” Plocek

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