Woodside pols seek reform for immigrant day-laborers

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Early in the morning along Roosevelt Avenue, an underground economy thrives beneath the encroaching light of dawn.

Dozens of Spanish-speaking immigrant day laborers lean against mailboxes and wait in front of cars, passing their time until potential employers pull up in vans to cart them off to construction sites for a day’s wage.

But the system that has operated beneath the radar for years is facing scrutiny from public officials concerned that it not only detracts from the Woodside neighborhood where the laborers assemble, but also leaves the immigrants exposed to abuse by employers.

City Councilwoman Helen Sears (D-Jackson Heights) is drafting a resolution to bring the problem to the attention of legislators through hearings where they could brainstorm potential solutions.

“This is a very sensitive issue,” Sears said in a telephone interview Monday. “It represents people from all sides — it represents workers, it represents community people.”

Sears jumped on the issue when Community Board 2 Chairman Joseph Conley told her about a rise in neighborhood complaints stemming from the gathering of the laborers who sometimes linger on the streets throughout the day if they are not hired.

“It’s really becoming an image problem,” Conley said. “We’re seeing more of the day laborers stay in the community longer because there’s less jobs.”

Meanwhile, the laborers themselves are often subject to abuse by their employers, who may take advantage of them by offering a certain wage yet paying only a fraction of that — if anything at all.

“People are doing a day’s work, some of them don’t even get paid for it and they have no recourse,” Sears said.

Yet the practice serves a fundamental need for both the immigrants, who need to earn a living, and the contractors, who value them as a source of efficient labor.

“They come unskilled, untrained, and they fill certain tasks that contractors have found difficult to fill,” Sears said.

The laborers congregate alongside Roosevelt Avenue around 69th Street, a popular shopping district directly beneath the elevated No. 7 train. The neighborhood is mostly residential along the adjacent blocks. The avenue is a known spot where the immigrants can find jobs and contractors can find workers.

But it is also a system that defies regulation, a network of spoken contracts and cash transactions that exists outside the letter of the law.

“The whole process is very tricky because it’s almost like an underground culture that doesn’t really exist,” said Anat Jacobson, the spokeswoman for Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who met with Sears Friday to discuss the issue.

The informal arrangements allow the work to get done without standard paperwork from either the immigrants or their employers.

“By and large, we think they’re undocumented because it’s a cash society that they’re trying to work in,” Conley said. “The contractors are looking to pick up people and pay them off the books — it’s not a union sanctioned thing. The city can’t sanction it.”

The complexity of the problem — and the subversive nature of the business — makes the prospect of finding a solution all the more difficult. Although undocumented immigrants are unlikely to report incidents of mistreatment to the authorities for fear of being deported, Jacobson said Gotbaum’s office would investigate whether a community-based organization could provide support for the laborers without the fear of reprisals.

From the community perspective, Jacobson suggested that a new meeting point could be devised in a more industrial area to prevent the laborers from disturbing residents.

On another front, police from the 108th Precinct have begun addressing a rise in daytime burglaries by issuing traffic violations to vehicles illegally parked where the laborers gather, Conley said, thus discouraging contractors from driving there to pick up workers.

“We’re dealing with human beings, but we’re also dealing with communities, communities that have developed some problems and they need to be addressed as well,” Sears said.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:15 pm, October 10, 2011
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