This is the fourth entry in a series of eight blog entries about the work the Institute for Immigration Research is doing with the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) to develop an in-depth picture of immigrant day laborers in the United States. In the past three entries we have described the services the day laborers are offered at the Centreville Labor Resource Center, the reasons why the Guatemalan day laborers migrate to the US and we have examined factors that complicated the day laborers initial settling in to life in Northern Virginia.
Migrant workers from Central America are often well-prepared to do intensive day laboring jobs in the United States. Some of the interviewed day laborers come from grueling farming backgrounds, working in the fields to farm beans and corn, or factory jobs that left room for little else. Others were previously employed in industries such as tailoring, accounting, truck driving, bricklaying, electrical work, etc. Some owned their own businesses. Yet hourly wages are incomparable between Central American countries such as Guatemala, thus leading to economic migration. In the United States, wages are high, and the purchasing power of the US dollar in Guatemala is seven times as much as Guatemalan currency.
A number of the migrants we interviewed came from occupations in the fields, picking vegetables and fruits. Some came from factory labor worker and still others were nursing assistants. Although the Guatemalan unemployment rate stands at 2.3% as of a recent World Bank report, around 40% of Guatemalans have been estimated as underemployed since 1994. One day laborer explained: “There is no work in Guatemala. It is a big problem and many students and professionals are not able to find work. So, this creates financial problems and that is why people from Guatemala come here to work.” Migration from Guatemala has been on the rise over the past three decades, only taking a dip post 9/11. In 2005 alone, the Guatemalan government reported that around 140,000 people had legally left the country, with 95% of that group ending in the United States.
An IOM survey reported that day laborers are highly concentrated in seven metropolitan areas: Los Angeles, New York, Miami, Washington D.C., Houston, Boston and Chicago. 4.1% are said to be living in the D.C. area, which includes Northern Virginia. Our study, conducted through the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC), saw that workers in the Northern Virginia area are able to find employment most often in landscaping, gardening, moving, painting, power washing and sometimes tree-cutting. While some day laborers are able to find paid work through personal connections. The CLRC ensures workers are able to find guaranteed safe, honest work within their skill sets. Some workers possess a more specialized skill set, such as in plumbing, electricity, and construction and are able to work more diversely. Additionally, classes offered at the CLRC enable workers to be trained in different specialties.
When asked about their past work experiences, the day laborers provided direct answers. One migrant from El Salvador said that he had a previous occupation as a bricklayer, traveling around the country. Here in the United States, he mainly works in landscaping. In El Salvador, he said, “a mason does everything also the walls and the pipes for plumbing etc. But here everything is much more complicated as it is done by code and it is a lot more technical and everybody does just one thing. First, I couldn’t earn my rights to become a bricklayer as it costs quite a bit of money, secondly, translating from the metric system is hard and my English is not good enough.” When asked about the comparative work environments and necessary training between El Salvador and the United States, he replied, “It is very different from here. In El Salvador you just need to have a friend, who is already a trained bricklayer and you learn from him. If you don’t have that person, then you will not be able to train to become a bricklayer. It is a skill that is being taught by people in your social network. The friend or family member will teach you all the tricks and the person will share his knowledge.” El Salvadoran employers do not rely on licenses or certificates, he said, but hire based upon reputation in the community.
When asked if American employers ask for a certification to prove that a worker has the skills and credentials necessary to do a job, he said “I don’t really know what they ask, but when I saw the work here I got quite scared, because it is so different. I could definitely not work here, because the tools are very different from what I’m used to. The bricklaying jobs are just so different here and that’s why I kept on going with landscaping jobs.”
One day laborer from Guatemala worked in a textile factory, stating that the hours were long and the pay minimal. “Working in the fields, the hours were long, from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week. What I earn here [the United States] in a day is what I earned monthly in Guatemala.”
Most of the day laborers said that they are almost never asked about prior work experience in Guatemala, due to the fact that the work they do in the States is completely different from what they were accustomed to for similar occupations. Overall, most expressed contentment with their working situations, because the Centreville Labor Resource Center enabled them to be paid safely and fairly for their work, and allowed them to search for employment through the Center instead of having to stand on a street corner. Their ability to have comfortable lives and provide financially for their families back home has been greatly enhanced due to the steady flow of work available through the Center. The day laborers’ own ability to get established in permanent jobs also helps. Each day laborer held different experiences working in the United States and ultimately found that the work and resources available to them ensured a higher status of security than they had known previously.
This post represents the halfway point in the IIR Centreville Labor Resource Center Blog. Mark your calendar, this series will resume in the third week of January. You can look forward to stories about the day laborers’ English skills in our next post. These skills will be looked at in terms of how they impact the lives of Day Laborers in the US.