Defending the virtues of liberty, free markets, and civilization... plus some commentary on the passing scene.

Freedom's Fidelity

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

The Day Laborers Market

For reasons as various as construction plans, worn relationships, and neighborhood/merchant complaints, the daily gathering place of Chicago's day labor workers has been constantly on the move. In his October 30 column, the Chicago Tribune's Eric Zorn (who's blog is linked to the right) offers some first hand insight:
Everything that is poignant, inspiring, disturbing and ultimately wrong about the daily gathering of jornaleros in the 5000 block of North Pulaski Road came into focus in one 15-second incident Wednesday morning.

Jornaleros are day laborers, mostly Hispanic, who stand at informal open-air hiring halls waiting for contractors and others who need temporary employees to drive up and offer them work.
I was standing in that lot Wednesday morning talking to a group of them with the help of interpreter Jessica Aranda, an organizer with the Latino Union of Chicago, when a car pulled in.

Immediately and from all sides, at least a dozen men swarmed the vehicle, their voices raised in expectant greeting.

Poignant and inspiring: I had seen some of these same men at 6:45 a.m. when I had driven by. They want jobs. They want to support their families. They sometimes stand out all day nursing one cup of coffee and shifting from foot to foot, then walk home with nothing in their pockets.
Disturbing: The sight of these men can be intimidating. The driver of the car that pulled into the lot was simply looking to turn around, and for a moment it looked from his expression as though he thought the mob intended to drag him from his vehicle and beat him.

And neighbors do feel intimidated, many complain that those hanging out are smoking pot, drinking, and just general riff raff. Police and the local alderman say that the perception of danger is the real problem. The day laborers agree: "These are men who come here and stand among us but don't really want to work," said Luis Gonzalez
That seems likely to me. Day laborers ARE men that do want to work, many are immigrants who came here looking for some stability, something better than unemployment. Eric Zorn concludes:
These residents of Chicago are looking to get that same first foot on the ladder that many of our ancestors looked for when they arrived here--the opportunity and dignity of honest work.

The city can create centers for them or just chase them around. But they're not going away.

And I agree, but I have serious doubts that the city would ever sanction a center where workers could find jobs. In doing do, they'd immediately inherit a myriad of responsibilities including, but not limited to, documenting that all workers are legal, that jobs pay "a living wage," offering proper benefits and whatever other demands that activists and unions make behind the rhetoric of "social justice." Lost on the activists though is the reality that one may rationally decide that a day spent working for some money is preferrable to a day spent earning nothing and not working. The day laborers that gather have expressed a clear preference for the former, and no third party (who bears neither the costs or benefits) should be allowed to preempt that decision. For day laborers, any work improves their skills, and given the turnover in the manual labor market, it often provides a helpful foot in the door for permanent work. Of course in a utopia everyone would have gainful employment, but the world is not fuzzy teddy bears and flowers, and the hard reality is that today some don't, and today they may have bills to pay and a family to feed. Debating public policy, increasing minimum wage laws, or requiring union scale pay in the name of standing up for the working man does nothing to help them today, on the contrary it only serves to keep them out of the market.

The hidden costs of regulations such as wage and benefit requirements is what helps contribute to a day laborers market in the first place. Artificial price floors lead to unemployment, for some employers, a certain task may not be worth more than $10 or $15 an hour, if union laws require compensation greater than that, a man willing to do that work for $15 will not be hired, and unions remain insulated from that competition. It is precisely regulation that helped create this market. If the city were to build or sanction a center for the day laborers their market place would eventually become subject to the above regulations that contributes to their unemployment in the first place. Once again these men, desperately hoping for work, would be left looking for a place to go.

In the short term, politics always trumps economics. This is no different. A city built or sanctioned center would eventually succumb to labor law regulations, and if those that comprise the day laborers could get a job in a regulated market they would have already done so. Since they can't, they'll flee any center in search of another gathering, a place where regulations don't apply, where potential employers don't fear repercussions for giving them work, a place where they may carry out a mutually agreed on task for a mutually agreed on compensation leaving both parties better off. Unfortunately because of the politics involved, the city will have little choice but continue to chase them around.


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