Livia Lopez and her daughter, Jocelyn, attend a construction training session for day laborers in Queens, N.Y.
Livia Lopez and her daughter, Jocelyn, attend a construction training session for day laborers in Queens, N.Y.


Credit: Amy Lieberman

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Rosa Vasquez shifted from side to side on a broad cement overpass above a highway in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one recent cold and bright Wednesday afternoon. She accepted a flyer for an upcoming scaffolding training session and said she would consider attending the meeting. Eight women huddled in winter jackets nearby did not look up, standing silently as Vasquez answered a stranger’s questions.

Across the street, a smattering of women lingered, despondent, on the open sidewalk where they had stood since the morning.

“It’s a nice idea. Why can’t women do this work?” asked the 26-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, who works cleaning houses. “It isn’t about being very strong and it doesn’t have to be very hard. You just need a good mind and hands.”

All the same, Vasquez was not one of those who showed up for the training session for prospective day labor construction workers in Long Island City, Queens, that following Sunday. Only two women joined about 20 men at the introductory session, one of several authorized construction workers must attend in New York City.

Vasquez belongs to a special group of women who gather on two street corners in Williamsburg and midtown Manhattan to solicit work.

Those two corners are the only known places in the United States where an exclusively female work force looks for casual work, said B. Loewe, spokesperson for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, though Los Angeles and Chicago are home to the largest day laborer populations.

About 117,600 day laborers look for work on any given day across the United States, but only 2 percent of them are women, according to a 2006 study on the day laborer movement in the U.S., which provides the most recent estimates.

For female day laborers who stake out the Williamsburg corner, almost all work prospects are cleaning houses in the largely Jewish Hasidic community for $10 an hour, one day at a time.

Laborer Assessment

It’s not uncommon for prospective employers to circle the female laborers at the Brooklyn location, assessing them by age and body type, before approaching one, said women who work on la esquina, or the corner.

Men sometimes pass by and make lewd remarks, or stand slightly at a distance and touch themselves. The women, many undocumented immigrants and some of whom are runaways and victims of abuse, fear calling the police.

“Life on the corner is perfect,” joked Zoita Bonilla, a 41-year-old married mother of two. She has worked as day laborer, using the corner as her base, for nine years. She has not been able to secure work since January.

But that doesn’t mean she’s ready to train for traditionally male work in cleaning up after Superstorm Sandy.

It is tough to convince women that they can find a place in the male-dominated construction industry, said Ligia Guallpa, director of the New York City-based Workers Justice Project, despite the new job opportunities Hurricane Sandy has yielded in some affected parts of New York City.

The immediate cleanup job boon following the October 2012 storm waned after several weeks, said Guallpa. Now the demand is more for skilled workers, such as electricians.

But there is still the ongoing possibility of demolition and construction work.

Workers Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that provides support to day laborers, began offering construction trainings just before Sandy hit, with the idea of recruiting women.

“We know there are job opportunities and we want women to have access to that,” Guallpa said in an interview in Brooklyn. “Society sometimes sets a specific space for you to work within and we want to open that space so women can say, ‘Wait. This type of work may be male dominated, but it may also be something I enjoy.'”

Potential Opening Up

Livia Lopez, 35, might be opening up to that. She was one of the two women who showed up for the training session by the Workers Justice Project to get certified in safety techniques and scaffolding work.

For now, she still goes to the Williamsburg corner each weekday morning at about 9 a.m., after dropping her youngest daughter, aged 8, off at school.

She’s done this for the past 10 years, ever since she arrived from Ecuador. She only receives work offers about half of the time, she said. It isn’t enough for the single mother to support herself and her three children, two of whom live in Ecuador, so she also sells food on the street.

“Cleaning itself is not difficult. It’s hard not to have a stable job. I do not want to be thinking constantly about how I can feed and clothe my children,” Lopez said.

Lopez brought her daughter, Jocelyn, along to the construction training session.

“I’m learning many new things, like to really protect yourself in life you have to be prepared for the work you are going to do,” Lopez said.

Reyna Vega, 33, the other woman at the training session, said that the construction industry has so far helped provide her with a sense of security that she never found during her eight past years as a domestic worker in New York City. Though Vega never solicited work on the corner, she said she had bad experiences in common with female day laborers, such as not receiving overtime pay.

For the past eight months, Vega has worked demolition and cleanup jobs as part of an otherwise all-male team of workers. She wound up joining at the prompting of her husband, who has worked in construction for several years and suggested that she come along one day.

They collectively bargain and sign daily contracts with construction companies, ensuring rights and amenities like lunch breaks, overtime and transport to and from the work site. Vega can earn about $150 on a good day and said that the team, which also sometimes consists of her husband, accepts her.

“I am the only woman, but they know me, they don’t bother me,” Vega, originally from Mexico, said.

Lopez appeared offended at the suggestion that she would face a culture of machismo in the construction world, which one of Vega’s male co-workers said was widespread.

“I do not see machismo,” Lopez said quickly. “Work is work. That is all.”


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