For the past three years, Rodrigo Rodriguez, a middle-aged man whose large frame belies his soft voice, has made the trek every winter to Portland in an effort to earn enough cash to carry him through the hard months. A native of Mexico, he spends nine months of the year landscaping in Washington. But in the winter, work is scarce there and he takes to the streets of Portland.
Rodriguez is a jornalero, Spanish for day laborer, one of hundreds who earn their bread and butter by waiting on the corner of Southeast Sixth and Ankeny for odd jobs, from painting homes to more skilled jobs such as plumbing. Although a definite group, the jornaleros lack the organization and, most important, the concerted voice that labor unions enjoy. As such, for years, they have been hounded by the INS, harassed by police and taken advantage of by employers.
But all of that may soon change. In mid-February, Rodriguez will travel to San Francisco for a conference that may create a nationwide day laborer organization.
Portland already has a local version of this. Comprised of workers, the Day Laborer Committee in Portland was created with a dual purpose: to represent workers' interests at city functions and to create a hiring hall where workers could wait indoors for jobs. The national group would help jornaleros swap information and provide ideas on pooling resources.
Already most West Coast cities host meeting halls for the workers--a place to converge, pick up jobs and learn about immigration laws. Many of the workers migrate illegally from Mexico and Central America; often earning less than $100 a week, many are homeless. Although Portland hosts both the Day Laborer Committee and VOZ, a nonprofit to promote leadership among the workers, the lack of a meeting hall perpetuates the lack of cohesiveness for the laborers.
With no funding in sight, the hiring hall may feel like a pipe dream in Portland. Yet, in the past few years, jornaleros have already seen changes, thanks to the Day Laborers Committee. INS raids are less frequent and police have stopped using intimidating techniques.
"We used to have complaints that the police were photographing people who used the men's labor," said Elizabeth Perry of VOZ. "Things have improved considerably since then."