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The Invisible Economy

By Semantha Raquel Norris ::

Oakland, CA (8/17/22)

*Some last names in this story are omitted or altered due to concerns about immigration status.

My mother emigrated from El Salvador to the United States when she was 18 years old. Working as a preschool teacher without a college degree, she earned a fraction of what her coworkers made. She was a single mother to the two of us, and because the preschool pay didn’t go far enough, she would pick up extra work cleaning houses and  caring for other people’s children.

Jobs in the informal economy are often critical to society – nannies, construction workers, farm workers and street food vendors. They are everywhere, but are often invisible, living complicated lives unrecognized by the people they serve. Those who do the jobs in this type of economy are not protected by the government, leaving workers ripe for exploitation.

Anabel Garcia has worked in the fields as a day laborer, and as a domestic worker. Above, she clears underbrush in Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

Domestic workers and day laborers are often migrants and many are undocumented (three-quarters of all day laborers according to the National Day Labor Study). There are an estimated 2.5 million domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners and home care workers – in the United States, according to the National Domestic Workers Alliance.  While migrant labor is often unrecognized, it makes an essential contribution to economic life. And beyond economics, migrants help shape the culture of this country from food to music.

Often people in this informal economy find work through word of mouth. They recommend one another, creating a network of support and job referrals. Although domestic workers often have a regular set of days they work for a client each week or month, most need to work for multiple clients to afford living in the Bay Area. Additionally, the children they care for age, or the families they work for move, so there’s little prospect of long-term employment.

Beto, a gardener, mows a lawn in Oakland, CA (8/18/22)

Eloisa Hernandez is a domestic worker in Sonoma County. She belongs to ALMAS, Alianza de Mujeres Activas y Solidarias (Women’s Action and Solidarity Alliance), the domestic worker organizing project of the Graton Day Labor Center (Centro Laboral de Graton or CLG).

Eloisa Hernandez poses in a community garden with sugar cane, which her father used to harvest in Oaxaca, Mexico. Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

As the second oldest of nine children in a rural village in Oaxaca, Mexico, Hernandez started working when she was 6 years old, caring for her younger siblings, and doing chores in the house and farm. There was a lot of poverty there,” she recalled. “It was a bit of a sad, complicated life, because I felt like I never had a childhood.”

At 14 she left her village to clean houses in Mexico City, and a year later worked as a seamstress in Juarez. At 19 she received a travel visa to come to the United States, where she stayed with strict cousins in Los Angeles.

They gave me a space to sleep under the table because there wasn’t very much room,” Hernandez said. “The cockroaches would bite my hands in the middle of the night.”

At 21 Hernandez married a man who mistreated her. They had three children and separated when their eldest was a teenager. She was left with nothing, not even a space to house her kids, yet she survived.

Hernandez picked grapes for 12 years, paid by quantity. All the workers in the fields were Mexican or Central American migrants, enabling her to get by without speaking English.

Grape vines. Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

When Hernandez injured her hand on the job, she wasn’t paid for any time to recover. Instead, after just two days she was told to work with only one hand. She left her job in the fields soon after.

Hernandez now works cleaning houses. She says it is tough, but better than working in the sun all day. One of her employers even lets her cut and take home the nopales, prickly pear cactus, from their property.

Through the Center Laboral de Graton, Hernandez is going to take English classes so she can communicate with her employers. She works with ALMAS to push for immigration reform in Congress, to make it easier for her and others to get legal immigration status. If she had that, she would be able to finally visit her parents in Mexico and return to the United States.

Nanny in Oakland, CA (8/18/22)

A single mother, Hernandez works constantly to give her children a life better than her own. And she is realizing her hopes, as her eldest son is pursuing an electrical engineering degree from UC Davis.

“Sometimes people who aren’t educated are treated like animals,” said Hernandez. “I tell my oldest, ‘I don’t want you to have a life like mine.’” Her strength, hardships and determination remind me of my own mother and how she struggled for us.

Domestic workers are not the only participants in the informal economy. Some are visible every day in front of building supply stores throughout the Bay Area. These laborers, like domestic workers, are almost all migrants, mostly from Mexico and Central America. But unlike domestic workers, most are men.

In the early morning at the Home Depot in Oakland, CA, men line up in the parking lot in  hope of finding work. Many younger men leave by midafternoon if nothing comes their way, but some veterans stay until closing in hope of securing work for the next day.

Day laborers negotiate a job. Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

How often each person works, and the kind of job, varies day to day. Sometimes the men are hired for a week-long construction job, while on other days the work might only be two hours helping someone move.

Gardener edges a lawn in Oakland, CA (8/18/22)

The men negotiate wages and work based on skills required. Although some undercut one another on wages, generally there is a semi-agreed upon rate of $20-$25 per hour. For specialized skills like carpentry people typically earn at least $300 for an eight-hour day.

Taking employment from strangers has risks. Many day laborers have completed jobs only to be denied pay. If someone is working alone, new to this country and without an understanding of their legal rights, it is easy for employers to exploit them.

“One time I went with four guys to work on a job,” said Elias, a 60-year-old Salvadoran. “We agreed on $25 per hour. We worked for five hours, and the employer was very happy with the job we did. He then paid us each $25 for the day. We argued with him and eventually he gave us the pay we deserved. But people try to rip you off.”

Penal Code 602. Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

Generally the police don’t interfere with the laborers. Oakland police patrol the Home Depot lot to prevent merchandise theft. According to Officer Francisco Romero the police might get involved with the laborers if there is a dispute among them, but generally they don’t see any issue with men trying to find work.

Since the Home Depot parking lot is private property, officers sometimes slowly approach the day laborers. The workers’ trucks, with their green hand-painted signs advertising their owners’ job skills, quickly file out of the parking lot.

Day laborers wait with their trucks in the Home Depot parking lot. Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

“We don’t have to say anything. They already know,” said Romero. “They leave when we start walking over.” When the officers return to their post, the trucks immediately trickle back into the parking lot.

In California it is not illegal to hire a day laborer. Legally, the workers are independent contractors. Many of the men working here are undocumented, however, and it is illegal to knowingly hire someone unauthorized to work in the United States. Some employers take advantage of the vulnerability of undocumented people, who often fear the consequences of making a complaint if they’re not paid. But with or without legal immigration status, workers have the legal right to be paid, and day laborers cannot be denied pay because they are undocumented.

Oakland, CA (7/30/22)

For the men at Home Depot, the parking lot is the end of a long and expensive odyssey. The journey from Latin America often costs thousands of dollars, paid in installments to the “coyotes” who smuggle immigrants across the border. Once here and without immigration papers, they are often stuck, spending years separated from their loved ones. If they went back to their country of origin they would again have to make the long, costly, dangerous journey back to the United States.

Elias, Oakland, CA (8/15/22)

Elias paid coyotes to get to the United States in 2003 in search of work to help provide for his family. On one day of his journey he spent 24 hours lying in a truck filled with people. One girl who was near the ceiling fell and began making a lot of noise because she was in pain. The coyotes left her at a house along the road. Just six months ago his 21-year old-son made the same journey across the border, in search of work.

In 1980, at just 18, Elias was recruited by the right-wing military to fight in the growing civil war in El Salvador. He wasn’t ideologically on any side, but he knew that in order to survive he had to fight. At the time, life in the military seemed slightly easier than that of a guerrilla – a leftist insurgent – living in the mountains.

“In the end we were the same people fighting one another,” said Elias. “At the time we weren’t thinking about that. If you just stayed put you were killed, so you had to fight to survive.”

That year, at the same age and from the same country, my mother came to the United States. She was later granted amnesty and a green card, allowing her to legally work and reside in this country. When Elias came in 2003, this was no longer possible.

Migrants often make their way to areas where they have relatives, or where there is a community from their home region. A large number of the day laborers in Oakland come from indigenous communities of Guatemala. These are communities with cultures and languages that existed long before the arrival of European colonizers.

Otoñiel, Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

Otoñiel, a 25-year-old Guatemalan, came to Oakland a year ago. He speaks Spanish and Mam, a Mayan language. Out of six siblings, he and his two youngest brothers are in the United States. His father was murdered, and his mother and other three siblings remain in Guatemala. Otoñiel sends money home.

Many indigenous Guatemalans hope to get asylum in the United States because they have been targeted by a corrupt government. If they receive asylum, they can to work here legally and travel freely between both countries. But asylum is difficult to obtain, and the process can take years. In 2021 only 16% of the over 9,000 asylum applications filed by Guatemalans in the United States were accepted. This leaves many stranded with undocumented status, or forced to go back to the country they fled.

In the meantime people are often hungry and look for support from the community around them.

A local church, Iglesia Cristiana Llamados a Servir, came to the Home Depot parking lot one Saturday morning to pass out food and beverages to the workers. The men lined up to receive their lunch from the back of the church van, from which volunteers also handed out a flyer for a Sunday service.

Iglesia Cristiana Llamados a Servir pass out food to day laborers. Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

Pastor Santos Alvarez greeted the men individually. One man who had been living in the homeless encampment just outside Home Depot told them how difficult his life had been recently. While they prayed over him, another man told me he had been off the streets and sober for a week because of the church. 

Members of Iglesia Cristiana Llamados a Servir pray over an unhoused man. Oakland, CA (7/23/22)

Churches, unions, non-profits and other organizations often provide food and resources for day laborers. Groups like the Oakland Workers’ Collective, the Multicultural Institute, and Centro Laboral de Graton (Graton Day Labor Center) strive to find jobs for them. They also provide health services, English classes and legal clinics.

Crispin Lopez from Oaxaca has been working with the Graton center for five years. He has been back and forth between Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, and the United States since 1997, and permanently relocated here in 2015. Like Hernandez, before working with the Graton Day Labor Center, Lopez spent most of his time laboring on farms, at times earning only $200 a week. Now he mainly does construction work.

Crispin Lopez, Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

“I didn’t like working on farms because they punished the workers more,” said Lopez. “The manager would say, ‘Get going! Work harder!’ And if they didn’t like you, you couldn’t rest. There was more discrimination.”

According to Lopez, managers on the farm are paid slightly more than the workers to push them to work. But after working five hours in the sun without a break, hearing a manager say, “Work harder!” when they aren’t working hard themselves, is frustrating. Working conditions were  often dehumanizing, including unsanitary toilets, inadequate breaks, not enough shade or water, and working during the extreme heat and fire seasons.  

Crispin Lopez, Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

Lopez stopped working in the fields and started looking for construction jobs, waiting in parks and other locations to get hired, until a friend from his hometown told him about the CLG. “I like it here in the center because there are regulations,” said Lopez. “They have orientations where they tell you about your rights.”

Lopez also works with North Bay Jobs with Justice (Trabajos con Justicia), a grassroots coalition of labor and community organizations working toward economic, racial, and climate justice through direct action.

North Bay Jobs for Justice Fundraiser. Santa Rosa, CA (7/31/22)

Recently the group protested outside the Sonoma County courthouse about the working conditions for farm workers. Demonstrators demanded hazard pay and safety standards for farm workers during fire season. “Whether we are legal or illegal, we have rights,” said Lopez.

Many people get intimidated and don’t speak out about working conditions. They fear they will be blacklisted by employers, who also threaten to report them to immigration officials. But Lopez believes that speaking out and organizing a union is the only way to change their situation.

“If the people unionize more, go to meetings and protests, and there is visible action, then the people in government will pay more attention,” he said. “¡La unión hace la fuerza!” (“Strength in unity!”)

Trabajadores de la Tierra discuss their next assignment. Santa Rosa, CA (7/31/22)

Through the Trabajadores de la Tierra (Land Workers) program, Lopez gets  environmental restoration jobs. Workers are hired for their knowledge of land management and train others on best practices. Their most recent job was in Santa Rosa, working with Russian River Keepers to remove overgrown underbrush and invasive plants to prevent deadly fires.

Workers clear underbrush to prevent deadly fires. (8/12/22)

Lopez hopes to save enough to buy land and retire in his hometown in Oaxaca. “As an immigrant in this country, I don’t get Social Security. So who is going to take care of me when I am an old man and can’t work anymore?” Lopez asked. 

The money he makes in the United States will go a lot further in his hometown than here, and provide him security when he can no longer work.

Workers on break enjoy agua de chilacayote (a traditional drink made from squash melon). Santa Rosa, CA (8/12/22)

Life in the invisible economy is often the life of immigrants. They easily find places in the crevices of unmitigated labor, carving out their own space and communities. Over time, as many (like Hernandez and my mother) have children, these communities become more interwoven within the fabric of culture and society in the United States. Roots embed here and new generations become active in shaping this country.

Paletero (popsicle vendor). Oakland, CA (8/17/22)

Without migrant labor the floor would collapse beneath everyone. These jobs are essential to the functioning of the society around us. Some work, like caring for people at home or day jobs secured in parking lots, seem like jobs only immigrants do. As Hernandez pointed out, she has never seen an “American” (by which she means someone born here) working in the fields. But these are also insecure jobs that are underpaid. Immigrants do them, not just because no one else will, but because they have no alternative. This system helps those who profit from exploiting workers.

“The employers intimidate workers with the fear of not having work. And if I don’t have work, where am I going to go?” said Lopez. “When we protest, we are defending our rights.” This movement of people, the meeting of cultures, is a testament to our globalized existence. The experiences of these domestic workers and day laborers, the visibly invisible, help us understand and see more completely how this new world functions – and who pays for it.


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This entry was posted on September 16, 2022 by .
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