The sun has barely pierced through the morning sky when a handful of burly men gather at the corner of Jones Ferry and Davie roads in Carrboro.
For 18 years, day laborers have gathered at the corner each morning in search of work.
“Painting concrete, unclogging pipes, setting tiles … They do everything,” said Ana Lopez, who works at Tienda, Taqueria Y Carniceria Toledo’s near the corner.
The day laborers are often paid too little or are not paid at all. Some are African-Americans, but most are Latino immigrants.
According to the U.S. Census, Carrboro has the highest Hispanic and Latino population in Orange County. The population climbed from about 2,000 to 2,700 between 2000 and 2010.
Now, an electronic database is aiming to provide a safer environment where they can look for work.
Judith Blau, UNC sociology professor and director of the Human Rights Center of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, decided to create an electronic worker center to combat wage theft.
The Human Rights Center hopes to gather workers’ strongest skills and connect them to potential employers.
Student volunteers will also help by writing letters to employers to find out what skill sets they look for in workers.
“I think this is making history,” Blau said.
In the current system, employers — usually construction contractors or homeowners — stop by the corner and negotiate with day laborers over employment terms.
But it is often more of a gamble than a negotiation, and undocumented laborers are vulnerable to exploitation.
“Some guys they work with will rip them off — either pay them less or not at all,” said Ever Rodriguez, an employee at Kangaroo Express Market, which is located near the hiring site.
Day laborers earn an average of $10 to $12 per hour, said Rafael Gallegos, associate director of the Human Rights Center.
Alberto Rodriguez, a day laborer from Carrboro, was a construction worker for 15 years.
He was laid off from a full-time job eight years ago, and unemployment drove him to the Jones Ferry corner.
In good times, Alberto Rodriguez works three days a week.
But in bad times — when the economic downturn brings construction projects to a halt — he leaves without work.
“At least 15 of my friends have returned to Mexico because they can’t bear the lack of jobs,” he said.
Gallegos said the number of day laborers gathering at the corner has increased with the downturn in the economy, making the competition for jobs much fiercer.
“The pressure of competing with the same group of people everyday, and knowing that their relatives are sick… it is very stigmatizing,” Gallegos said.
And wage theft continues to be a problem for these workers.
Carol Brooke of the North Carolina Justice Center said the organization receives multiple calls each week about wage theft.
Workers rarely voice grievances to the courts or law enforcement officials due to fear of deportation, she said.
“Fear of retaliation is a great challenge,” she said. “The remedies available to day laborers are limited.”
The primary goal of the Human Rights Center’s online database is to include day laborers in the process — and the idea is gaining support from the workers.
“People at the corner really like this idea,” said Alberto Rodriguez, who helped with the creation of the database.
“It’s possible that we attract all employees and it becomes a nice center.”
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