Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Winter is an especially hard time for Annandale's day laborers
We caught up with Pedro and Arturo waiting for jobs in front of the Safeway on Little River Turnpike on a cold December morning. Both of them agree there’s a lot less work now than when they came here from Guatemala a few years ago. With no need for yard work or outdoor home projects, the best one can hope for is snow shoveling or interior cleaning, says Pedro, whose specialty is painting. He says he’s been lucky to get a part-time job cleaning offices for two hours a day.
Arturo has done landscaping and moving and will do “any kind of work.” He worked only one day during the week we spoke. He was expecting to have a job the following day, but it would only pay about $60 for 10 hours of work. [This is the second report we’ve done on Annandale’s day laborers. The two workers interviewed this fall have left the area, one to California and the other back to Texas.]
Arturo says it’s very difficult to know how much work you’ll get. It could be five days a month or only one. Last summer, he was able to send $200 a month to his family; now it’s more like $50 a month. And even when they get jobs, they have no guarantees they will be paid. Pedro once spent two days on yard work but never received the $200 he was promised. And Arturo once put in five days of work for a contractor and only got paid for one day. The Northern Virginia office of the Legal Aid Justice Center goes to bat for the day laborers when they have disputes with contractors.
Both Pedro and Arturo are from the same neighborhood in the town of La Florida in Guatemala but they didn’t know each until they met here in Annandale. Pedro said he came to Annandale because a friend told him, “This place is good to get a job.” Arturo settled in North Carolina after leaving Guatemala four years ago, but says, “I was very alone and friends invited me to come here.”
Arturo says it is “very difficult” to be away from his family, especially during the holidays. He has four children, ages 7 to 33 plus a 13-month-old granddaughter he’s never seen. He would like to go home as soon as he can pay off his debt. Pedro has three children ages 15 to 24 and thinks he might have to stay here another two years.
“I never thought it would be like this,” Arturo says of his life as a day laborer. “Friends used to say how great it was, but when I came I found it was not true.” No one talks about the hard work you have to do to survive here, he says, and “no one ever talks about how dangerous it was” crossing the borders into Mexico and into the United States.
It took Arturo 18 days to get through the desert, and he came close to being shot by a “mafia group” that was trying to extort money from his group as they tried to enter the United States. Luckily for him, another larger group of immigrants diverted the gang’s attention and Arturo made it safely across the border.
So far, Arturo has only been able to repay 60 percent of the $7,000 he owes to the “coyote” who guided his group into the country four years ago, even though he says, “I never spend any money on myself.” He had to mortgage his home in Guatemala to raise that money.
Pedro has already paid his $3,000 debt for his trip. He got through Mexico without problems but was detained at the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers (ICE) for one day, then sent back to Mexico. The second time he tried to cross the border, he got through.
Both Pedro and Arturo live in Annandale, with about 10 people packed into one small apartment. “That’s been a big adjustment,” Pedro says, as he and many of his roommates are used to having plenty of living space back home. Arturo took some English language classes in North Carolina. Pedro is trying to learn English on his own, mostly from TV, and is very diligent about writing down new words in a small notebook.
When asked what they want the other residents of Annandale to know about them, Arturo said, “I want to tell people we are here to work. We are not criminals. We are people with families. We are not here to mess with anybody.”