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“For the Worker Is Worthy Of His Hire”: Reflections On Day Laborers

The Labor Cross by Fritz Eichenberg

Biblical scholars have suggested that the day laborers of Jesus’ time were at the very bottom of the working ladder. Even slaves were better off, in the sense that they had someone to protect them – they had value as the owner’s investment. I knew before I came to Casa Juan Diego that the day laborers of today, particularly those without documents, are at the bottom of our labor ladder, too. But I had no idea what that meant.

Years ago, I interviewed a man in southern Mexico about the time he had spent in the US as an undocumented day laborer. In discussing his failure (as he put it), he remarked that in order to make money for your family in the US without documents, to make the migration worth the trauma and expense, you had to live under conditions that he personally could not tolerate; you had to live like an animal. I was struck by his analogy, but I thought that he must be exaggerating.

My education on the topic began on my first day at Casa Juan Diego. My brother in law, a good man, fortunate to have a job that supports and protects his young family, rented a trailer to help me move my belongings into my new living quarters. As we began our trip back to his home, we drove past a large group of day laborers on the corner. As they saw our trailer approaching, the hope of possible work filled their faces and they began to jump up and down waving their jackets, white handkerchiefs, whatever they had. Almost in unison, we had to look away. Such desperation was too hard to witness.

Except for glancing at them through car windows, the lives of day laborers are largely invisible to the greater community. But at Casa Juan Diego, they come to our door. We get some insight into their lives. Since the recession has pretty much destroyed the labor market in construction, day jobs are far fewer than the number of men who desperately need them. Casa Juan Diego can be their only source of support.

Difficult times affect people differently. While the great majority of men are respectful and gracious, some are hardened by their lives, and are not pleasant to deal with. I used to have a code name for two particularly difficult guys who kept ringing our door bell, referring to them as Mean Man #1 and Mean Man #2, before I learned their names.

Thinking back, I am ashamed of my reaction.  Of course they were mean. They live lives of constant threat to their safety and well being. I learned a better way to deal with unpleasant people by watching a long-time Catholic Worker with years of experience, react to being harangued by men who were taking out the meanness of their lives on him. I used to cringe, watching them yell at him. Now I see these scenes as they really are: beautiful. A Worker patiently listens and tries to help, never gets angry or even the slightest bit irritated. It is probably the only time in their lives on the streets that these men see anger met with kindness. I think sometimes this experience of humanity is really what they are looking for when they seek him out, since they keep asking for things that they know very well he cannot provide.

If I had to pick one thing that the lives of these men lack, it would be safety. They work dangerous jobs with inadequate safety gear and protection. If they are injured, and they often are, they usually get no help from their “employer,” who manages to disappear, no workman’s compensation, nothing. A constant flow of injured men, young and old, in wheel chairs, on crutches, in casts, come to our door needing medication or help with rent or food until they can return to the corner. Those with permanent disability come for adult diapers, which we try to pack up with a bit of discretion. These are the most painful for me to see, young men, usually, looking forward to a lifetime of dependency.

Our work is not all sadness, though. We do have joyful moments. For example, Joel was injured on a job and, although time had healed the worst of his injuries, he could not walk well, was in constant pain, and could not work. A new volunteer doctor offered to restore Joel’s ability to walk at no cost. The surgery went well. A miracle, really – he should be able to walk again, and, more importantly, to work. So far, so good.

His rehab orders meant that his mobility would be severely limited for a few months, and would need food delivered to his home. When I arrived at the house where I had been told he was living, I was relieved to see that although old, the house was in good condition and in a good location.

To my dismay however, it turned out that Joel did not live in the house, but afuera (outside) as the man who did live in the house told me, behind the house, in a tin shed suitable for an animal, maybe, if you didn’t care very much about the animal. Looking around, it suddenly hit me that there were a lot of sheds. I had seen such sheds before, but it never occurred to me that human beings were living in them. Another injured man was living in the area with Joel and it was going to get very cold that night so we scrambled to get a safe heater and more blankets. The shed had electricity, and even some sketchy looking plumbing, but I was so upset. A lot of care and effort had gone into getting Joel restored, and his living conditions were, to put it mildly, not going to contribute to his rehabilitation.

During the next few weeks we made several trips to take food and supplies and to check on Joel and the other injured man. I learned, to add insult to injury, someone makes money off these arrangements, a lot of money. Rents are paid, garbage cans are issued and garbage collected by the city, electricity and water lines are installed, as if this were suitable and appropriate housing, business as usual.

Last week I attended the inauguration ceremony for the Mayor and City Council of Houston.  It was a lovely affair with a choir, orchestra and Grammy award-winning singer. The Mayor spoke eloquently about the greatness of the city of Houston, past, present and future. Ending her speech, she stressed our common destiny, saying that as a city, “We rise and fall together.”

I thought of Joel, and all the others whose work is encouraged, facilitated and tolerated only because it is so easy to exploit. Doesn’t she know that we can never be a great city if we grow great by such injustice?

But, to be fair, the Mayor and the good citizens of Houston do not see the Joels of our great city. At Casa Juan Diego, we do.

So, to the day laborers of our community, those broken and those still at work, until the time when your work is fairly valued, when you no longer live as an animal, and no longer fear arrest for working, until your family is secure, until your injuries are healed, we see you. To Victor, Jose, Ricardo, and all the others, we see you.