Program matches immigrant laborers with employers
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
There is a small trailer on the Bensonhurst waterfront where great matches are made every day. No, it’s not love matches we’re talking about.
The people who work inside the Bay Parkway Community Job Center trailer next to the Ceasar’s Bay Shopping Mall aren’t cupids. The matches they make are between employers and laborers. Private contractors seeking workers to do construction work, gardening, painting or cleaning come to the center and are matched up with laborers, usually immigrants, looking for jobs for the day.
The job center, which was the first of its kind in New York City, celebrated its 12th anniversary Friday morning with great fanfare, as laborers, contractors, community leaders and elected officials came together to mark the program’s progress.
Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito presented members of the Worker’s Justice Project, the organization which sponsors the job center, with a City Council proclamation, which the overjoyed members proudly held aloft like a championship trophy.
The ceremony, which took place in a tent across the road from the trailer to accommodate an overflow crowd, was hosted by the Worker's Justice Project and Councilman Vincent Gentile, who was instrumental in the establishment of the center 12 years ago.
“It has taken an entire community to build what has been built,” said Ligia Guallpa, executive director of the Worker's Justice Project, an organization that fights for immigrant rights. The center was established with community cooperation, she said.
Guallpa said the center’s goal is to find work for day laborers, many of whom are non-English speaking immigrants, help workers know their rights, and fight for better pay and working conditions. Thanks to the center, workers’ wages have been raised over the years from $8 an hour to $22.50 an hour, center organizers said.
Over the past 12 years, more than nearly 10,000 day laborers have found jobs through the center, according to Gentile (D-Bay Ridge-Dyker Heights-Bensonhurst). A dozen years ago, Gentile, who was then a state senator, worked in partnership with the Rev. Terry Troia, pastor of the New Utrecht Reformed Church, to assist the immigrant laborers.
Up until 12 years ago, day laborers and private contractors found each other through a haphazard and often dangerous process that consisted of workers standing out on street corners all over Bensonhurst at day break hoping to be picked up in cars and vans by private contractors to be tale not job sites for the day. The intersection of 18th Avenue and 65th Street was a prime spot for pickups.
In those days, as a van approached, day laborers would run into the street in an effort to sell themselves to a contractor. It created a traffic danger, officials said.
The day laborers were often cheated out of wages and mistreated, Gentile said. “They were made to feel lucky in the end if they got paid at all,” he said. Laborers were sometimes driven to job sites and then abandoned there, with no way to get home, he said.
All that changed with the opening of the job center. “The government, business community, and clergy of Bensonhurst all worked together to create a fair and safe system,” Gentile said.
Members of the New Utrecht Reformed Church would often bring breakfast for the center’s staff members and the day laborers in the early days, Gentile said.
The trailer sits on city land, according to Gentile, who said the Bloomberg Administration and the current de Blasio Administration have allowed the job center to remain on the waterfront rent free.
The job center is a lifeline for immigrants, according to Pedro Auquilla, a member of the Worker's Justice Project, who hails from Ecuador. In an impassioned speech delivered in Spanish, Auquilla said the center’s trailer even withstood the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. The center “has risen stronger than before, even it was nearly destroyed by Hurricane sandy,” he said.
The center helps laborers in a variety of ways, Auquilla said. “Notably, in addition to our economic achievements, we focus very much on personal development through leadership workshops, English classes, lawyers who recover wages, health and safety workshops, among others,” he said.
Many day laborers have gone on to start businesses of their own, Gentile said. He cited Apple Eco Cleaning, an environmentally friendly cleaning company, and M&G Construction Company as examples of success stories created the job center.
In addition, many of the laborers helped rebuild homes for residents n the wake of Sandy, Gentile said.
Mark-Viverito, who visited the trailer before speaking at the ceremony, said she was impressed. “The fact that in that little space the magic that is provided is incredible,” she said. “It’s a model that we need to replicate across the city.”