Day Laborers: Ignored, Understudied, and Misunderstood

When most Americans think about day laborers or nonstandard employment, the image that first comes to their mind is a group of undocumented men standing on the side of a Home Depot waiting for someone to drive by and hire them for a short-term construction job… and that’s it. There’s no before or after, simply a small window of time when day laborers matter to us, when we pass by them, see them in our peripheral vision, and the rest is mostly unknown. As you can imagine, there is much more to the story than this static image. With some contemplation, every 50th person or so walking out of that hardware store who sees this group of men will take 5 seconds to say to themselves “I wonder where their families are?” or “I wonder how long they’ve been out here in the hot sun?” Perhaps every 500th person will have some sort of thought about how their health is affected by their work, or about the huge levels of exploitation in the realm of informal labor. The truth is, the day laborer population is very much ignored, understudied, and therefore misunderstood by the general population, and here is my half-educated hypothesis as to why: Day Laborers have been criminalized for being considered undocumented, looked down upon for their race or class, and bereft of sympathy because they are typically men.

A few weeks ago, I looked into writing a blog post for my politics class on undocumented labor policies, but could find too little information for me to write anything original on that topic in the time I was going to let myself spend on that assignment. Last week, I decided to give it another try, and made my topic for a public health research paper something like “occupational hazards, psychological stressors, and employer accountability for the health of day laborers” (don’t worry, I’ll narrow it down eventually). The reason, however, that I started so broad is that it is amazingly difficult to find reliable, recent studies on the day laborer population as a whole. Every published health report I came across focused on one specific convenience group or one specific geographical region, and had more to do with the practice and not the people. I couldn’t even find a consistent definition of what a “day laborer” was!

My next step was to look for what is currently being done to improve the health impacts of informal manual labor, so I started out easy. I did some basic research looking up safety practices, access to medical needs, and general physical health in the workplace… and know what? There was barely anything! Mostly what I found were cases of small organizations trying their best to reach-out to this population with preventative care, efforts towards informing undocumented workers of their rights, and some training programs. But when you think about it, with such little information on this population‘s health/safety, and of course with the population itself holding such limited political influence, how many non-profits, interest groups, and government policies do you really expect…

So what’s wrong? Why is it that I’m having such a hard time writing even a basic topic proposal on a health phenomenon that impacts so many people?  Why is it that I get more hits about “Labor Day” than “day laborers” when I search topics on health EVEN WHEN I PUT MY PHRASE IN QUOTATION MARKS!? I hope to get to the bottom of these questions as I delve deeper into my research paper (perhaps I’ll post a follow-up later in the semester!). In the mean time, check out this wonderful L.A.-based site ( and push yourself to think a little more about the part of the lives of day laborers you don’t see standing outside the hardware store.

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