Helping the trabajador
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Helping the trabajador

BERGENFIELD – "Miguel" won’t give his name to this newspaper because he is afraid that imigracion might find him. He is one of dozens of immigrants, mostly illegal, who spend their early mornings on the side of an axis road behind Borough Hall, waiting for work, some manual labor that a contractor or hotel owner can offer him.

Miguel been in this country for four years — two years in New York, in Queens, and two years here, living near Foster Village, he says, and he’ll do anything a contractor wants, from shingling to roofing to siding to painting. By 7 each morning, he gets to the site — a couple of dilapidated benches behind an electrical contractor’s offices. There is not much work available. He gets picked up once or twice a week, and gets paid under the table. He’s of the few who speaks any English, and his English is sparse at best.

"A lot of guys are here," he says, "from Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela."

He’s never had a problem getting paid when he does get work, and when asked about conditions at the job sites, he misunderstands and thinks that he’s being asked if he works on air conditioning.

But Miguel seems among the lucky ones who has not been ripped off or mistreated, which is why the Bergenfield Clergy Association is trying to get together a consortium to help day laborers.

A recent UCLA survey of ‘,660 such workers in ‘0 states showed that 49 percent have been denied wages or underpaid by an employer, more than half of those injured at job sites had not been given medical treatment, and 44 percent had been denied food, water, or bathroom breaks, according to hr.blr.com, a labor rights Website. That study estimates that there are 117,600 day laborers in the country, three quarters of whom are illegal.

The association is holding an open meeting at the All Saints Episcopal Church here on Wednesday, Feb. 8, to try to help figure out how to help make work safer and less precarious for day laborers.

"They don’t speak English, and they don’t really know what they are getting into," said Rabbi David Bockman from Temple Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. "Often, the checks that they get bounce or they are not from real accounts. We are organizing this meeting and inviting people from all different faith organizations to come and work on the problem."

He said that the association might help teach English to non-English-speaking workers and/or provide hot meals for them as they wait on line for employers to show up.

Bockman said that the people of Bergenfield, though they may benefit from day laborers, have not exactly been accepting of their presence. Their pick-up spot used to be in front of the town’s 7-Eleven, but it was moved to the more secluded spot near Borough Hall.

"There has always been over the years a sort of disdain for these people. There is a feeling that they are illegal laborers taking away jobs from Americans. They hang out in town and bring property values down. This has been an undercurrent around town," he said. "We’re just trying to organize and kick off something to help these people, because wherever they are, and wherever they are from, they should not be taken advantage of. The Torah has many laws that say you can’t mistreat your workers, and others that say that God will punish you if you don’t pay them what you are supposed to."

The Rev. Kathryn King of the All Saints Church said that the initiative started at the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Teaneck and that volunteers from that church had been going to the pick-up site every Wednesday morning for the past three or four months, handing out protective gloves and masks to the workers and talking with them to see what problems they have.

But this Wednesday, at 7 a.m., when the first workers started to gather, the only amenity as dawn broke was an old magazine discarded in an empty planter next to the benches.

"They are people in need within our community," said King, explaining why the area’s religious institutions should be responsible for the plight of the day laborer. "They need our help."

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