Female Day Laborers Demolish Walls, Prejudice

Day Laborers at a Williamsburg, Brooklyn, pickup stop take part in post-Sandy free cleaning brigades to help businesses and homeowners in Coney Island. (Photo by Zaira Cortes via El Diario)

“Why are there so many women here?” a day laborer whispered scornfully, while a consultant from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) explained the risks of working in neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Sandy to about 50 workers.

Yadira Sánchez, an organizer with the Bay Parkway Community Job Center, turned discreetly to the day laborer and in a firm voice gave a reply that few people were expecting, “Because women also have the ability to work in construction.”

Other women attending the workshop, held at a community center in Coney Island, included 33-year-old Reina Vega from Mexico. She has earned a living by working in the demolition industry for a few months now.

Vega, who might seem timid and fragile at first sight, comes to the Bay Parkway pickup stop on a daily basis. Surrounded by about 60 day laborers, she waits her turn to be hired.

Before getting trained on how to demolish walls and roofs with a hammer, Vega cleaned houses. Her profession didn’t stop her from going to meetings on workers’ rights with her husband, Victorino Hernández, at the Bay Parkway Community Job Center, known in the neighborhood as “La Casita.”

“My husband has been a day laborer for seven years,” Vega said proudly. “That’s as long as we’ve been married.”

Before Hurricane Sandy, La Casita served as a gathering place for around 400 day laborers until the storm wrecked it, forcing the workers to split up. With the rising demand for manual labor, Vega decided to try her luck as a construction worker. She earns between $120 and $150 for 8 hours of work.

“Some contractors look at me and doubt if I’m good enough to do the job,” said Vega. “There’s a lot of discrimination; people question whether a woman can or should take on a job traditionally held by men.”

By showing self-confidence, she earned the Bay Parkway day laborers’ trust and acceptance.

“I earn the same amount as my co-workers, and that’s a victory for a woman with little experience,” she said. “Without my husband’s support, I wouldn’t have made it this far.”

Despite feeling tired after a long workday, Vega regularly attends a program for female entrepreneurs in East Harlem as she believes education is very valuable.

Defeating discrimination

Sánchez, who has been an activist since 2008 at the Bay Parkway street corner, said that Vega could be the first female construction worker in years who comes to the site every day seeking employment.

“Contractors look for female day laborers to clean apartments, but they don’t wait on the street corner; they’re contacted by telephone,” Sánchez explained. “It’s more common for employers to hire women to clean, as opposed to demolition or construction jobs.”

Sánchez stressed that “machismo” and prejudice can be the most difficult walls for female construction workers to knock down.

“Latinas are increasingly entering the construction industry and the need to educate workers about gender equality is growing,” she said.

Roberto Meneses, a day laborer and activist who for more than two decades in Woodside, Queens, emphasized that female day laborers face serious challenges.

“It’s a cultural belief to equate women with weakness,”  he said, “a prejudice we should neither encourage nor perpetuate.”

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