Working In The Shadows Sunday, March 12, 2006
David McLaughlin 508-626-4338 Metrowest Daily News
FRAMINGHAM -- On a recent chilly morning, Carlos Oliveira stood downtown with a dozen of his fellow Brazilians waiting for work.

The day before, Oliveira, 50, spent three hours in front of the Brazilian bakery across the street from the Memorial Building, hoping to land a job for the day painting homes, cutting trees, or moving furniture.

He walked home empty-handed.

"When it's cold, there isn't much work," said Oliveira, who ran a small business as a beekeeper in Brazil before he came here illegally to help pay his 19-year-old daughter's college tuition.

"It's disappointing, but you know you cannot let feelings of sadness or anguish take over you," he said.  "It's very uncertain, but you keep having hope."

Oliveira is among several dozen workers, mostly Brazilians, who gather every morning in front of the bakery in an informal day laborer site, where workers wait to be picked up by contractors or homeowners for landscaping, construction and other low-paying jobs.

The scene is common across the country, where laborer sites have sprung up in busy intersections and parking lots of coffee shops and home improvement stores.  A UCLA study published in January estimated that every day, nearly 120,000 people, mostly illegal immigrants, are looking for or are working day-laborer jobs in the United States.

As the sites multiply, they also draw complaints.  In January, local anti-illegal immigration opponents staged a protest in front of the Framingham bakery.  They have also filmed and photographed the workers and the employers, mostly landscapers and painters, who hire them.

"We're just trying to show that everytime you do this, you're hurting America.  That's all.  You're hurting America," Jim Rizoli said.  "And it sends a message to Washington that something has to be done."

As the weather gets warmer, Rizoli and other members of his group, CCFIILE, intend to hold more protests and make a renewed push to document the local businesses that hire the workers.

On its Web site, www.ccfiile.org, the group lists more than 40 vehicles, including license plates and business names in some cases, that it claims were spotted in front of the bakery hiring workers.  The list covers several days in November.

"This is the reason illegal immigration occurs.  Businesses hire them and they're not supposed to hire them," said Harold Wolfe, who manages the Web site and logs the businesses.  "If businesses didn't hire illegal immigrants, there wouldn't be any illegal immigrants."

For Oliveira, a father of two who came here a year ago, the protests don't make sense.

"We do the work Americans don't want to do," he said taking refuge from the cold inside the coffee shop, Padaria Brasil.  "We're here because we want to work."

Such conflicts between the workers and protesters have sprouted nationwide.  In Virginia last year, authorities arrested 24 people waiting for work outside a 7-Eleven, according to the Washington Post.  Officials and residents there, the paper reported, complained the site was a disruption and that workers left trash behind.

As for the businesses on CCFIILE's site, two of them contacted by The Daily News insisted that they do not hire day workers and may only have been at the bakery to get coffee.

Harry Wildman, president of Riverside Tree and Landscape in Ashland, said his business hires between 15 and 20 immigrant workers every year through the federally sponsored H-2B program, which allows immigrants to legally work in the United States.

They are paid about $9 an hour, a rate set by the federal government, and work here for 10 months at a time.  None of them are picked up at the Concord Street bakery, he said.

"We pride ourselves on doing it right," Wildman said.

Riverside has hired these workers for about four years.  It advertises the jobs here, so no Americans are blocked from getting jobs, but the business has trouble finding qualified applicants.  No one, Wildman said, "wants to wash dishes, be a landscaper, (or) drive a taxi."

"We should not be on that (Web) site because we don't participate in what that site's about," he said.

Rizoli insists Americans would take the jobs if businesses paid more, but they don't have to thanks to a large illegal immigrant population willing to work for low wages.  A new study from the Pew Hispanic Center estimated there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, accounting for one in every 20 workers.

At the very least, Rizoli wants the work site moved behind the bakery, away from downtown Framingham's main thoroughfare.

"Why do they have to be an eyesore to the town?"  he asked.  "Would Wellesley permit them to be downtown?  Would Weston permit them to be downtown?  Would Natick permit them to be downtown?  C'mon.  It's an insult."

A business can legally hire day laborers but must make a "good faith effort" to ensure that they are eligible to work in the United States, said Bill Strassberger, a spokesman with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.  Employers, he said, should ask for verifying documents, but he cautioned that not all laborers are breaking the law.

"I think it's a dangerous assumption that a day laborer is illegal because it's not always true," he said.

Oliveira, the Brazilian day worker, said that more often than not, employers and others who come to hire them don't ask for documents and when they do, they don't check them.  The laborers are paid in cash, between $8 and $12 an hour depending on the work.

Sometimes, he said, employers pay them less than what they promised, and other times they don't pay them at all.

The UCLA study "On the Corner: Day Labor in the United States" found that nearly half of all laborers were never paid for work in the two months prior to being surveyed.  They also reported they had been denied food, water and breaks while on the job.

A 40-year-old Brazilian worker who was waiting for work last week outside the bakery said even Brazilian employers sometimes cheat them.

"They do it with us because they couldn't do that to Americans," said the man, who declined to give his name.

Many of the Brazilian day laborers said they came here escaping a dearth of opportunities in Brazil, where the minimum wage is $100 a month.  For Emerson Miranda, 25, father of a 5-year-old girl, coming here was like winning the lottery.

He said his family depends on him.  Thanks to his work as a laborer, he sends home $500 a month, $300 of which goes to pay his brother's college tuition, and the rest is divided among his parents, daughter and wife.  When winter hits and work gets scarce, Miranda uses his savings to get by and scrambles to find work.

"My brother has to pay the tuition and my family has to eat," Miranda said.  "But even when there isn't much work, I still make more money here than down there."

For now, Miranda and Oliveira look forward to the end of winter when more jobs are available.  On that cold morning around 10 a.m., for the second day in a row, Oliveira didn't get chosen for work, but he said he would be back the next day.

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