For Day Laborers, Life Is an Uncertain Struggle

By Charles Raben

At the U-Haul facility in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, immigrant day laborers wait patiently, huddled in a corner of the parking lot for hours, hoping for potential employers–U-Haul customers who need quick and cheap muscle to help unload their storage.

The men find that despite this life of hardship and uncertainty, that is a better alternative than what awaits them at home.  Out of respect for their privacy, I photographed only their hands, which have the wear and tear of work written all over them. 

When I was at U-Haul helping my father, a man walked up and passed us his hand-made card. He carried a pack of 200, each carefully written with a sharpie. These men cannot afford to have cards printed, nor do they have credit cards to order them online.

A laborer heads down the escalator, preparing for the evening shift at U-Haul.

Often exhausted and overheated, workers take cover under the shade in front of U-Haul.

A day laborer earns an average of $14.22 an hour, but so many men seek work that each day is a constant struggle to get enough hours to make the daily trek worth it.

“What are you doin’ here, are you FBI? Immigration?”

“It’s really hard work. You risk getting a hernia or really damaging your back. A buddy of ours had to stop working for a few months so we got some money together for him to live on.”

“You can photograph my hands. The reason those other guys get scared is ’cause they’re immigrants. They don’t wanna get busted.”

“If you buy me a coffee you can take my photo. No face, please, no face.”

The annual earnings of day laborers do not exceed $15,000, leaving most of them among the working poor.

In 2008, it was estimated that more than 120,000 workers were either seeking or performing day-labor assignments.

Most of these men live in intense fear. When I approached one group of workers with a wide smile on my face and a camera around my neck, they responded as though I had a gun and a badge in my hand.