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An Intern Reports on Worker Justice in D.C.

An Intern Reports on Worker Justice in D.C.

Published: September 28, 2010
Photo: AFSC

By Sarah Rutherford

It’s early on Tuesday morning, and dozens of Latino men are gathered outside of the Home Depot on Rhode Island Avenue.

A pickup truck slows to a stop in the parking lot, and the men swarm around it, negotiating frantically with the driver. The driver motions for two of them to get in and the men speed away. The rest shuffle back to the shade of the trees and wait for the next truck to appear.

It’s a typical morning for day-laborers. Boasting of skills in masonry, plumbing, and electrical work, the men wait to be hired for the day, or if they’re lucky, for the week. But the work is scarce, and most men wait for hours with little luck.

On Tuesday and Saturday mornings, volunteers approach the day-laborers with offers of English lessons.

As a summer intern for AFSC, I spent most of my time planning a year-long internship project, but I also had the opportunity to spend these mornings working with D.C. Jobs With Justice, an initiative supported by a coalition of groups in the D.C. area.

We start the class by passing out small booklets and encouraging the men to form a circle.

“Cuando nos pagan?” Candace, another volunteer, begins. “In English, When do we get paid?”

The workers’ faces light up. They eagerly repeat the phrase. They explain, in Spanish, that they are often underpaid for their work. Sometimes their employers don’t pay them at all. This is the English that they want to know.

We continue with the lesson, asking each worker “What type of work can you do” and having them repeat phrases like “Do you need me to work tomorrow?”

As the hour reaches its end, we ask the workers what else they want to learn. One man wants to recite numbers, another wants to practice greetings. By this time, most of the workers barely flinch when a truck rolls by.

“I need to learn English,” a middle-aged worker explains to me.

Most of the workers have been in DC for years, but they still speak the language that is native to their homes in El Salvador and Guatemala. They struggle with the harsh “Rs” and “Ks” in the English phrases, but they keep practicing, and we remain patient.

When the class ends, the men resume their look-out. All of those workers waiting in the notorious D.C. heat. “It’d be nice if they had water and access to bathrooms,” said Mackenzie Baris, lead organizer for D.C. Jobs With Justice.

I’m optimistic. The classes are effective, and I’m hopeful that more will be done to help the workers in the future.