Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Day Laborers, Hustlers, and Picking Loose Teeth Out of My Lawn

Several months into ambitious home renovation, I've learned a great deal about houses, contractors, and workers, while also inadvertently charting the trajectory of Guatemalan immigrants in America - and of immigrants, generally (the Guatemalans are just the fresh group of the moment). It also opens a window into the realities of the labor economy, from the bottom up.

From a homeowner's perspective, your most expensive route is to hire a contractor. That's usually a white guy - invariably a Republican in keen support of our administration's anti-immigrant hysteria - who hires diligent, skillful, conscientious Guatemalan workers, mostly undocumented, for pennies. And, of course, he charges you double what the job's worth.

I'm not a communist, because I ran something once and learned that while the front line workers of any operation do indeed perform the "real" work, brains are at least as important as brawn. And while workers go home at 5pm, leaving their work behind, the top dog carries perma-aggravation, stressing over liquidity, liability, scheduling, and myriad other Devil-details. It's a life of antacid-guzzling, ulcer-making existential concerns, not least of which is ensuring sufficient cash flow to actually pay workers their pennies.

So I'm not so quick to condemn contractors and other bosses and middlemen. I realize they're not just printing money while others do the labor. But that's not to say I don't at least try to bypass them to save a few bucks.

Naturally, I went straight to the Guatemalans; the workers who viewed me less as an aloof gringo homeowner and more as an hermano who shares their sense of humor, whips up great lunches, and turns their daily grind into Camp Jimmy. The guys who were sent by expensive contractors practically begged me to hire them for (other) jobs on Sundays, their one day off, promising me I'd save a bundle.

But I hadn't realized what was involved in hiring day workers a la carte. They don't own tools, so you need to supply the nails, the paint, the grout, the tarps, the ladders...everything. And it's not like they'll fax over a thorough list of necessary equipment. If their minds worked systematically like that - if they had organizational skills - they wouldn't be painting/nailing/sweeping/gardening all day for pennies. Don't expect people to self-repair to accommodate you!

To be sure, if you'll pay them their daily rate, get them set up and point them toward the job, they will work their asses off for you, at a very high quality level, for eight hours. And that's worthy. But that's it. That's what they do. Expecting them to handhold you and steadily self-manage is like expecting me to climb onto a roof and hammer in a slew of shingles.

Also: They don't own cars. So I had to go pick them up, and the rule of thumb is 30 miles, minimum. And you won't be surprised that they don't own the most meticulous personal protective equipment during a pandemic.

It gets even worse. One afternoon, the guys had arranged a ride home with a Guatemalan friend, who got tied up and sent still another Guatemalan friend, who showed up an hour late, enraging my pals/employees, who like to leave a job site at 5pm sharp. One took a swing at the driver, and, long story short, we spent an hour in the twilight searching with flashlights for several teeth scattered around my lawn before I drove them home in my Covid Petri Dish car, one of them bleeding profusely into the Williams Sonoma dish towel I'd hastily loaded up with ice cubes.

So, yeah. There's that.

Most of the low guys on this chain are destined to remain low, and it's not particularly society's fault. They are diligent and essential cogs in the machine, but individual cogs are not useful for those who don't run a machine. Contractors, I discovered, do earn their massive cut after all.

There's another link in this food chain, and this is where it gets interesting. These are the Guatemalan immigrants blessed with hustle and brains. They've learned to speak decent English (no small accomplishment while establishing themselves by working all day, six days per week, in the hot sun for pennies). They own cars, and can organize and manage a job and talk to a client. And they have their own stable of workers to exploit. They are, in other words, contractors (recall the ending of "Animal Farm"....but with the more realistic perspective I offered, above). And if you'd imagine they'd charge less, that's entirely a product of your racism.

Why should a Guatemalan contractor charge less than an American one? If anything, their results are better. There's more hustle and eagerness to please. And with deeper connections to the labor pool, they know who's really good and don't wind up stuck with whoever's available from a short list. To be sure, some are hacks or con men, but the same's true with American contractors. But the good Guatemalan contractors provide better service than the good American ones. And so they charge a healthy price. There's no legitimate reason for them not to.

These ambitious, savvy hustlers are in no way ignorant of market economics. And they do charge a smidge less than Americans, just because racist homeowners won't pay them quite the same. But these are not the nice, tranquilo dudes you see sweeping up in stores. They won't cut you a friendly break re: your countertop installation price. These are antacid-popping, night-school graduating, family-supporting, American-dream-pursuing bright, motivated guys who take capitalism far more seriously than you or I or anyone we know. They are in it to win it. While they may drive a 20-year old van with a cheap and mildly misspelled "Ruiz Brothers Home Repare" stencil on its side panel, they are killers, biz-wise. They have to be to have gotten where they are.

Every once in a great while you'll get very lucky and find an immigrant laborer who can show some initiative and supervise a job. A future contractor! Or an immigrant contractor who hasn't yet completely transformed into a mega-capitalist. But if that's rare even for me - a Spanish-speaker who operates Camp Jimmy, the famous Guatemalan painter day camp, and who can sing along with the guys on merengue hits, and eats in Guatemalan delis three lunches per week and knows everybody - then good luck finding one yourself.

When I do connect with someone like that, I castigate them for selling themselves short. I advise them not to buy in to the racism; to straighten their spine and charge the bejesus out of their gringo customers (while, hopefully, cutting me at least a small break).

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