Day laborers learn through a project they are the frontline of environmental justice
Toxics are a daily reality for Portland Day Laborers
When a contractor hired “Estefan” at the Voz Workers’ Center to remove old floor tile, he was happy for the work. The Voz Worker Center Director instructed the employer to provide proper safety equipment, commonly necessary when removing tile. But while at the site, the employer told Estefan that the tile wasn’t old enough to have toxic material. He was exposed to a steady dose of dust throughout the day without protection of any kind. “When we finished removing the tile and took it to the [Metro Transfer Station] they told us we can’t dispose of them there… they needed to be disposed in a special place.”
“Adewale” also has a story to tell about toxics on the workplace. “I once had a job at night cleaning commercial floors using a chemical that burned my skin even while wearing latex gloves. The chemical got on my forearms and my skin began peeling. The employers did not tell us about the chemicals when we began working. I don’t know what chemical it was, but it made the floor shine.”
Frontline environmental justice communities
This fall, Voz Day Laborers learned they are a “frontline environmental justice community.” The Oregon Just Transitions Alliance explains that unsustainable extraction of raw resources comes from the same worldview as exploitation of workers. They also describe some communities and baring greater burdens for environmental problems. these communities are "frontline communities." A Just Transition happens when frontline communities are part of the process of solving economic and ecological problems together.
Day Laborers are highly impacted by environmental issues. Along with worker exposure to toxics, they also work outside where they are exposed to increasingly extreme weather conditions. Many left their homes for migratory work due to climate changes, mining and deforestation in their home communities.
They are also a frontline environmental justice community because they can organize together for action to reduce the burdens they face.
With encouragement from the Coalition of Communities of color’s Redefine program, and a grant from Meyer Memorial Trust, Voz worked together with the City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability (BPS) to explore how to prevent the harm of toxics and climate change to day laborers. They also explored how the environmental and climate justice movements might provide green jobs and other benefits to the Day Laborer community.
What is a green job?
When BPS economists started the project, it seemed a stretch to connect day laborers to green jobs. They identified endless barriers to the engineering or architecture degrees often associated with alternative energy green jobs. Focus groups and interviews with day laborers helped the BPS team redefine what they thought of as a green job. They began to map the work that day laborers traditionally do (construction, landscaping, cleaning) with new approaches to the work (deconstruction, naturescaping and green cleaning).
The team concluded that “basically every job can be a green job -and needs to be if we want to mitigate climate change and environmental degradation.”
The team also realized that well-intended environmentally-friendly laws can cause harm to people of color and poor communities. It is necessary to involve the most impacted people in the design and implementation of the laws. Deconstruction and naturescaping mandates will require that the workforce shift their basic practices. These laws will require a new set of skills that day laborers did not know that they will need if they want to stay in the workforce. They could have been shut out of the economy they depend if it weren't for this project.
Day laborers build for a healthier and more prosperous tomorrow
This fall, Day Laborers explored deconstruction, naturescaping and green cleaning in a workshop. The group talked about their technical expertise and the resources needed to learn the new green job skills.
Day laborers were excited about the prospects. One day laborer exclaimed “We are always the first ones to run into toxics in the worksite! Others are in their backhoes, removed by a metal and glass barrier, while we are sorting and moving materials by hand.” Another shared how generations of people in his family before him worked in harmony with the land and that he would like to return to this way of working.
The group decided that it would be important for Voz to seek a grant to fund a certification program and workforce development program where they could learn about deconstruction, naturescaping and toxics. Together they want to create healthier work conditions and participate in the protection of our climate and the environment.