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Proposal aims to protect day laborers

Mass. would require work terms upfront

Legislation proposed on Beacon Hill would give more rights to a group now at the center of the fractious national debate over illegal immigration: the mostly undocumented immigrant day laborers who gather in the mornings in Chelsea, Allston, and all over the state, hoping to be picked up for temporary jobs.

Sponsored by Chelsea Democrat Eugene L. O'Flaherty in the House and Lynn Democrat Thomas M. McGee in the Senate, the legislation would compel contractors and temporary agencies who use day laborers to inform them in writing of their working conditions.

Frequently, day laborers who are picked up at hiring spots agree to do jobs before they are told where they will be working, for how long, whether they will need safety equipment, and what they will be paid.

''People are taking advantage of these folks," O'Flaherty said. ''And constituents of mine are having their houses painted or carpentry work done and sometimes people are not qualified to do the work, and exposed to a whole lot of abuses."

Employers or temporary agencies who fail to provide employees with advance information about their jobs would face fines of $250 to $1,250 per day work day under the bill.

And laborers could bring civil suits against those employers for damages equal to three times their wages.

O'Flaherty said he first proposed the legislation because of the stories his constituents were telling him about day laborers' conditions.

''I heard the personal story of an individual being taken to a job two hours away," he said. ''They don't know where they're going, and that causes problems for a lot of individuals. They aren't told whether to bring their own food . . . They deserve information on who their employer is, and what safety equipment they will need.

''We're trying to get [employers] to commit to writing some parameters for the employer-employee relationship," he said.

Advocates for day laborers say the law is sorely needed.

A report released late last month by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health found that immigrant workers are victims of a disproportionate number of workplace accidents in Massachusetts.

People familiar with the day laborers say they get hurt on the job because they are trucked occasionally to dangerous work sites without adequate training, preparation, or safety equipment.

''Sometimes the hours of work are over 14 hours a day," said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a community service organization that worked with O'Flaherty on the legislation. ''People don't have protective gear or training and they're exposed to working conditions that, in terms of safety, could be very hard for them."

In Chelsea, there are at least five spots where immigrants congregate in the mornings, hoping that an employer will pull up and hire them for a day or two. Such sites are far more common in other states with higher populations of undocumented immigrants.

Vega said her uncle, who is from Puerto Rico, stood with the immigrants in Chelsea looking for work for a year when he was unemployed, and that he told her ''conditions were terrible, it doesn't matter if you speak English or not, and nobody regulates anything."

The legislation is in the Senate Ways and Means Committee, and it is unclear whether it will be considered before the legislative session ends this summer.

Lawmakers have many other matters to tie up before then, O'Flaherty said, although he added that the sudden passion over immigration might ''nudge legislators along."

Representative Marie J. Parente, Democrat of Milford, who has emerged as a leading critic of illegal immigration in the House in recent months, said she does not oppose the bill.

''I think what [O'Flaherty] is attempting to do is to respond to recent deaths and accidents, and I commend him for that," Parente said. ''They are being exploited, and their health is at risk. A person seeking the cheap wage does not have any interest in the day laborer's [welfare] or they would be providing health insurance and safety equipment."

Still, Parente said she is ''opposed to them picking up day laborers to begin with."

''The American worker will never be able to negotiate a fair wage as long as there is someone around on day laborer basis to do it at half the price," she said.

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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