A Display of Talent

Situated on street corners and in parking lots outside social-service agencies, gas stations, and home-improvement stores, day-labor sites offer little protection from the elements. These informal gathering spots—where casual workers connect with contractors and home­owners offering temporary employment in construction, gardening, painting, and the like—also lack the most basic of amenities, such as drinking fountains or toilets. “We would see these guys all the time and think, Is this really working for them?” says Tom Panelli, an attorney with a background in immigration law.

In an effort to make the daily ritual of waiting for work more comfortable—and more humane—Panelli, then executive director of the San Francisco–based nonprofit design firm Public Architecture, joined forces with founding architect John Peterson to create the Day Labor Station. This sustainably designed portable structure can be erected at congregation sites to provide shelter, seating, and access to drinking water and toilets. The design also includes an open-air meeting room for workers to confer with employers, learn new trades, or take classes in English (most of the 117,000 day laborers in the United States come from Mexico and Central America).

Panelli and Peterson started asking the laborers what they could use. Though answers centered on practical features, the pair also concluded that these individuals, many of whom are highly trained, needed a better forum in which to promote themselves. “This is not a format that presents them as the skilled people they are. It looks like guys hanging out on a corner,” Panelli says. “There’s a dignity that they deserve as workers.”

Although some cities have set up sanctioned day-labor centers, Public Architecture designer and project manager Liz Ogbu says the portable design speaks to many workers’ (and employers’) wishes to remain off the grid. And unlike the enclosed trailers set up at many centers, the Day Labor Station affords workers visibility from the street. “There’s a huge importance of having some visual contact between the employees and the potential employers,” Ogbu explains.

The plan is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of sites and worker preferences. Seats can double as storage bins for tools. A station might even include a small kitchen, enabling people to fix their own meals as well as sell food to go—an idea inspired by the food trucks parked near many locations. Ogbu is working to find a place where a station could be constructed and put into use—and someone to spearhead that project. “It could be the laborers, it could be a nonprofit, it could be a municipality,” she says. “We’re really not limiting who would be able to tap into this.”

A section of the Day Labor Station was unveiled at the Design for the Other 90% exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, that opened in May and runs through September 23. Alongside it is a video with photographs of and quotes from laborers. “Part of the impetus for doing the portraits was to really get people to connect with them as human beings deserving of good architecture just as much as the next person,” Ogbu says.

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