Cleaning Co-op Turns Day Laborers into Owners


Yesenia Bucio (far left), and her sister Teresa (second from left), with the other members of Apple Eco-Cleaning.
Photo: Yadira Sanchez | Apple Eco-Cleaning

Maria Aguilar woke up on alone in her Brooklyn apartment Christmas Day 2011 and took a look at her small, dingy bedroom. She thought of her children back home in Mexico, and how once again they would be spending the day with relatives rather than with her. More than a year later, the 32-year-old mother of two had a very different Christmas – one spent opening presents with her daughter in her new, larger apartment in Queens.

Although she didn’t realize at the time, Aguilar’s life started to change two Decembers ago when she joined a training program run by Apple Eco-Cleaning, an all-women cooperative that was set up to help female day laborers such as Aguilar.

This past June, she became a full member of the cooperative – a move that gave her the financial stability and job security that she needed to be able rent a place that was closer to her brothers in Queens, and to start the process of bringing her children over from Mexico – 17 years after she first left in search of a better life in New York.

“It is very good,” said Aguilar, speaking in Spanish to Yadira Sanchez, an associate of the cooperative who translated the interview. “It is just much better.”

Before her introduction to Apple Eco-Cleaning, Aguilar had spent two years making the daily journey to the intersection of Marcy and Division avenues in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. There she would stand with as many as 100 other women looking for jobs as housekeepers and cleaners and wait patiently for prospective employers and the promise of a day’s pay.

From as early as 6:30 a.m., women begin to arrive at the exposed concrete triangle that marks the corner of the two roads, huddled against the winter wind in layers of faded sweatshirts and oversized coats.

Some women spend the day perched on perched on the concrete wall, leaning against the chain-link fence that wraps around the corner. They whisper to each other – mainly in Spanish, though there are a few Polish voices, too – about the commuters who hurry past on their way to the nearby subway. Others pass the time by pacing the littered ground, using old phones to make phone calls to their families back in Mexico.

The listless atmosphere disappears whenever someone approaches the corner – nearly always a Hasidic Jewish woman from the neighborhood out with a stroller or shopping bags. Then the women begin to stand-up, straighten out their clothes and start their individual campaigns to win the business of the potential client.

If a woman succeeds and is lucky enough to be picked that day, then she will be taken to work as a housekeeper or cleaner for a couple of hours, receiving anything from $20 to $50 for her efforts. Otherwise, as is more often the case, she goes home empty handed.

It was this uncertainty and sense of helplessness that sisters Yesenia and Teresa Bucio wanted to help women escape from when they came up with the idea for Apple Eco-Cleaning in 2009.

“We wanted to empower women and help them make their own money,” said Yesenia Bucio. 35, speaking in Spanish through Sanchez. “They were the most important things.”

Now, two years after the cooperative served its first customer, Apple Eco-Cleaning has become the only group in the city that works specifically for the benefit of female day laborers, according to its founders, a group who make up just 5 percent of the city’s day laborer population.

It has given 10 women like Aguilar the chance to have a life away free from the uncertainty that comes from spending a day after waiting on the street corner, and provides skills training and language classes to scores of others.

But the most important thing that the Bucios have achieved is to give women new hope for the future, said Sanchez, who is also a member of the Workers’ Justice Project, a non-profit organization that works with immigrant labor groups in the city.

When the Bucios first met with a member of the Worker’s Justice Project to discuss setting up the cooperative, the two women had worked for more than a year on the Williamsburg corner, after they lost their jobs as factory workers when the economic crisis hit.

The sisters tried to find work through an employment agency before a brief stint preparing food for one of the city’s food carts, both desperate to find a way to support their young children.

“Then I heard from my husband’s friend’s wife that there was this corner that you could go to get your own work,” said Yesenia Bucio. “She said to me that I could go there whenever I didn’t have a job, that I could employ myself.”

Work as temporary laborers may provide women with a job that pays more than double the New York State minimum wage – laborers can expect to receive an average hourly rate of $9.37 during peak seasons, about $4.22 more than the state minimum, according to the 2003 New York Day Labor Survey – and does so without requiring any kind of visa. But a lack of formalized contract also means that laborers are often not paid as much as originally agreed, or fail to be paid entirely.

The cooperative offers protection against this unfair payment by asking both customer and member to sign a contract that formally agrees on the payment amount and payment due date before the service is delivered.

In keeping with its cooperative structure – each member of Apple Eco-Cleaning holds an equal share in the business – the group also works to distribute the work evenly among the women. This was achieved by creating a list that each worker rotates through, moving from NO. 1 (priority to the day’s clients) to NO. 5.

Though Sanchez would not disclose specifics on how much the group charged for each clean, Teresa Bucio did reveal that in the last 14 days she had made roughly $1,000 – nearly 150 percent more than she made over the same time period during a peak season on the corner.

This jump in earnings allows the women to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

“This Christmas I have money to spend on my kids, to buy them presents,” said Yesenia Bucio, whose children are 16, 13 and 10-years-old. “But the best part is that I don’t have to ask my husband for any money. The best part is independence.”

The informal nature of day laborer agreements also opens up many workers to other forms of abuse and maltreatment from employers. Aguilar remembers one Hasidic Jewish woman she cleaned for who would not give her a glass of water or allow her to use the toilet during her three or four hour work stint.

This is not uncommon – more than two-thirds of laborers in the city have experienced similar treatment, according to the survey.

“We had to stand outside, no matter what the weather – in the cold, in the rain,” said Bucio, folding her arms across herself as if feeling a forgotten winter’s chill. “One day I remember I actually thought my toes were frozen off.”

But more frightening was the harassment they experienced from men who passed them on the street, she said.

“It’s because, well, women on the corner, you know? They see us and they think we are doing something else,” said Bucio.

By moving Apple Eco-Cleaning’s customer contact and management system online, the co-op members can go directly from their homes to the customer’s address – and avoid the corner altogether.

Now the group is focusing on expanding – both their client base and their membership said Sanchez, who is responsible for organizing the cooperative’s training programs.

The more women who are involved, the more day laborers there are working free from exploitation, she said. It also means that more people are publicizing the cooperative’s work to potential clients.

“And the more clients we have, the more women that we can add to the roster,” she explained.

The biggest challenge has been overcoming the women’s own misconception of what they can achieve, said Sanchez, who works with the day laborer community daily. They need to be encouraged to invest the time in effort needed to complete the free training program like the one Aguilar took – a prerequisite to joining.

“Some of the women don’t believe in themselves,” she said.

“They come from working on the corner every day, and from homes where they don’t have much hope,” said Sanchez. “For [the women] it’s easier to just go back to the corner, not trust in themselves, to keep doing what they are doing because they are scared to believe. That is what Yesenia and Teresa want to change. That is what we try do, to teach them to believe.”


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