Community groups representing the interests of the approximately two million immigrant day laborers across the United States held their first national conference last July in Los Angeles, taking a significant step toward organizing a national advocacy voice for this oft-exploited class of workers.

Day laborers generally gather on public streets early in the morning to await contractors looking for cheap temporary labor. Often undocumented recent immigrants, the laborers lack leverage to demand fair compensation and have no recourse when unscrupulous contractors refuse to pay at all. The laborers are also at risk of violence in communities that view them as a nuisance. In a widely reported incident in Farmingville, N.Y., in the fall of 2000, for example, men posing as contractors picked up and then severely beat two Mexican laborers.

The groups who met in Los Angeles, from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles to Casa de Maryland, work on a local level to improve the laborers' situation. Their activities include maintaining "hiring halls" where the day laborers can gather to wait for work, lobbying for more favorable immigration policy, and providing various social services to combat their exploitation.

"We defined ... at the national level that this is a matter of slavery, modern slavery," says conference attendee Jose Landaverde, co-founder of la Union Latina de Chicago. The conference focused on developing strategies to create a national labor union to set compensation standards and provide basic employment benefits to members.