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Immigration, Race, and Labor in American History


Immigrant workers play a crucial role in the development of the United States’ economy. Historically, slaves were brought into this country to work on farms, which contributed largely to economic development at the time. After the abolishment of the slave trade, domestic work became the largest single employment avenue for immigrant women. In 1863, house slaves, who were mostly women, automatically became domestic workers. By 1870 during a national census, the results showed that around 52% of all working women, whether immigrants, freed slaves, or natives, were working as domestic workers (Moss 95).

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In the chef-d’oeuvre book, Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, the author, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, insists that the trend has not changed. The majority of immigrant women in the contemporary United States work as domestic workers. Even though Hondagneu-Sotelo’s book dwells on Latino immigrants working as domestic workers in Los Angeles, the trend can be extrapolated to represent the entire country. This paper seeks to use the aforementioned book to place the lives of domestic workers into historical perspective. In addition, the paper establishes similarities between the experiences of these female workers and other immigrant group’s experiences.

Historical perspective

In the book Domestica, Hondagneu-Sotelo highlights that most Latino women working as domestic workers earn meager wages, which do not match the work done. Hondagneu-Sotelo notes, “The Los Angeles economy, landscape, and lifestyle have been transformed in ways that rely on low-wage Latino immigrant labor” (3). This observation implies that Latino immigrants working in Los Angeles get minimal pay. This trend has been occasioned by the increasing inflow of immigrants into the region searching for jobs. Hondagneu-Sotelo confirms, “The increasing number of Latina immigrants searching for work in California, particularly in Los Angeles, has pushed down wages and made modestly priced domestic services more widely available” (8). However, the issue of low wages for domestic workers in the United States goes back to history.

On 18 June 1866, domestic workers held the inaugural demonstration on the streets of Jackson in Mississippi protesting against low pay. The group wanted better pay, but their pleas had been ignored for long. On 31 July 1877, domestic workers in Galveston, Texas, also took to the streets demanding better pay from their employers. In 1901, the Working Women’s Association was formed with the objective of pushing for higher wages. Therefore, the issue of low wages amongst immigrant domestic workers has been in existence since the abolition of slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation.

In addition, immigrant domestic workers in Domestica complain of long working hours without specified working structures. Hondagneu-Sotelo posits, “They work long hours – on average, more than sixty hours a week” (196). This problem was common amongst domestic workers before the Second World War. Historically, domestic working terms and conditions have been defined with arbitrariness and Hondagneu-Sotelo raises the same issue in the book Domestica. Most “employers do not set up clear job descriptions, boundaries, or protocols…they are unwilling to assume the responsibilities that a true employer/employee relationship entails, including, of course, the willingness to follow existing employment law” (Moss 94). Therefore, the domestic workers’ experiences highlighted in Hondagneu-Sotelo’s book have been in existence since the history of immigrant domestic workers in the United States.

Comparison with another immigrant group

The plight of immigrant domestic workers also befalls immigrant farmworkers in the United States. An estimated “70% of migrant farmworkers (or 24% of all farmworkers) are undocumented, and the majority live below the poverty line” (Koreishi and Donohoe 65). These individuals live below the poverty line due to low wages that they earn from long working hours. Just like immigrant domestic workers, immigrant farmworkers were incorporated into the American workforce immediately after the abolishment of slavery. However, due to the low wages coupled with poor working conditions, immigrant farmworkers organized strikes as a way of airing their grievances. In 1960, farmworkers, under the leadership of Caesar Chavez, demonstrated along the streets of California in push for better wages.

In addition, immigrant farmworkers across the United States work under undefined terms and conditions. The majorities of immigrant farmworkers are undocumented, and thus live illegally in the United States, hence employers take this advantage to engage in unlawful employment practices. For instance, the immigrant farmworkers work for long hours without the overtime benefits as stipulated in the employment law. Therefore, just like their immigrant domestic counterparts, they have to live under modern-day servitude, which borders on illegality.

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The history of the problems facing immigrant domestic workers in the United States runs back to the Emancipation Proclamation. In the book, Domestica, Hondagneu-Sotelo highlights the plight of immigrant domestic workers in Los Angeles to include low-wages and unstructured working terms and conditions. Therefore, these workers end up working for long hours without the benefit of overtime pay as required by the employment law. However, as aforementioned, these problems are not new in the American society. Similarly, immigrant farmworkers face the same challenges because the majority of them are undocumented, and thus they live in the country illegally. Therefore, farm owners take advantage of this situation to flout the employment law, which defines employee-employer relationship.

Works Cited

Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. Print.

Koreishi, Safina, and martin Donohoe. “Historical and contemporary factors contributing to the plight of migrant farmworkers in the United States.” Social Medicine 5.1 (2010): 64-72. Print.

Moss, Helen. “Domestica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.” Labor Studies Journal 28.2 (2003): 94-95. Print.

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