Migrant workers have long played a crucial role in the economy of the United States, there has always been a rather heavy flow of both legal and illegal immigrants to the United States. There is a large variety of different jobs available for both legal and illegal immigrants in the United States, many women find work with more affluent families and are employed as nannies or maids. Some women find work in factories, often turning out clothes or toys, which is often labor-intensive low-wage work and especially for those migrant workers that may not be in the country legally.
Perhaps the most important role that these women play in the U. S. ’s economy involves our extensive agriculture sector. Prior to slave labor restrictions agriculture in the U. S. was largely dependent on slave labor, which was essentially free as one might expect. The first English colonies imported slave labor as early as 1619 and Spanish colonies had practiced intensive slave labor since the 1560s. Slave labor became increasingly important in producing high-value cash crops such as tobacco, sugar, coffee and cotton.
Although slave labor was most important in Southern plantation style agriculture, it also played an integral role in agriculture in the North which is contrary to the popular belief of Northern states being intolerant towards slavery. After slavery was abolished in the 1860s and the slaves were emancipated, it was clear that those involved in agriculture would have to find another source of cheap labor to pick up the slack (Valdez 1). Luckily for North American farmers there were many sources of cheap labor at this time and many people willing to immigrate to find work.
Shortly after the abolishment of slavery there was a very large influx of Chinese immigrants, a vast majority of these immigrants were put to work in agriculture as well as being integral to building the nations railroads. The flow of Chinese immigrants was curtailed by the U. S. government when they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, generally believed to be a reaction to the decline of the gold rush with legislators using the Chinese as a scapegoat. Partially due to the loss of Chinese immigrant labor, many workers began migrating to the U. S. from Mexico and the Philippines.
It is important to note that there were plenty of European immigrants that also found employment doing menial agricultural work, however their experiences were generally different than the experiences faced by Mexican workers. For instance, workers from England shared a common language and religion with their employers so it became easier to assimilate into society. Although there was some discrimination towards German and Irish immigrants due to the fact that these were generally Catholic countries, these differences were usually reconciled and didn’t take as much of a toll on those immigrants.
However, employers soon found out that their Mexican laborers generally did not go on strike or demand higher wages even when their working conditions were quite poor, this led to increased discrimination and abuse towards Mexican migrants (Valdez 1). The use of Mexican migrant labor declined during the Great Depression, as many of the agricultural jobs filled by Mexicans were now highly sought after by internal migrant workers that hailed from Dust Bowl states and were generally desperate to find work. After World War Two, the U. S. economy was once again healthy and began to thrive as it had before the Great Depression.
During the thirty or so years following World War Two a new trend began developing. This trend involved a large number of laborers traveling from the southern United States and Latin America (most notably Mexico) to perform seasonal agriculture work in the more northern states. Indeed, there were plenty of U. S. citizens that performed migrant labor at this time, often being placed in jobs by the Farm Labor Agency, though most employers began to see the benefits of informally employed migrant workers. Although many of these foreign workers were hired through government programs, their contracts were pre-determined by prospective employers.
Essentially, this meant that employers had complete control over their workers and if any of them complained about poor working conditions or demanded higher wages they could immediately be deported at their employers whim. Working conditions certainly were poor during this time, many trends that are still perpetuated today began during this period. For instance, most migrant workers depended solely on their crew leader for goods and food which were often sold at exorbitant prices that created “company” debt for the workers.
Aside from the grueling labor, most migrant workers lived in very poor conditions as well with far too many people often crammed into small, dilapidated shacks. Another trend that developed during this period is the increasing use of illegal migrant labor. Beginning during World War II Mexican citizens could legally travel to and work in the U. S. under the Bracero Program, justified due to the fact that crops couldn’t go un-harvested during war time. Essentially a guest worker program, the Bracero Program was active from 1942 to 1964 and during this time it sponsored approximately 4. million border crossings by Mexican migrant workers.
This program enforced certain requirements on employers that mandated that an acceptable level of wages, housing, food and medical care be provided to their workers and as a result many migrant workers enjoyed higher standards of living than they had back home. As a result employers began seeking out illegal migrant workers that were not involved in the program, as they could pay them much lower wages while not providing any of the afore mentioned services. Pressure from employers as well as domestic agriculture labor unions (who viewed the Bracero program as an impediment to U. S. born workers) eventually led to the demise of the Bracero program in 1964. As there was still a huge demand for cheap, agriculture labor and no longer a legal labor pool it is easy to see why there was such a flood of illegal migrant workers from Mexico (Valdez 2).
Today, migrant workers are still every bit as important as they were in the past and a large majority of them continue to hail from Mexico. Federal law defines migrant workers as anyone that travels more than 75 miles in search of employment, and by this definition at the turn of the 21st Century there were an estimated 2. million people working as agricultural laborers with a scant 12 % of these workers establishing temporary residences while working and roughly half still considering Mexico to be home. Between 1990 and 2001 the total of Mexican born migrant workers working in agriculture rose from about 30% of the work force to nearly 50%.
Although these workers still constitute a small portion of all the U. S. ’s wage and salaried workers they play a critical role in the more labor intensive aspects involved in the production of all fresh, canned, frozen and processed foods consumed in the U. S. More than 85% of all fruit and vegetable crops in the U. S. require hand planting, hand cultivation and hand harvesting which is extremely labor intensive. Despite their importance in this industry, around the turn of the 21st Century Mexican migrant workers earned an average yearly income that was only about 40% of the official poverty rate (CIA 1). Although the large majority of migrant agriculture workers are male, there is still a very large number of female migrant workers seeking employment within the U. S. To understand the plight of these women we first must understand exactly why they choose to travel to the U. S. in search of work.
One of the key push factors for these women is the poor economic conditions that Mexico has historically faced. Mexico went through a very harmful debt crisis in the 1980s that has played a large role in the countries current economic woes. Currently, Mexico’s GDP growth rate is a dismal -6. 5% which places it 200th compared to the rest of the world. Mexico also has an unemployment rate of 5. 5% with an underemployment rate of nearly 25%. Using a food based definition of poverty about 18% of Mexico lives in poverty, however when using an asset based definition for poverty a whopping 47% of Mexicans live in poverty (CIA 1).
Due to this impoverished conditions many Mexican women have trouble finding work, and although the literacy rates for males and females are roughly equal in Mexico, and males are generally chosen over women for the jobs that do exist. It is easy to see why so many Mexican women are eager to travel to the U. S. in hopes of finding better jobs and higher wages. Along with money woes, this extensive level of poverty also takes its toll on relationships. When times get tough, there is often more strain at home and husbands and wives are more likely to not get along.
Although this is certainly not a problem that is unique to Mexico, there is one key cultural component: Machismo. There is no single, set definition of Machismo, but it is generally viewed as what traditional Mexican culture believes to be acceptable masculinity. Certainly, not every Mexican male fits this Machismo stereotype and there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the ideals that men should aspire to be strong and tough. However, there are many critics of the Machismo culture and believe that it is very counter-productive and harmful towards women.
For instance, it is believed that the Macho man should be able to provide for his wife and family and when poor economic conditions are an obstacle to this the man may often feel inadequate and embarrassed (Soong 1). This wouldn’t be as big of an issue if one of the key pillars of the Machismo man involved violence. Shockingly, one-third of native Mexican women interviewed stated that a husband had the right to hit his wife if she hadn’t fulfilled her obligations and 42% of those interviewed admitted that they had even been beaten as young girls.
It appears that the ability for men to assert their dominance over women through violence is an accepted part of Mexican culture and most men are never punished for committing what amounts to very criminal acts. It is believed that between 1999 and 2005 an estimated 6,000 women were murdered in Mexico, with most of these deaths being caused by domestic violence at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. Of course, we realize that not all or even most Mexican men behave this way however it is certainly a large enough cultural problem to cause a lot of strain on Mexican women.
Many women, already overwhelmed by economic worries, leave Mexico simply to get themselves, and often their children, away from abusive relationships (Soong 2). As we have now outlined two key push factors, both economic and social, it is also important to recognize the pull factors: the reasons behind why women choose to migrate to the U. S. The U. S. is very appealing to Mexican women, as they believe that they will be offered better jobs and better wages upon arriving. Unsurprisingly, American companies are also integral in luring these Mexican women to the U. S. s they have began to rely on the cheap, docile labor that these women provide. In fact, many U. S. companies have been known to use Mexican immigrants as an example for how the American Dream can be accomplished. Many American businesses are now creating marketing campaigns that explicitly target Mexican immigrants, knowing full well that they will attract just as many illegal immigrants in the process.
Even though these businesses are only seeking to exploit them, many Mexicans and especially Mexican women are interpreting these ads as a sign that they will be more readily accepted in American society and this makes migrating to the U. S. even more appealing (Wyans 4). Many Mexican women also believe that the U. S. is some sort of egalitarian utopia, even though that is far from true. With the American societies push to be “politically correct” and aim for a level playing field, many Mexican women feel that the gender inequalities they experienced in Mexico will not exist in the U. S. This idea of an egalitarian U. S. most certainly stems from the very biased media that America exports to around the world, which undoubtedly paints America in a very positive light.
Even though the Mexican woman migrating to the U. S. ay secure a more lucrative job and better living conditions, she will most likely face most of the same social ills she had experienced in Mexico (Wyans 5). When taking these push/pull factors in to account it is no shock that so many Mexican women are migrating to the U. S. Most casual observers assume that these Mexican women are only migrating because they are passively accompanying their husbands but this is certainly not the case, especially in recent years. In fact, more than half of the migrant workers from all Latin American countries traveling to the U. S. are women traveling by the own volition.
Migrant workers as a whole are confided to the lower skill sector of the labor market, and the women among these migrant workers usually only find work in the lowest manual positions such as childcare, industrial cleaning, food processing and sewing. Not only are female migrant workers given the worst of already poor jobs, they are almost always paid less than their male migrant counterparts. Employers have also caught on to one key trait among female migrant workers, many of them are unwilling to demand higher wages or complain about working conditions simply because they are responsible for their children at home.
This leads many employers to subject women to longer hours, lower pay and worse working conditions than they would expect a male worker to put up with (Cultural Survival 1). As I had previously stated, migrant workers play a key role in harvesting and processing our nations food. A very intriguing example of the role that female Mexican migrant workers play in this sector of our economy involves Maryland’s crab industry. Each year, hundreds of Mexican women travel to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to work for Maryland crab companies. These women generally enter the U. S. legally, by obtaining a temporary work visa known as an H-2B Visa.
Although the H-2B program was originally intended to the employer to temporarily supplement his current domestic work force with migrant workers, most of Maryland’s crab companies have begun to rely solely on H-2B workers. The H-2B program is quite similar to the government programs I mentioned earlier. The key similarity and cause for concern is the fact that an H-2B guest worker is essentially bound by regulations to a single employer, so any demand for higher wages or better working conditions can still be met with the threat of deportation (Paral 8).
In order to obtain an H-2B visa most women meet with local recruiters in Mexico. These women are already being exploited before they leave their home town, as these H-2B recruiters illegally force them to pay large fees in order to obtain their H-2B permits. Many of the women that can’t afford these fabricated fees wind up working out loans with their H-2B recruiter, which generally have exorbitant interest rates that put the women further in debt. Legally, these recruiters are not allowed to charge any fees but it is impossible to enforce U. S. relations south of the border.
Employers are often able to send certain messages via recruiters that violate U. S. Civil Rights laws, they are able to suggest that recruiters discriminate when choosing employees and are able to plead ignorance if ever reprimanded for their recruiters behavior. After receiving their H-2B visas, the women cross the border and board a bus that will take them to Maryland. They are not informed how long the trip will take, and although they are told to bring American dollars to buy food, many women either cannot afford to eat or are too intimidated by the language barrier to shop for food and as a result go the entire 2-3 day bus trip without eating (Kloer 1).
When these women finally make it to Maryland they typically rent houses that are owned by their employers and located on islands in Chesapeake Bay. Crab companies are not legally required to provide housing for the crab pickers, but most own and operate rental houses in order to ensure that their workers remain close to the crab picking houses. The houses not located on islands may just as well be, because during high tide the bridges and roads connecting them with the mainland become impassable. These houses are usually in very poor condition and the women often complain about such problems as non-working stoves, leaks, and poor plumbing.
These poorly maintained houses have also been known to house up to 30 women at one time, some women interviewed reported sharing a bedroom with up to 7 other women. Most women must either share beds with other women or sleep on the floor and generally have little to no privacy while staying in rental housing. To top it off, very few companies give keys to their tenants which means they cannot even lock their houses to protect their possessions while working in the crab picking houses (AUWCL 3). Many of the rental houses also have problems that are in direct violation of the counties housing code, such as broken windows and mold infestations.
Despite these infractions, no legal action has been taken by the county in order to ensure that these rental houses be in livable condition. Not only are the living conditions of these rental properties very poor, living on an island is also detrimental to the women in some very significant ways. Since these women reside on an island when not working, they become very isolated from the rest of the local community. One almost wonders if these houses weren’t strategically placed by the employers, because living in such isolation shields their plight from the locals and also forces them to rely solely on their employer (Kloer 2).
Since there is no public transportation to and from the island, and these women cannot afford to buy a boat, they must rely on their employer for transportation to the mainland. Many companies only arrange transportation for their workers weekly and on fixed days, because there is limited space on the boat only a limited number of women can go to town at once. As a result of this some women reported having to wait two or three weeks before they could get to the mainland to purchase groceries, this meant that they had to rely on fellow workers for food and other items.
Courtney from Study Moose
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