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Women, Immigrants, & Workfare Workers: Finding Common Ground

Grace Chang
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    When immigrant women workers from three organizations joined to form the Coalition for Domestic Workers’ Rights, nothing short of global capitalist forces were at play to them to a common point of struggle for their rights. While at first glance, it might not be obvious where these three organizations agendas could converge, even though the communities they comprise and serve do overlap. Yet the impacts of globalization link the struggles of the women from POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), a workfare workers’ union, the San Francisco Day Labor Program’s Women’s Collective, a women day laborer’s association, and Mujeres Unidas y Activas, a Latina immigrant women workers’ association, in unmistakable ways.

The spread of global capitalism impacts poor women of color the hardest, whether in the Third World nations many women are forced to leave or the First World nations where many have always lived in poverty or where they are compelled to migrate once the means of survival in their home countries are destroyed. Global economic forces such as “development,” free trade, structural adjustment and other neoliberal policies can be seen quite literally as assaults on the survival of people of color and especially women of color in the Third World and the “Third World within” the United States. Under globalization, the destruction wrought by neoliberal policies in both First and Third world nations cause women to lose ground in status, freedom, safety, education and to have diminished access to basic needs of food, water, housing and health care.

Anti-immigrant and anti-poor sentiment in the United States continue to be connected and fuelled by a profound ignorance of the workings of the global economy, particularly neoliberal policies such as structural adjustment policies (SAPs) abroad and welfare and immigration “reform” in the US. Structural adjustment policies imposed on indebted nations of the Third World and welfare policies in First World nations such as the US act in tandem to guarantee a cheap labor force, readily available to serve the elite who actually benefit from globalization. SAPs function first to compel out-migration from the Third World and US welfare and immigration policy function to channel women migrant workers into contingent labor of all forms once they are here. Structural adjustment policies are pre-conditions set by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for loans to indebted countries, including provisions that indebted governments cooperate in cutting spending on social programs, slashing wages and eliminating labor controls, devaluing local currency, privatizing state enterprises, opening up markets to foreign investment, liberalizing imports and expanding exports.

Consistently, poor women of color from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Asia report
the devastating effects of these policies: increasing poverty and rapidly deteriorating nutrition, health and labor conditions. When wages and food subsidies are cut, women & children’s nutrition suffers first. As public health care and education vanishes, women suffer from lack of prenatal care and girls are the first to be kept from school to help at home or go to work. When export-oriented agribusiness moves in, peasant families are evicted from their lands for corporate farms, and women become seasonal farmworkers instead of land-owning farmers. Lands once used to raise staples like rice are used instead for raising shrimp, oranges, orchids—all for export, not for local consumption--or for golf courses and luxury hotels for tourists. In short, SAPs lead to a destruction of both subsistence economies and social service systems in Third World nations so that women have few viable options to sustain their families but to leave them behind and migrate in search of work. Usually, women go from villages to cities within their home countries first, and then migrate to the First World for a job in service work, manufacturing and sex work.

Simultaneously, a huge demand for service workers and care workers of all kinds continues to grow in the First World “host countries” as they undergo their own versions of structural adjustment. For example, in the US, welfare “reform” (structural adjustment American style), including disappearing healthcare and the continued lack of subsidized child care, contribute to an expanded demand for workers to do child care, elder care, and housekeeping. Welfare deform in the United States guarantees that this demand is met by “eager” immigrant women workers with few or no other viable choices, or other poor women, literally coerced into this labor, called “workfare,” as a requirement for their welfare grants.

Thus, poor immigrant women workers and workfare workers share many struggles under global capitalism, starting with the jobs they are typically relegated to in the service industry. These women perform much the same work under strikingly similar conditions: invisible, unsafe, unsanitary, hazardous, service work for low or no wages. But the way that their labor is seen—or, rather, unseen and unrecognized—binds them even more closely.

Work performed by poor immigrant women and workfare workers is neither viewed nor structured as contract labor, or even as a service they provide for which they should be compensated. Instead, their labor is constructed as charity, opportunity, privilege, community service, repayment of a debt to society, and/or as punishment for a crime. In the case of workfare workers, their "crimes" are being poor, homeless or "unemployed." In the case of immigrants, they are criminalized for entering the country (presumed "illegally," of course) and for consuming resources to which they are thought to have no rights. In both cases, employers invoke these constructions of immigrant and workfare workers as undeserving, non-citizen, punishable, criminals indebted to society in order to coerce these workers into exploitative work, to try to justify this exploitation and to counter organizing among these workers. In all cases, the prevailing public opinion is that these workers should feel lucky to have the “opportunity,” and they are certainly better off with it than without it.

By refusing to recognize the services performed by these laborers as work, by defining it instead as opportunity, privilege, charity, repayment and even punishment, employers deny these workers the prevailing wages, protections and rights afforded regular, "citizen" workers. Both groups of workers are criminalized and pathologized as lazy, needing instruction in the work ethic and guidance to function in mainstream American life. Employers—private household employers, corporations, state or local governments—rely on both legal and social definitions of this work as “not employment” to satisfy themselves as well as to evade federal labor regulations.

We can see how the parallels between these two groups’ plights are both ideological and practical. In fact, the Coalition for Domestic Workers’ Rights may successfully counter these links that employers and the government would all too readily exploit: pitting these workers against each other. If what links these women is their situation as some of the greatest targets and survivors of globalization, then this bond has served them well in bringing them together as some of the strongest leaders of anti-globalization movements on the ground. They have joined forces to wage and win their struggles for labor, welfare, immigrant, women’s and human rights together.
Some portions of this article reprinted from Grace Chang, “Immigrants and Workfare Workers,” Employable but Not Employed,” in Disposable Domestics (Boston: South End Press, 2000), pp.


Grace Chang is a writer, activist and professor of Women's Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. She is working on a book about state violence against women, including critiques of the immigration, welfare and family law states.