Latina/o studies scholars have looked to “labor” as a central theme for theorizing class inequality, spurring questions about exploitation, alienation, and potential for solidarity (Smith 2013). Operationalizing labor, however, is a complicated matter. Official estimates of the labor force include those who are either “available to work,” looking for paid labor, employed, or waiting to be called back to their job (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2014). As such, Latina/o workers (referred to as “Hispanic” by the U.S. government), constitute over 15 percent of  the labor force in the United States, and nearly half of the immigrant workforce (U.S. Department of Labor 2012). They are over-represented in traditionally low-wage occupations such as food preparation, building maintenance, farming, and construction. In 2011, Latina/o immigrant workers earned only 77 percent of what their  native-born  counterparts  earned  (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012). These inequities are in part explained by lower levels of human capital, including low levels of English proficiency and educational attainment, in particular for those of Mexican origin (Duncan, Hotz, and Trejo 2006). Institutional barriers have further multiplied the disadvantage that Mexican Americans face, creating what Edward Telles and Vilma Ortiz (2008) refer to as “generations  of exclusion.” This disadvantage contrasts starkly with the positive selection of much smaller groups of other professional Latinas/os, such as Colombian and Puerto Rican engineers, who nonetheless have    contradictory experiences as “privileged marginal migrants” (Rincón 2015, 213).

The predominant conditions of low-wage work for Latinas/os in the United States reveal striking disadvantages. For example, a national study of low-wage workers in the nation’s three largest cities found that foreign-born Latinas/os had the highest rate of minimum-wage violations (35 percent), six times that of U.S.-born whites. Latina workers fared worse than their male counterparts (40 versus 24 percent) (Bernhardt et al. 2009). Research on Mexican and Central American immigrants confirm that undocumented workers face more hazardous workplace conditions and are less likely to be compensated for their risk exposure (Orrenius and Zavodny 2009; Hall and Greenman 2014). Foreign-born Latinas/os also represent a disproportionate share of fatal occupational injuries (Loh and Richardson 2004). Sexual harassment and assault on the job have been a major problem for Latinas, compounding what is already a violent journey for those who clandestinely migrated (Southern Poverty Law Center 2009). Indigenous migrants have become an increasingly significant component of migrant labor flows across the southern U.S. border. These workers face particular linguistic challenges and are targets for racial exclusion from both within and beyond the Latina/o community (Holmes 2013).

The range of industries in  which Latina/o  workers are concentrated often fall outside the law. For example, Latinas/os are over-represented in day labor and other sectors of the informal economy. Abel Valenzuela and colleagues’ (2006) survey found that nationwide, 87 percent of day laborers hailed from Mexico and Central America. These workers face an epidemic of being mis-classified as independent contractors, who by definition do not qualify for employee protections under key federal and state law (NELP 2009; Mukhija and Loukaitou-Sideris  2014).  Nearly  half  of  domestic  workers are women of color, and over half of housecleaners are Latinas (Burnham and Theodore 2012). In most states, these domestic workers lack the same enforceable protections as other workers do for wage and hour standards, workers’ compensation in the event of injury, and against employer retaliation. In the fields, where Latina/o workers also predominate, most states also exclude farm-workers from the same provisions for overtime and collective bargaining (Perea 2011). In sum, Latina/o labor provides a direct lens for understanding the two-tiered system of labor protection and rights access.

These inequities have been a flashpoint when considering undocumented immigrants in the United States, the largest portions of whom hail from Latin America, including Mexico (59 percent), Central America (11 percent), and South America (7 percent) (Passel and  Cohn  2009).  While  undocumented  legal  status is not the only factor driving workplace exploitation (Narro 2013), it does act as a “precarity multiplier” (Gleeson 2014). In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act provided amnesty for nearly three million individuals, while also instituting a policy of employer sanctions. While initially supportive of the policy, the AFL-CIO ultimately rejected employer sanctions, in part given employer’s frequent use of them as a tool to retaliate against employees (Hamlin 2008). Although undocumented workers qualify for a range of protections, they also “face numerous practical impediments to accessing these rights” (Gordon 2014, 137). Some workers who can show that they are victims of crime may qualify for a U or  T  visa, which were  created by the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) in 2000. However, unequivocally proving eligibility and gaining certification from a law enforcement agency can be extremely difficult (Lakhani 2013). Temporary Protected Status has provided short-term deportation relief and work authorization to    340,000 individuals, including significant numbers of Salvadorans (212,000), Hondurans (64,000) and Nicaraguans (3,000) (Messick and Bergeron 2014). This eighteen-month-long status, however is not a panacea, and also generates a context of legal violence that can negatively affect the labor market outcomes of these workers and the well-being of their families and broader communities (Menjívar and Abrego 2012).

The challenges facing Latina/o workers have  been at the center of the evolving U.S. labor movement. Latina/o immigrant workers (alongside their Filipina/o brothers and sisters) formed the basis of the iconic United Farmworkers movement, and Cesar Chavez has been the enduring (in some ways reimagined) face of immigrant worker rights for years. However, the U.S. labor movement delayed formally accepting the full rights and inclusion of immigrant workers, including Latinas/ os. Aside from their place in farmworker struggles, Latinas/os came to be recognized as core elements of the service industry (such as the Service Employees International Union [SEIU]’s Justice for Janitors campaign) and the building trades (as in the National Day Labor Organizing Network) (Milkman 2006). Latina/o  leaders such as Enrique Fernandez (UNITE-HERE!), Eliseo Medina (SEIU), Ana Avendaño (AFL-CIO), and many others have ascended in the labor movement flanks. The swelling strength of the Latina/o labor movement both within traditional labor unions and through newly formed worker centers and coalitions (including the new Change to Win federation), as well as other migrant-led organizations (Fine 2006; Pallares and Flores-González 2010; Voss and Bloemraad 2011), was a key factor in driving the iconic protests that erupted in 2006 in response to the proposed Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437), which would have further criminalized undocumented migrants.

The labor struggles of Latina/o workers have also been an important aspect of the broader immigrant rights movement, as well as being at the heart of calls for deportation relief and a path to citizenship. Popular rationales of immigrant rights often point to the labor value of migrants and the costly nature of enforcement (Bosniak 2002; Baker-Cristales 2009; Gleeson 2015). Common slogans such as “they come here to work” and “we are workers,  not  criminals” focus  on  immigrants as economic producers, rather than felons, purported terrorists, and the unemployed. The DREAM Act, first introduced in 2001, failed to garner significant congressional support. Had it passed, the act would have provided a path to citizenship for high school graduates seeking higher education. In the wake of failed attempts at broader comprehensive immigration reform, President Obama issued an executive action, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals  (DACA),  which  called for the  inclusion  of  undocumented  immigrant  youth in large part due to the economic boon these educated workers would provide the ailing economy (American Immigration Council 2013; National Immigration Law Center 2014). The subsequent Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) would have provided eligible formerly undocumented immigrants with work authorization and was billed as an “economic development” strategy for the nation (Oakford 2014). DAPA, though limited in its reach, was blocked by the courts along with an expanded version of DACA. These policies, however, would have left out millions of ineligible undocumented workers. Economic rationales for reform are politically salient and critically necessary to achieve legislative success. They also resonate strongly with the U.S. tradition of neoliberal citizenship, which is tightly tied to the market, and thus valorize the “self-reliant, independent homo economicus underlying the ideal model of the worthy citizen” (Volpp 2014, 82).

Intersectional scholars have for decades inserted critical questions into our understanding of labor and power, especially as they relate to women, racial and sexual minorities, and immigrants (Zavella 1987; Glenn 1992; Manalansan 2006). For example, the official focus on “workers, not criminals,” as many campaigns emphasize, obscures the ways in which the penal system exacerbates wage and employment inequality, especially for African American and Latino men of color (Western and Pettit 2005). Welfare reform policies of the mid-1990s tied work to social provisions and removed many legal permanent residents (many of whom were Latina women) from eligibility. In conjunction  with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (both of 1996), the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Acts (PRWORA) (also of 1996) brought together the ideals of punitive immigration and welfare reform. PRWORA solidified the supremacy of paid wage work over other forms of labor in the private sphere and excised noncitizen immigrant women entirely from the social safety net. Critics argue that by pushing women with little support for childcare or with little training into “workfare” in order to qualify for public assistance, Latinas/os were blocked from pathways for social mobility (Marchevsky and Theoharis 2006). In parallel fashion, the sweeping changes in immigration policy at this time paved the way for local interior enforcement programs such as 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (which created voluntary agreements with local jurisdictions) and later the Secure Communities program, which made this cooperation more compulsory. Both policies, which have seen a revival under the Trump presidency despite previous legal challenges, are not officially focused on workplace policy. However, their impact has immersed the day to day lives of Latina/o immigrant workers in racialized surveillance and fear that a mundane traffic infraction en route to work would result in certain deportation (Lacayo 2010). These policies, alongside mass media constructions of Latinas/os as a demographic, political, and economic threat, further marginalizes Latinas/os in the United States (Santa Ana 2002; Chavez 2008).

Amidst these contested struggles for recognition, no perspective on Latina/o labor is complete without a global and transnational lens to understand the causes and consequences of migrant labor. For example, Saskia Sassen (1988) points to the importance of export of global labor capital from the United States to Latin America and its impact on subsequent migration flows. This “foreign direct investment” came with a cost. For example, the proliferation of maquiladoras at Mexico’s northern border largely employed young females, many of whom would become victims of feminicidio (Fregoso and Bejarano 2009). Meanwhile, the wages of Latina/o labor in the United States frequently support extended households here and in sending communities of origin. The United States is the primary sender of remittances, with $22 billion sent to Mexico in 2012, and another $5.4 billion to Guatemala, $4.6 billion to Colombia, and $4.2 billion to El Salvador (Cohn, Gonzalez-Barrera, and Cuddington 2013; Migration Policy Institute 2014).

Globalization has shaped labor-organizing efforts across Latin America. For example, in Central America, transnational activist campaigns led largely by student groups became critical to the anti-sweatshop movement (Anner 2011). Transnational resistance was also crucial to opposing U.S. foreign policy during the civil war in El Salvador, and migrant workers continue to play a major role in the current political scene, often mixing their civic engagement here and afar (COHA 2014). Today, transnational advocacy for the rights of Latina/o workers in the United States has implicated a range of institutional targets, including efforts to hold the sending state accountable for the rights of their co-nationals working abroad. The Mexican government’s move into a realm of “active engagement” (Délano 2011) was prompted in large part by the work of grassroots migrant-led organizations and unions with a strong immigrant worker presence, such as the United Food and Commercial Workers. They have demanded protection for Mexican immigrant workers in the United States, as well as increased accountability on the part of the Mexican government for non-migrant workers working for multinational corporations such as Wal-Mart (Bada and Gleeson 2015).

In sum, as the field of Latina/o studies considers the role of “labor,” it will need to grapple with questions of whose labor counts, what it is worth, and the relationship of work to political and social membership. Non-economic forms of labor, including reproductive and emotional labor, should be valued, just as its commodification should be critiqued. As the Latina/o diaspora grows, it will also become imperative to consider labor across the borders of identity, the law, and the nation. Traditional forms of labor relations, and labor representation, will continue to be provide inadequate paradigms for understanding the reality of Latina/o work in the twenty-first century.

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