Labor, Limits, and Liberty: A Study of Day Laborers at a Grassroots Collective in Southern California
AuthorBowling, Julie Marcele
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AbstractDay laborers in the United States have increasingly become a source of labor in the informal economy due to the pressure for businesses to reduce labor costs (Gonzalez 2007; Ordóñez 2016; Valenzuela 2001). Day laborers provide necessary labor yet are exempt from typical workplace regulations, making them an ideal source for inexpensive labor (Theodore, Valenzuela Jr., and Meléndez 2009). Though day laborers are a vulnerable population, they are also united and show strength as a collective. This project is an ethnography of a grassroots organization of day laborers in Southern California that I call the Day Labor Center (DLC). I argue that migrant day laborers, despite vulnerabilities and structural inequalities, demonstrate agency and flexibility in the workplace and in their everyday lives. Through 22 months of fieldwork, including observations, interviews, and group discussions, I present the experiences of migrant day laborers to reveal the unique contradictions they face as they navigate employment alongside broader structural boundaries that add to their precarious existence. While migrant day laborers are economically marginal, they simultaneously control their own labor in ways that other workers cannot when they set their own schedules, negotiate wages, and choose their employment conditions. Furthermore, because most day laborers are undocumented, they are a marginalized workforce, yet openly visible as available workers and active participants of the community. My fieldwork reveals that migrant workers at the DLC demonstrate “local citizenship” (Villazor 2010, 574) as they have become embedded into the local community and may serve as a potential model for how local community members and policymakers can offer more inclusive spaces for migrants. This research highlights the central role of day labor centers as sources of empowerment for migrant workers as they provide services, encourage collaboration and resource-sharing, and foster community. Finally, although many migrant day laborers are isolated and far from family, labor centers can foster a sense of community and empower them to create new forms of kinship and belonging. Ultimately, this research contributes to current anthropological scholarship regarding migration and labor and informs our understanding of the varied experiences and responses to vulnerabilities that migrant workers confront.