Women Migrant Workers in the US


We usually imagine migrant workers as young men who travel abroad to find jobs in agriculture, construction or restaurants. Less attention is paid to women, who also migrate; we tend to think of them as passively accompanying their husbands. In fact, more than half of the Latin American migrants to the U.S. are women searching for jobs as domestics or in light manufacturing such as garment or microelectronic factories. As global trade systems penetrate the more "traditional" segments of the world, women are participating increasingly in economic enterprises outside their homes and families; more and more women are being forced to compete for jobs in their own countries and abroad.

Women foreign migrant workers, largely from traditional societies, are having to adapt to industrial life in foreign cultures. The stresses they experience are compounded by their dual roles as workers and as mothers.

The situation of female migrants is in many ways similar to that of their male counterparts. Most workers migrate in the hope of finding steady work at wages far above what they would receive at home. Those who travel abroad are often already victims of foreign economies even before leaving home. Policies that permit agribusiness corporations to convert land being used for domestic food production to export production have displaced peasants and forced many to migrate. Global recession and austerity policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund have caused a sharp rise in third world unemployment.

Not only must women migrants from Third World countries negotiate their way amidst racial and ethnic discrimination, they are also exploited because of their sex. As migrant workers they are confined to the low skill sector of the labor market. As females they are further restricted to the manual sector like sewing or child care.

Because of their willingness to accept wages and working conditions that native-born women will not, foreign female workers are particularly desirable in the secondary sector of the economy. Not only will women work for lower wages than men, but because of the pressure of family responsibilities, they tend to be more docile and less likely to organize. Some employers have even said that feminine social, cultural and physical attributes (like nimble fingers) make women especially suited to certain kinds of detailed routine work, such as sewing garments and assembling electronic parts. Employers justify paying women low wages claiming that women only work for "pin money" or luxury items while awaiting marriage. The rationale that women are not career-minded and are not concerned with upward mobility becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Undocumented Workers in the US

There are now an estimated 3.5 to 6 million illegal workers with their families in the United States. A fear of an ever-increasing flow has incited a push for new immigration legislation. Most migrants work extremely long hours in order to accumulate as much money as possible during their stay in the U.S. Many view their situation as temporary. Others hope to bring their families to the U.S., to eventually acquire some sort of legal status here, and establish roots as countless numbers of immigrants have done. West Indian women, for example, frequently leave young children in their home country while they accumulate enough money working as nannies in the U.S. to be rejoined by their own families.

Health Problems

There is little information about the health status and needs of female migrant workers and their families. Although female migrants tend to be young and relatively vigorous, migrants generally - and especially illegal immigrants - risk ill health more than nonmigrants of comparable age and background because of low income, poor occupational safety and health conditions, poor diet, unfamiliarity with health services, and stresses generated by living in a strange and sometimes hostile environment. The constant fear of being reported, detained, and ultimately expelled exacerbates the stress, compels migrants to tolerate overpriced, crowded, substandard housing, and makes them reluctant to complain about working conditions.

Although their health is at greater risk, migrants are not eligible for basic preventive services. For instance, pregnant women without Social Security numbers are not eligible for the WIC supplementary feeding program, even though they are likely to be among those in greatest need. Reluctance to seek preventive services that are available may partially explain the resurgence of such diseases as tuberculosis in major metropolitan areas like New York City.

The tendency to delay treatment means that when migrants do go for help, the illness is more likely to be at an advanced state. At Downstate Medical Center in New York City, a screening program for cervical cancer, aimed at foreign migrant women from Haiti, found a disturbingly high proportion of women with late states of the disease. They failed to get care when the early symptoms appeared. Serious dental problems, hearing loss, and other disorders easily prevented through adequate screening programs and care are also endemic among the children of migrant workers.

Diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic diseases disproportionately afflict migrant farm workers. Many also suffer from pesticide poisoning. Migrants to urban centers are rarely subjected to the extreme conditions found in rural areas, but their problems are dramatic nonetheless. The garment industries in New York City have attracted many Hispanic and Chinese women workers. These sweat shops are reminiscent of those in New York City at the turn of the century. The life span of these shops can be measured in months; they close before they are detected or inspected by the health and safety authorities who might fine them for being poorly lit, crowded, and badly ventilated. Most women in these factories work on a piece-rate basis, a system of payment which pressures them to produce at a rapid rate and discourages people from taking breaks. In fact women run back and forth to the bathroom so as not to lose lime. Women in these shops are commonly paid about fifteen dollars for an eight-hour day. Thus, even when the women lake breaks, they perform some other form of paid labor, e.g. hand-sewing or embroidery.

At a conference on the situation of illegal workers in New York City, a machine operator who worked in garment shops reported that with the recent cuts in public funding for child care many women had no choice but to leave their young children unsupervised at home or bring them to work and keep them in a relatively safe spot on the shop floor. In part because of inadequate, expensive child care, garment piecework done at home is re-emerging in the U.S. and other industrialized Western countries. Such work is even more poorly paid than work in the sweat shops; sometimes small children do the work as well. There is little doubt that this system increases the probability of injury at home, especially for children.

The stressful lives of these workers affects their families and others intimately connected with them. According to the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, New York, there is a disturbingly high amount of domestic violence in households of undocumented workers, commonly resulting in a high incidence of child abuse and battering.

Relatively high frequencies of emotional disorders have also been noted. For example, a substantial proportion of the patients in the psychiatric unit in Kings County Hospital, a large public hospital in Brooklyn, are Haitian migrants. Other than hospitalizing individuals when they are in acute need of care, little can be done for them since owing to language problems and lack of funds to pay for extended hospitalization, they are released back into the community as quickly as possible. The chances of finding outpatient care for such patients are extremely small.

It has been noted by some Haitian health professionals that although alcoholism among Haitian women is uncommon in Haiti, it is beginning to be a common problem among Haitian women living in the U.S. Although emotional problems result from the pressures of living in a hostile foreign environment, they may also stem from a sense of failure or rejection in the mother country where workers cannot sustain themselves or their families.

Children of foreign migrants who grow up in the U.S. may not face the same variety of infections and parasitic disease as their parents were exposed to, but, they must learn to deal with new disruptive and stressful living situations. Some mental health problems found in young children stem from the fact that they are called upon to make major adjustments in their early years. For instance, if they are born in the U.S. to working mothers of Latin American or Caribbean origin, they may be sent to their mother's home country to be brought up by relatives until they reach school age. When they return to the U.S. to begin school or pre-school classes, they frequently have problems in adapting to a new culture, language and family situation. As they reach adolescence the children of migrants must learn to cope with drugs, violence and other dangers that fall heavily on those living in impoverished conditions. And they and their families - generally their mothers - must often cope on their own, without support.

Possible Reforms

Substantial policy reforms are required to begin to address the difficulties faced by illegal workers in the United States. Unfortunately, the difficulties faced by foreign migrant wage workers stem from an all-but-intractable situation which even those individuals and institutions motivated strongly by humanitarian concerns are unable to ameliorate. For example, foreign migrants and their families will not be offered free or even affordable health care unless health care is redefined as a basic right of all, similar to education. It is hard to argue for health coverage for the 3.5 to 6 million individuals residing in the U.S. illegally when 25 to 32 million U.S. citizens have no health care insurance.


There is a paucity of reliable data on the situation of migrant workers and their families. This is hardly surprising since the vulnerable status of migrants makes them unwilling candidates for interviews or observational studies.

Even though they are frequently portrayed as passive victims by the press, it is clear that migrant workers have developed a range of adaptive strategies to live in a society in which they belong to an illegal underclass. We particularly need to know how women find access to essential services for themselves and their families, and how they are managing to replace the supportive family structures that they left behind. There is also a need for deeper analysis of some of the more general issues, especially those related to the social meaning and uses of legal and illegal statuses.

Policy concerning foreign migrant workers is based on broader social values and priorities. Consideration of the conditions of foreign migrants in any country raises general ethical questions concerning equity and the right to decent living conditions. Immigration policy must consider the responsibility of the industrialized core toward people who are pushed from their own countries and pulled to others by the effects of foreign and domestic policies.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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