Economic Impacts


Rooted in Slavery: Prison Labor Exploitation

The United States has once again surpassed its own world record for incarcerating the highest percentage of its population. According to a report released by the Bureau of Prison Statistics, one out of every 32 adults was in prison, in jail, on probation, or on parole at the end of 2005. But the crisis of mass incarceration is not felt evenly in the United States: Race defines every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police targeting, to crimes charged, and rates of conviction. African-American men between the ages of 20 and 39 account for nearly one third of all sentenced prisoners.1



Over the last three decades, the explosion of the prison population in the United States paralleled the stagnation in the global economy. In the early 1970s, the United States and the G7 nations began implementing neoliberal policies, moving production from the North to the global South, pushing entire sectors of workers in the United States out of the economy.  As the economic role of the working class in the United States shifted from manufacturing to staffing a rising service industry, African American workers faced staggering rates of unemployment.  The mid-1970s is also the first period when the incarceration rate in the United States began to rise, doubling in the 1980s, and doubling again in the 1990s.

It may surprise some people that as the number of people without jobs increases, the number of working people actually increases—they become prison laborers. Everyone inside has a job. There are currently over 70 factories in California’s 33 prisons alone. Prisoners do everything from textile work and construction, to manufacturing and service work. Prisoners make shoes, clothing, and detergent; they do dental lab work, recycling, metal production, and wood production; they operate dairies, farms, and slaughterhouses.

United States Prisons mirror Free Enterprise Zones in Africa, Asia, and Latin America; the prison is a reflection of the Third World within the United States. Prisoners are not protected by minimum wage laws or overtime, and are explicitly barred from the right to organize and collectively bargain. In fact, the conditions for the overwhelmingly Black and Latino men and women inside the United States prison system are so similar to that of workers in the maquiladoras and sweatshops of the global South that in 1995, Oregon politicians were even courting Nike to move their production from Indonesia into Oregon prisons. “We propose that (Nike) take a look at their transportation costs and their labor costs,” Oregon State Representative Kevin Mannix explained in an interview with researcher Reese Erlich, “We could offer [competitive] prison inmate labor” in Oregon.2

Rooted in Slavery

To understand the conditions that have allowed such an exploitative industry to develop, we have to look at the origin of the United States prison system itself. Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States. Punishment for crime consisted of physical torture, referred to as corporal or capital punishment. While the model prison in the United States was built in Auburn, New York in 1817, it wasn’t until the end of the Civil War, with the official abolition of slavery, that the prison system took hold.

In 1865, the 13th Amendment officially abolished slavery for all people except those convicted of a crime and opened the door for mass criminalization. Prisons were built in the South as part of the backlash to Black Reconstruction and as a mechanism to re-enslave Black workers. In the late 19th-century South, an extensive prison system was developed in the interest of maintaining the racial and economic relationship of slavery.

Louisiana’s famous Angola Prison illustrates this history best. In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled by prisoners working the land—a chilling picture of modern day chattel slavery.

Black Codes and Convict Leasing

When slavery was legally abolished, a new set of laws called the Black Codes emerged to criminalize legal activity for African Americans. Through the enforcement of these laws, acts such as standing in one area of town or walking at night, for example, became the criminal acts of “loitering” or “breaking curfew,” for which African Americans were imprisoned. As a result of Black Codes, the percentage of African Americans in prison grew exponentially, surpassing whites for the first time.3

A system of convict leasing was developed to allow white slave plantation owners in the South to literally purchase prisoners to live on their property and work under their control. Through this system, bidders paid an average $25,000 a year to the state, in exchange for control over the lives of all of the prisoners. The system provided revenue for the state and profits for plantation owners. In 1878, Georgia leased out 1,239 prisoners, and all but 115 were African American.4

Much like the system of slavery from which it emerged, convict leasing was a violent and abusive system. The death rate of prisoners leased to railroad companies between 1877 and 1879 was 16 percent in Mississippi, 25 percent in Arkansas, and 45 percent in South Carolina.5 The stories of violence and torture eventually led to massive reform and abolition movements involving alliances between prisoner organizations, labor unions, and community groups. By the 1930s, every state had abolished convict leasing.6

Chain Gangs

As the southern states began to phase out convict leasing, prisoners were increasingly made to work in the most brutal form of forced labor, the chain gang. The chain gangs originated as a part of a massive road development project in the 1890s. Georgia was the first state to begin using chain gangs to work male felony convicts outside of the prison walls. Chains were wrapped around the ankles of prisoners, shackling five together while they worked, ate, and slept. Following Georgia’s example, the use of chain gangs spread rapidly throughout the South.7

For over 30 years, African-American prisoners (and some white prisoners) in the chain gangs were worked at gunpoint under whips and chains in a public spectacle of chattel slavery and torture. Eventually, the brutality and violence associated with chain gang labor in the United States gained worldwide attention. The chain gang was abolished in every state by the l950s, almost 100 years after the end of the Civil War.8

Prison Labor Exploitation in the 21st Century

Just a few decades later, we are witnessing the return of all of these systems of prison labor exploitation. Private corporations are able to lease factories in prisons, as well as lease prisoners out to their factories. Private corporations are running prisons-for-profit. Government-run prison factories operate as multibillion dollar industries in every state, and throughout the federal prison system. In the most punitive and racist prison systems, we are even witnessing the return of the chain gang. Prisoner resistance and community organizing has been able to defeat some of these initiatives, but in Arizona, Maricopa County continues to operate the first women’s chain gang in the history of the United States.9

Shifts in the United States economy and growing crises of underemployment and poverty in communities of color have created the conditions for the current wave of mass incarceration and the boom in prison labor exploitation. In the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, a historically Black community with an estimated 50 percent unemployment rate, the community is facing criminalization, incarceration and mass displacement as a result of gentrification. San Francisco, along with eight other counties in California, is implementing gang injunctions—curfews, anti-loitering, and anti-association laws that function very similar to Black Codes for Black, Latino, and Asian youth—using the pretext of gang prevention to track young men into the prison system to become prison labor, while preparing the community for redevelopment and gentrification. People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) is building power among Bayview residents and fighting for economic development that addresses the interests of the Black community, which will create alternatives to prison labor exploitation.10

Struggles like this are being waged all across the country and provide an opening to link the demands for worker rights, community rights, and prisoner rights.

The fight against the exploitation of prison labor is at once a fight against racial profiling and mass incarceration, and also for genuine economic development in Black, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Islander communities. The labor movement in the United States has a responsibility to support prisoner unions such as the Missouri Prison Labor Union (MPLU), which is fighting for higher wages and collective bargaining, and to challenge labor unions who dismiss prisoners as stealing jobs from the “good law-abiding workers” on the outside. As Sidney Williams of the MLPU states, “In this struggle we seek to regain our human dignity.” That is the demand of the slavery abolition movement of the 21st century.



1.     There are more than 46 Black men in prison nationwide per 1000 Black men in the population, whereas the rate for white men is four per 1000. Democracy Now, “United States prison population jumps 3.7 percent to two million; Increase of 700 inmates every week,” Wednesday, July 30, 2003.

2.     Erlich, Reese, “Prison Labor: Workin’ For The Man.” Covert Action Quarterly #54, Fall 1995.

3.     In Tennessee, for example, African Americans were only 33 percent of the prison population in 1865, by 1877 the number had swelled to 67 percent of the total prison population. Shelden, Randall G., “Slavery in the 3rd Millennium Part II—Prisons and Convict Leasing Help Perpetuate Slavery,” The Black Commentator, Issue 142, June 16, 2005.

4.    Green, Fletcher M.,  “Some Aspects of the Convict Lease System in the Southern States,” Essays in Southern History, vol. 31, (Durham: University of North Carolina Press), 1949, pp. 116-120.

5.     Hartnett, Stephen,  “Prison Labor, Slavery & Capitalism In Historical Perspective” (c. 1997) referencing, Novak, D.A.,  The Wheel of Servitude: Black Forced Labor After Slavery.

6.     Lichtenstein, Alexander, “Good Roads and Chain Gangs in the Progressive South: The Negro Convict is a Slave,” The Journal of Southern History, (Athens, Georgia: Southern Historical Association), 1993, p. 87.

7.     Wilson, Walter,  Forced Labor in the United States, (New York: AMS Press, Inc.), 1933, p. 68.

8.    Prison Law Office, The California State Prisoners Handbook, Section 3.17, pp. 79-80.

9.     Reuters. “Sheriff runs female chain gang.”, October 29, 2003.

10. POWER is a San Francisco-based multiracial organization of low-wage workers and tenants. For more information, see

Download or view a PDF of this article (409 KB).

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

Pull Quote TEXT ONLY for featured stories in image slider: 
Before the abolition of slavery there was no real prison system in the United States.

Toxic Sentence: Captive Labor and Electronic Waste

In October 2005, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality announced Project GREEN-FED, a unique partnership with Federal Prison Industries, Inc. (FPI), also known as Unicor. Unicor, a corporation owned and operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, uses captive prison labor, and this pilot program promises “e-scrap recycling... at zero cost” to the consumer. If this pilot program in Arkansas, where e-waste is handled at the Federal Prison in Texarkana is profitable, Unicor plans to take it nationwide in 2007.

Electronic waste materials—computers, monitors, cell phones, and fax machines—are the fastest growing part of the municipal waste stream, rising at a rate of five percent a year. FPI/Unicor, established in the ’30s, has been handling electronic waste as a business since 1994. Earlier this year, a Bureau of Prisons report divulged that prison workers and staff at e-waste recycling facilities in at least three prisons —Texarkana, Arkansas; Elkton, Ohio; and Atwater, California—were exposed to toxics like cadmium and lead.

The enormous amount of toxic waste generated from obsolete electronics is largely hidden from consumers and those who handle the waste. Driven by an industry model of planned and perceived obsolescence, over 100,000 computers become obsolete in the United States every day. The EPA estimates that 250 million computers will become obsolete in the next five years, and that figure doesn’t include all the other electronic waste, from TVs and stereos to cellphones and digital music players.

E-waste, rich in valuable materials for recovery and recycling, creates the perfect conditions for a toxic economy in which poor communities around the world labor through exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic, reproductive, and developmental toxins in the name of making a living. The vast majority of e-waste is exported to China, India, the Phillipines, and Nigeria, where impoverished workers manually recover precious materials from hazardous waste.

Meanwhile, a new form of e-waste processing has emerged in the United States in the last decade that can successfully compete with these dismally low wages and working conditions: Prison Recycling Programs. Sheila Davis, executive director of Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a high-tech industry watch-dog group that has been challenging Unicor on environmental justice and human rights grounds, describes Unicor as “A toxic high-tech sweatshop hidden from view behind prison walls.” And since the captive laborers in prison are required to work, Unicor maintains a steady stream of workers by using a sweatshop strategy, paying pennies more an hour than other work programs within the prison. Unicor wages range between $0.23 and $1.25 per hour.

In its 2001 annual report, Unicor proclaims “the right to work is a human right,” but, their operations do not comply with any of the rights codified in several international covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. In fact, the right to work includes the right to be paid a living wage, the right to occupational health and safety protection, the right to organize, freely associate, and collectively bargain, the right to be protected by labor laws, the right to gain redress for grievances, and freedom from intimidation, harassment, or retaliation for lodging grievances, and the right to freely choose work. None of these rights exists behind prison walls.

While Unicor engages in a range of industries, including the manufacture of furniture and textiles, dismantling of electronic waste is a cash cow for the company. Between 2002 and 2003, for example, net sales from electronic waste recycling more than doubled to over $8 million, while overall Unicor sales dropped. Unicor handles obsolete electronics for governments, schools, consumers, and private businesses, in eight federal prisons across the country, and is expanding operations. Over 1000 people work in Unicor’s e-waste recycling operations.

Unicor’s facilities are intentionally low-tech and depend on manual labor, in order to occupy the greatest number of prison workers with something to do for their long time inside, and to avoid the cost of investment in machines like air-powered tools and mechanical shredders used by responsible recyclers. A Bureau of Prisons-sponsored report on occupational health risks associated with electronics demanufacturing showed higher levels of lead and cadmium at workstations that manually break CRTs found inside computer monitors and televisions, as performed by Unicor, than workstations that mechanically cut CRT glass, indicating a much greater risk faced by those who labor in prisons.

“None of what we are doing in this plant would be used in a for-profit venture,” one worker says, because “it would be too dirty and hazardous, plus the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration would shut them down for I-don’t-know-how-many violations. [But] because we are... prison inmates, the Bureau of Prisons can get away with the hazardous conditions we face daily.”

The Bureau Of Prisons report, triggered by whistleblower LeRoy Smith, the former Health and Safety Officer at the Unicor facility at Atwater, California describes management’s “learn as you go” approach to complying with environmental standards. The report claims that there has been no toxic exposure since 2004. Prison workers, however, describe a continuing pattern of improper handling of materials, and inadequate health and safety precautions resulting in routine injuries, such as lacerations by leaded monitor glass or inhaling of toxic dust. Workers also report witnessing extensive clean-up operations in preparation for air-quality tests.

“Unicor hasn’t been in compliance since 1994 [when it started recycling e-waste],” Leroy Smith testified in a July hearing.

Prisoners who’ve spoken out have been punished by guards, and those who asked for test results or material safety specifications were told to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act. “[Unicor officials say,] ‘this job is a voluntary one. If you are not happy here, you can quit,’” writes one worker. “Meaning, ‘Shut up. Don’t ask us for anything. Do your job, or we’ll replace you by pushing you out or forcibly retiring you.’”

E-waste related contamination impacts staff, as well as captive workers. Employees take these contaminants, many of them reproductive toxins and neurotoxins, home with them on their clothes and skin, subjecting their families to exposure. And for captive workers, the impacts from toxic exposure can far outlast their prison sentences.

Responsible e-waste recycling in the United States is a growing niche, led by small businesses and nonprofits, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete with the low-cost options of export dumping and prison labor. Faced with shrinking municipal and state budgets, officials responsible for managing e-waste are most often seeking their lowest-cost option, giving Unicor’s mostly Black and brown captive labor strategy a profound market advantage. For this to change, we must force these same officials to create sustainable electronic recycling programs, which can create living wage jobs in local communities where workers and the environment at least would have the protection of the law.

For more on electronic waste, prison labor, and Unicor, visit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition ( or the Computer TakeBack Campaign (


Download or view a PDF of this article (272 KB).

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

Related Stories: 

Racism in United States Welfare Policy

The complex interplay of race and class in the United States ensures that certain areas of domestic policy are suffused with racial bias, bear the imprint of a more frankly racist past, are prone to political manipulation, and serve as touchstones for galvanizing key elements of a racist consensus. Social welfare policy is one such area.

The 1996 passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), commonly know as “welfare reform,” underscored how deeply embedded are racial bias and xenophobia in United States domestic policy. But, of course, it is not racism alone that characterizes welfare reform. Researchers and advocates have carefully explored the profound gender bias of the welfare system as well.1,2 The majority of people now receiving welfare benefits are poor women of color who face the “triple jeopardy” of belonging to a disempowered class, marginalized racial and ethnic groups, and a subordinated gender.

As others have cogently argued, welfare policy is also labor policy.3 Indeed, within months of the passage of PRWORA, evidence was already emerging that workfare and Work First programs were depressing wages and displacing low-wage workers. In the boom economy of the mid- to late-1990s, employers recognized that “Everyone has been raising wages to get people… and this [influx of welfare recipients] will make it possible to hold pay steady.”4

Work requirements and time limits that coerce women into the paid labor force are not implemented in a gender- or race-neutral environment, and cannot be expected to be neutral in their impact. Thus, while the surge of former welfare recipients into the low-wage sector of the economy worsens wages and working conditions for the poorest strata of the working class as a whole, some communities are hit harder than others. Communities of color, with traditionally higher unemployment and underemployment rates, higher proportions of very low-wage workers, and lower median incomes are further disadvantaged by PRWORA policies that force women into a labor market in which they have virtually no bargaining power.

There are substantial racial differences among working women. Full-time, year-round Latina workers earned a median annual income of $19,817 in 1998, considerably less than the $23,864 earned by African American women or the $27,304 earned by white women.5 All women are far more likely than white men to earn poverty level wages. But, again, racial differentials are substantial. More than half of Latina workers, 51.8 percent, earn poverty level wages, compared to 40.7 percent of Black women and 29.7 percent of white women. African American women with less than a high school education faced 1996 unemployment rates nearly twice as high as those of white women—20.9 percent vs. 10.8 percent—while 15.9 percent of Hispanic women at this educational level were unemployed. Underemployment rates were even higher.6 Analyzing the labor market conditions facing women receiving welfare benefits, one researcher concluded: “Such high rates of un- and underemployment, which persist in a labor market that has experienced overall unemployment rates below six percent for over two years, suggest that it may be difficult for welfare recipients to meet the work requirements of the new welfare law.”7

Former welfare recipients generally end up holding low-paid, entry-level jobs in the gender ghettos of service, sales, and clerical work. A study of the first two years of welfare reform in New Jersey found that the average hourly wage of those former welfare recipients who were working was only $7.31. More than one-third were holding jobs that paid less than $6.00 per hour.8 A 1997 national survey found that adults who left the welfare system and were employed had a median hourly wage of $6.61.9 This would bring a family just above the official poverty level, but fall far short of a “living wage.” Most former recipients who enter the labor force work at jobs that do not provide them with benefits. Less than one-quarter of these workers was covered by health benefits in one national survey.10

Far too many families end up in worse economic circumstances than they endured while receiving welfare benefits. For example, a study that tracked families who left Wisconsin’s welfare system found that during the first year off welfare, only half of the families had higher income than they had while receiving welfare benefits, even if they had been working while receiving welfare.11 An examination of seven state studies of former welfare recipients found that in only two of the states were families’ average annual earnings above the poverty line.12

Many women have been pushed off welfare but have not found employment. Several studies show that 20 to 40 percent of former recipients find no work.13,14,15 As more and more women reach their two-year and five-year limits in an economy that is far less robust than it was when welfare reform was passed, they will face an even less welcoming labor market.

There is some evidence that racial disadvantage in the labor market is also being played out in terms of the rates at which different racial groups are leaving the rolls. Welfare use is declining rapidly among all races, but white recipients are leaving the welfare rolls at a much more rapid rate than Blacks or Latinos. In New York City, for example, the number of whites receiving welfare benefits declined by 57 percent between 1995 and 1998, while the rate of decline for Blacks was 30 percent and that of Latinos, seven percent. White recipients have led the decline nationally as well.

Some explanatory factors may include: higher average educational levels among white recipients; greater concentrations of recipients of color in job-poor inner cities; and racial discrimination in employment and housing. Susan Gooden’s findings regarding racial discrimination in the provision of information and assistance,16 as well as her findings of racial differentials in employment outcomes among Black and white participants in one state welfare reform program,17 are clearly relevant here. Though the combination of contributing factors is undoubtedly complex, the more rapid transition of white recipients into the labor force is one indicator of the racially disparate impact of welfare reform.


The passage from welfare to work is beset with difficulties. Women are forced into jobs earning poverty-level wages that leave them worse off than they were while receiving welfare benefits. With no benefits, transportation problems, and high childcare costs, they struggle with the complex logistics of caring for their families while clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. Other women are sanctioned off the rolls or reach their time limits, but find no place in the paid labor force.

In the current political climate we have been reduced to state by state battles to fight for the options which can be determined by state legislatures either within the federal framework or beyond it. In California, for instance, advocates are organizing to remove the punitive family cap regulations, which attempt to coerce women’s child-bearing choices based on the false perception that they choose to have children to increase their welfare grant.

Unfortunately, the political impulse behind welfare reform, apart from being mean-spirited and socially regressive, is racist and xenophobic. Welfare reform is being implemented in ways that follow well-worn patterns of racial and anti-immigrant discrimination. And, the negative impacts of welfare reform are unequally shared. Left unchallenged, we cannot but expect that this policy will bolster white privilege and more deeply inscribe racial subordination.


1.    Abramowitz, Mimi,  Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present, 1988. Boston, Massachusetts: South End Press.

2.    Mink, Gwendolyn,  Welfare’s End, 1998. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

3.    Piven, Frances Fox and Cloward, Richard A., Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare, 1971. New York: Vintage.

4.    Uchitelle, Louis, “Welfare Recipients Taking Jobs Often Held by the Working Poor,” April 1, 1997. The New York Times.

5.    United States Department of Labor Women’s Bureau, “Women of Hispanic Origin in the Labor Force,” Facts on Working Women, No. 00-04, April 2000.

6.    Bernstein, Jared, “The Challenge of Moving from Welfare to Work: Depressed Labor Market Awaits Those Leaving the Rolls,” EPI Issue Brief No. 116, March. 1997.

7.    Ibid.

8.    Rangarajan, Anu and Wood, Robert G., How WFNJ Clients are Faring Under Welfare Reform: An Early Look, 1999. Princeton, New Jersey: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

9.    Loprest, Pamela, How Families That Left Welfare Are Doing: A National Picture, 1999. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute.

10.    Ibid.

11.    United States General Accounting Office. “Welfare Reform: Information on Former Recipients’ Status,” Washington, D.C.: USGAO, 1999b.

12.    Ibid.

13.    Ibid.

14.    Rangarajan and Wood, How Clients are Faring under Welfare Reform, 1999.

15.    Loprest, Pamela, Families That Left Welfare, 1999.

16.    Gooden, Susan T., “All Things Not Being Equal; Differences in Caseworker Support Toward Black and White Welfare Clients,” Harvard Journal of African American Public Policy 4:23-33, 1998.

17.    Gooden, Susan T., “Race and Welfare: Examining Employment Outcomes of White and Black Welfare Recipients,” Journal of Poverty 4, No. 3: 21-41, 2000.


Download or view a PDF of this article (324 KB). 

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

Related Stories: 

From Welfare to Low-Wage Work

“Ten years into welfare reform, caseloads may have decreased, but the number of people living in poverty has not,” Robert Wharton, the president and chief executive officer of the Community Economic Development Administration, wrote in a recent piece in the Chicago Sun-Times. “At the same time, the safety net of services and support that once protected the poor lies in tatters. Today, working parents in ill-paid jobs often work themselves right out of eligibility for desperately needed assistance.”

Just as all politics are ultimately local, the outcomes of welfare-to-work programs vary from state to state, and from locality to locality. Some programs have changed lives for the better, helping former welfare recipients find good jobs with decent wages and benefits. Other W-2 initiatives have failed and are complicit in the creation of a new underclass with more women and children in poverty, lacking even the most fundamental services.  

A 2002 report by the Chicago, Illinois-based Joyce Foundation found that while hundreds of thousands of welfare recipients in the Midwest went to work since 1996, most had “taken jobs that pay low wages, are part-time, or don’t last... As a result, most of those who have made the transition from welfare to work remain poor.”

The foundation’s report, entitled “Welfare to Work: What Have We Learned?” ( /welrept/), looked at welfare-to-work initiatives in Midwestern states, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin, and found that “both before and since 1996, these states... pioneered innovative strategies to support welfare recipients’ transition to work, including ‘work first’ and ‘making work pay’ by offering cash assistance and other supports to working families.

“Work supports—such as child care, food stamps, and the Earned Income Tax Credit—have helped thousands of working families make ends meet. But many of the jobs are part time or short term, and wages are low.  As a result, many working families still face serious economic hardships.”

“If we define success in terms of helping women to take care of themselves and their families, we’ve seen some programs do better than others,” said Jane Henrici, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Memphis. In an email interview, Henrici, the editor of the recently published book, Doing Without: Women and Work after Welfare Reform (University of Arizona Press, 2006), maintained that “At least in the short term, women have reported more positive experiences where resources have been put into subsidized child care and early education, as well as other supports that vary by the region—such as substantive job training or support for higher education, reliable public transportation, and accessible healthcare facilities.”

Henrici also pointed out that “Privatization and related features of the policies and their implementation have not proven to be beneficial: Too many women continue to struggle to find and keep a job that either pays enough to cover healthcare or provides benefits at the same time as their health and that of their children decline. In addition, the rising costs of housing, and of education for themselves as well as their children, make any sense of financial stability a target that keeps moving out of reach.”

Henrici’s book, In Doing Without, concludes that “one of the largest multi-city investigations on welfare reform ever undertaken [reveals] that the employment opportunities available to poorer women, particularly single mothers and ethnic minorities, are insufficient to lift their families out of poverty.”

Contributors to the book look at “the challenges that the women who seek assistance, and those who work in public and private agencies to provide it, together must face as they navigate ever-changing requirements and regulations, decipher alterations in Medicaid, and apply for training and education.

Contributors urge that the nation should repair the social safety net for women in transition and offer genuine access to jobs with wages that actually meet the cost of living.”

Wendell Primus, currently a policy advisor to incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was an outspoken critic of the original legislation; he resigned from the Clinton administration over welfare reform. In his remarks, Primus maintained that “while many families had earnings gains under welfare reform, a significant number would have done better without welfare reform under the expanding economy of the 1990s,” reported.

“In the aggregate, there is absolutely no evidence that it (reform legislation) increased household income,” said Primus, pointing out that the rates of child poverty dropped more in the 1992-1996, pre-welfare-reform period, than they did in the post-reform period, from 1996-2000.

The Community Economic De-velopment Administration’s Robert Wharton suggests that we “begin to take better-planned, more deliberate action to alleviate poverty. Such an effort will require a federal agency charged with mounting a coordinated, nationwide attack on poverty….We must also include as a priority in budgeting—from the federal level down—some sort of entitlement to basic necessities, including shelter, food, healthcare, and education. These programs should be run on a sliding scale, so that the working poor are not penalized for earning what they can.

“We need scholars, social analysts, and politicians courageous enough to shepherd us in this national discussion of poverty.  We must commit to the philosophy of providing for the neediest, or we will continue—unconscionably—to tolerate intolerable poverty at home and in the larger world.”

Download or view a PDF of this article (324 KB). 

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits

Related Stories: 

Home Is Where the Work Is: The Color of Domestic Labor

In 1998, 48-year-old Parvathi Ammal came to Cupertino, California from Madurai, India, to visit her distant but well-to-do relatives on their invitation. During her originally planned three-month stay, she helped the Gopalan family with household chores, including taking care of their two children and occasional cooking. At the end of her stay, the family invited her to continue living with them as a domestic help for a monthly payment of $300, convincing her that working informally and overstaying her visitor visa, were not crimes.

Unfortunately, within a few months, her sweet deal turned into a nightmare as she realized that her “employers” were out to exploit her. “At first, my work was well-defined—daily light chores like doing the dishes, and taking care of the kids when both [parents] were away at work. But within weeks, the work started piling up.”

Ammal’s work load ranged from doing the laundry and mowing the lawn, to cooking three meals a day for a family of five, and constantly cleaning up after them. Her health deteriorated, she was paid irregularly, and she was not allowed to call anyone. With her scant English skills, Ammal was helpless and endured the abuse until some friends helped her escape back to Madurai, where she now makes Indian pickles for a living.


The Domestic Worker Coalition of the San Francisco Bay Area

In 2004, a triad of Oakland-San Francisco Bay Area grassroots groups consisting of Mujeres Unidas Activas, the Women’s Collective of La Raza Centro Legal, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER) designed a participatory research project, comprising of over 250 surveys, to analyze the working conditions of household workers. The surveys revealed that most Bay Area household workers typically support two adults and two children on average, but more than 80 percent of them do not earn enough to support a family of this size. One in three workers reported that in the last two months they had worked more hours than agreed. There were also claims that employers shame and bully their workers, so they are too intimidated to fight effectively for their rights.

In addition to documenting the abuses and outlining the demands of household workers, the Coalition sponsored a six-part study to examine sexism and the division of labor, the history of domestic work in the United States, and household worker movements in other countries.  

This participatory campaign, which explored the state of wages, benefits, and other issues that could help workers unite and effectively organize in the long run, is a successful example of outreach that’s driven by research and activism generated from within. The surveys reflect the extreme marginalization experienced by domestic workers: More than 95 percent of the surveyed women attested to the dire need for better wages, safer workplaces, paid overtime, sick days, holidays, health benefits, and the right to unionize and protect their rights. Other concerns expressed included not being paid on time, or being paid less than the agreed amount. And almost 10 percent reported that they had been sexually harassed or experienced some sort of violence on the job, while about a third reported being insulted or threatened by employers.

As part of the work in following up the survey, the San Francisco Bay Area Domestic Worker Coalition has forged alliances with the Coalition for Human Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and the Los Angeles Pilipino  Workers’ Center to form the California Household Workers’ Coalition. Coalition members co-wrote Assembly Bill 2536, which would have extended the right to overtime compensation to household workers and fined abusive employers and those who fail to pay their employees. The proposal passed both houses, but was vetoed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite the veto, the household workers see this proposal as the first step towards gaining respect and putting an end to the abuses in the industry.1 In the future they hope to address issues of occupational safety and health, healthcare access, and protection from discrimination.



Exploitation Begins at Home

Parvathi Ammal, it turns out, is one of the lucky ones because her story of abuse and exploitation, unfortunately, is not unique.

Every year millions of Asian women migrate from their home countries to work as domestic workers, service workers, and sex workers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and the Middle East. This international flow of labor, so to speak, is set in motion by the harsh domestic and trade policies of the first and third world governments, which systematically disempower the poor.

In the United States, cutbacks in healthcare and inadequate access to affordable childcare have made the middle-class desperate for cheap household labor. Consequently, immigrant women constitute a major proportion of the growing domestic workforce in the United States, with Latinas making up a majority in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area. Sadly, a growing number of these immigrant domestic laborers frequently find themselves in inextricable situations of exploitation and abuse.

Domestic work is probably the most taken-for-granted labor worldwide. Yet, it is the most crucial and time-consuming and it fuels the economic engine of any society. In the United States, the history of domestic labor is a study in racism. The first domestic laborers during the colonial period were African slaves. With the abolishment of slavery, at least on paper, Black women provided the next round of domestic labor from the early 20th century up until the 1970s. Now, it is the turn of immigrant women of color to serve as the backbone of the United States economy. A detailed study of domestic workers in New York found that 95 percent of them are people of color, and 93 percent are women.

Sociologist Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo notes that while the structure of domestic work poses considerable obstacles to traditional organizing, it can open the door to new tactics and strategies that take advantage of women’s ability to network, connect, and draw strength from each other. Since the women are in vulnerable positions and cannot confront their employers, they have to be organized through self-help seminars that raise consciousness around issues of exploitation and teach strategies for negotiating better wages and benefits.

As for the feminist response to the problems of domestic workers in the United States, it has been lukewarm at best. Even the National Organization for Women has declined to comment on the issue of global trafficking of women, notes activist Grace Chang. “Perhaps the real issue is that privileged women of the First World, even self-avowed feminists, may be some of the primary consumers and beneficiaries in this trade,” she adds.1

Ultimately, these women’s struggles to live a life with dignity point glaringly to the flawed structures currently in place that are predicated on a system of exploitation of the marginalized. While policy reform is the goal of many of these struggles, and would indeed help alleviate the hardships of many an immigrant woman laborer, it is still an inadequate solution in the long run.

The greater need is for widespread, sustained mass movements of resistance that challenge the currently accepted norm of top-down capitalist economic paradigms with their many inequities—ranging from the disproportionately high income levels of corporate executives to the alarming increase in defense expenditure at the cost of national health and education programs. Worker-owned cooperatives are one alternative to the capitalist model of ownership, but service labor in a capitalist framework will always remain open to exploitation, as long as manual labor is rendered invisible and not valued by mainstream socio-economic systems.

1. Chang, Grace, Disposable Domestics: Immigrant Women Workers in the Global Economy,  Cambridge, Massachusetts, South End Press, 2000.

Nahar Alam and Workers’ Awaaz: The Protestor Prototype


Nahar Alam migrated to the United States from Bangladesh under the assumption that this transatlantic journey would help her escape the cycle of alienation and abuse she had experienced as the wife of an already married man since the age of 14. But without money, a knowledge of English, or friends, she soon found herself powerless again—as a domestic worker in New York City.

Nahar found lodging with a family in Astoria, Queens, and began work as a garment worker, earning 35 cents per finished piece. When in 15 days she had made only $35, she realized that she would have to find other sources of income. Nahar then embarked on a series of jobs cooking, cleaning, and baby-sitting, often working 12-hour days for as little as $50 a week. Meanwhile, she also spent long hours at the public library, teaching herself English. Finally, a couple who had hired Nahar to tutor their daughter in Bengali, introduced her to Sakhi, a non-profit organization for South Asian women. Through them, Nahar found full-time babysitting work at a decent wage, with a family that treated her with dignity and allowed her time to volunteer at Sakhi and learn English at Hunter College.

Sakhi eventually hired Nahar Alam to organize a group of South Asian immigrant women in exploitative, underpaid, and abusive domestic work situations. Many of these women were denied basic privileges, such as the use of a phone, days off, or even their promised pay. “They are isolated, they don’t know English. Many come to America because of problems at home and are afraid that [if they complain] their employers will send them back,” explains Nahar.

Nahar organized demonstrations outside homes of exploitative employers, implemented innovative outreach methods, and handed out flyers on legal minimum wage and unjust working condition regulations. She conducted training workshops on workers’ and immigrants’ rights, on labor laws, and on negotiating with employers. In 1997, her group split from Sakhi and renamed itself Workers’ Awaaz (Workers’ Voice). With the help of Mike Wishnie, an ACLU attorney specializing in labor rights, Workers’ Awaaz sued on behalf of an exploited member and succeeded in getting a $20,000 settlement in back pay from the employer.

Fighting legal battles for workers’ compensation is not the primary goal of her organization, explains Nahar, but she wanted to set a precedent that would demonstrate to the women of Workers’ Awaaz that their rights were very real, and that they should not be afraid to exercise them. Today, Workers’ Awaaz is made up of 30 domestic workers and a dozen volunteers and receives funding from several foundations and public service organizations.

Nahar Alam continues to work on reaching out to other exploited, low-wage immigrant communities. She helped start Andolan (Movement), a grassroots group that organizes low-wage South Asian women workers—mostly domestic, but also restaurant and retail employees—from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Andolan has helped its members resist a range of violations by their employers—from federal and state minimum wage laws, to sexual harassment and abuse, to assault and false imprisonment. Because of the power disparity between employer and worker, Andolan will sometimes resort to protests outside employer homes and workplaces to get a response to specific grievances and to raise public awareness. Successful cases have resulted in payment of back wages and other damages.


Download or view a PDF of this article (330 KB). 

JUST Jobs? Organizing for Economic Justice | Vol. 14 No. 1 | Spring 2007 | Credits