The economic system that dominates the United States is dependent on one commodity: mass cheap labor.
A Historical Analysis
The current economic system that dominates the United States is dependent on one commodity: mass cheap labor. Traditionally, immigrants have filled this role, whether called indentured servants, slaves, coolies, braceros, minimum-wage workers, or gig workers. Alongside being viewed as the “cheapest labor,” these immigrants are subject to horrible working conditions, labor exploitation, and resource extraction. Whether the immigrant in question has come over voluntarily or involuntarily, the rule of thumb still stands: The newest immigrant is always the most vulnerable and susceptible to labor exploitation. Analysis of these different labor groups across U.S. history show that poor working conditions have persisted from colonial times into the present through policies favoring profit, laws allowing resource extraction, the import and export of labor, and technological advancement.
The most vulnerable workers throughout history have been first-generation immigrants, with the exception of those born into the institution of slavery. Slavery found a way to ensure intergenerational vulnerability through inherited lack of access to legal rights, wages, or literacy. With its abolition, the “cheapest labor source” in the U.S. has changed over time, renewing with the most vulnerable sectors of the population. U.S. government programs and policies have funded the import and export of labor, allowing practice from Colonial America to be perpetuated in disguise. However, the first-generation status does not mean that adversity cannot be challenged; an example is the 1982 garment worker strike in NYC organized and supported by Chinese garment workers. Their success could influence today’s workers who face horrible working conditions and a lack of benefits. Despite the success of the 1982 strikes, it is essential to understand how technology has dehumanized the worker and made it more difficult to unionize and organize a successful strike. In the hands of the corporate elite, technology is being used to exploit first-generation immigrants and workers equally. Whether immigrants migrated voluntarily or involuntarily, they are given the role of “cheapest labor source upon their arrival.” The structures, technology, and policies that exploit first-generation immigrants and other vulnerable workers in the labor market are influenced by the abolished institution of slavery and indentured servitude developed in Colonial America.
At the inception of colonial America, settlers developed the first colonial settlements that would become the base for modern-day cities and states. However, during the early days of settlement, settlers realized they needed more workers. Thus colonial America needed labor that Europeans, fleeing from the shattered economy left by the Thirty Years War, would soon fill. Alongside this era, 1607, there was also a boom in tobacco industries in the Virginia colony. The Virginia Company needed field workers. Passage to the colonies was expensive except for the wealthy, thus to get labor across the Atlantic, the Virginia Company developed the system of indentured servitude to incentivize potential workers.1 Indentured servitude would lay the groundwork for a long history of importing cheap labor on a mass scale. The indenture was a legal document between the worker and employer with a specific number of years that would satisfy the debt repayment of the employer’s expense to transport the worker from Europe to the Colonies and provide food, clothing, and shelter.
Toward the late seventeenth century, the population of servants increased in Virgina to become half of the total population. Masters began to grow weary of the servant population and its increasing power. Thus the General Assembly, the colony’s governing body made up of plantation owners, passed several policies that addressed the masters’ concerns. These laws allowed the regulation of servants’ contract terms, behavior, and treatment. The masters were included in the assembly and advocated the prolonging of the indentures to quiet disruptive behavior among workers, decrease labor shortages, and stabilize their workforce.2. Despite the tobacco market becoming more efficient and profitable, lengthy terms of service were dictated by law and ultimately became customary. While adults had contracts between four to seven years, children would often have contracts that were much longer, and employers were also able to extend the indenture. On March 1643, the General Assembly addressed issues concerning men and women that arrived in Virginia without negotiated indentures:
Be it therefore enacted and confirmed for prevention of future controversies of the like nature, that such servants as shall be imported haveing no indentures or convenants either men or women if they be above twenty year old to serve fowre year, if they shall be above twelve and under twenty to serve five years, And if under twelve to serve seaven years.3
The language used to discuss the dangerous voyage of the workers, “import,” suggests that the General Assembly had no compassion for these immigrants. To speak of them using the language of trade and contract dehumanizes these people and reduces their lives to legal documents. Later on, in 1658, the General Assembly passed laws that automatically gave immigrant indentures and increased the years of service for minors, “if they be above sixteen years old shall serve four yeers, If under fifteen to serve till hee or shee shall be one and twenty yeers of age, and the courts to be judges of their ages.”4 Additionally, the workers themselves could not advocate for themselves in court. The masters would dictate the age of the immigrants, and thus could manipulate the terms of their contract. These immigrants had no advocate, nor could they advocate for themselves. The law itself allowed the masters to manipulate and coerce a minor into servitude without the ability to speak for themselves. The General Assembly took advantage of vulnerable immigrants by forcing them into long periods of servitude through enacted laws and policies.
The General Assembly also created laws to regulate sexual relations among men and women servants. A law passed in 1658 titled “Concerning secret Marriages” was meant to stop indentured women from having children and forming unions of marriage. The General Assembly compensates masters for their labor lost as a result of a servant’s pregnancy. Generally, the servants committed for “fornication” would serve an extra year of the indenture. Additionally, they would suffer physical abuse: “ be it enacted that every person comitting ffornication shall pay five hundred pounds of tobacco to the use of the parish where the said act is committed or be whipt.”5 In the September 1691 session, the General Assembly would regulate swearing, “profanes God’s holy name,” drunkenness, and extramarital sex. For swearing, servants would have to pay “the sume of twenty shillings or two hundred pounds of tobacco att the election of such offender or offenders.”6 For extramarital affairs, would have to pay a hefty sum or endure punishment:
one thousand pounds of tabacco and casque … [anyone] not able to pay their fines … shall for every time soe offending receive on his her or their bare backs twenty-five lashes well laid on, or two monthes imprisonment without bayle or mainprize … and if it happen that a bastard child be gotten in such fornication … shall serve one year after her time by indenture or custome is expired or pay one thousand pounds of tobacco to her master or mistress besides the fine or punishment for committing the offence and the reputed father to putt in security to kepp the parrish harmless. 7
Throughout this piece of legislation, the General Assembly continues to justify monetary and physical punishment by stressing the economic loss of the masters. The masters wanted to ensure cheap labor. Their presence in the General Assembly ensured the servants’ cost of care would stay low, and through punishment via an extension of the indenture, cheap labor would be sustained.
Through this law, the masters were able to punish servants’ behavior and extend their indenture to ensure a stable source of labor. Furthermore, in the same piece of legislation, the masters encouraged other servants to report bad behavior and punished servants for “meetings or assemblies of people on the Lord’s day.” 8 Consequently, by passing these laws, the masters ensured that their servant population stayed divided and paranoid for fear of an extended indenture and would not join together to revolt against them. The laws passed by the General Assembly extracted labor out of the servants while manipulating them into longer indentures. These laws and contracts temporarily transformed the men and women in their employ into property.
It wasn’t long until the tobacco industry would change its source of labor from indentured servants to an even cheaper source: slaves. In Barbara Jeanne Fields’s 1990 essay, “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” she discusses the conditions that encouraged tobacco owners to switch their labor source from indentured servants to slaves. Fields explains that tobacco firms began to feel de-incentivized to source their labor from indentured servitude due to resistance. Servants were well-armed; they outnumbered their masters and had revolted before, despite the General Assembly’s manipulations. Fields also argues that perception of immigrant treatment in the Colonies would get back to Europe and threaten sources of future labor migration. Due to the small number of women who migrated to the U.S. during the tobacco boom, there would be no future generation of children to be indentured. Fields ultimately claims that “Africans and Afro-West Indians were thus available for perpetual slavery in a way that English servants were not.”9 The author alludes to the historical presence of indentured servants in the Colonies and how that history persuaded the tobacco firms to switch their labor sources. Euro-Americans began living past their indenture, and the indentured labor market began to dwindle for the tobacco owners. By the 1670s, the upper class of Virginia had to deal with the large class of former indentured servants who had nothing to their name but vengeance. By 1676 the “largest popular rebellion of colonial America” burned the capital and transformed lower-class whites into a threat to upper-class Virginians.10 Ultimately, the freedmen had established themselves as a threat and could be advocates for incoming immigrants from Europe; they had become less vulnerable.
Meanwhile, descendants of enslaved Africans did not have that opportunity for generational resistance, nor did they have advocates; they had become the most vulnerable. For more than two centuries, Africans would be enslaved, dehumanized, and reduced to chattel, enduring physical and verbal violence. The institution of slavery would develop an ideology of race to prove ethnic inferiority and to justify the mistreatment of workers and the dehumanization of people. The introduction of the cotton gin in 1793 would acellerate cotton technology and solidify slavery as a necessity to the economy of the South.11 Slavery wouldn’t be abolished until 1865; however, its replacement would begin in the early 1810s, with coolies.
In Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation, Moon-Ho Jung discusses how “coolies” would disrupt the American labor market as the newest cheap source of labor. A coolie was an Indian or Chinese laborer hired locally or shipped abroad to work on sugar plantations formerly worked by enslaved Africans; eventually, Coolieism became associated with the systemic “importation of coolies as laborers into foreign countries.”12 Before laborers arrived at the borders of the U.S., there was already discussion regarding the admittance of coolies. Abolitionists argued against Cooliesm as a variant of slavery. The British Empire created propaganda to persuade these abolitionists that Cooliesm was not like slavery; thus, the image of an appreciative, “cheap, industrious, and free” Chinese laborer was constructed.13 Despite the low cost of adopting the new labor force, pro-slavery advocates argued against their admittance due to the disruption that would cause the labor market, ultimately decreasing the value of their slaves. In essence, Jung describes that the importation of the Chinese depended on the profitability of their labor.
Jung is unequivocal about the status of these new arrivals: “A ‘coolie,’ or ‘cooly,’ it seemed, was a slave, pure and simple.”14 Similar to indentured servants, coolies were often coerced into signing labor contracts they didn’t understand as they were in English. While indentured servants had become less vulnerable due to generational resistance, coolies inherited the racial ideologies that supported the institution of slavery, justifying the dehumanization of non-white immigrants. The proslavery stakeholders also argued that the labor importation of coolies would destroy the racial demographics of the U.S., citing Cuba, where the influx of such laborers had resulted in a white minority, which the proslavery elite feared. Jung makes clear that the institution of slavery would continue to live on through the treatment of immigrant laborers and immigration law, stating, “The last slave-trade law, from this angle, was simultaneously the first immigration law.”15 Ultimately, the history of slavery would repeat itself through importing Chinese laborers and shaping post-emancipation battles regarding Asian migration to the United States.
The arrival of the coolies evoked imperial expansionist envy among the U.S. business class that would be satisfied with the imported colonialism of the Bracero Program. With the braceros, they had developed a way to import colonialism and satisfy their imperial needs. Mae M. Ngai discusses the implications of Mexican migration and the Bracero Program in, “Braceros, ‘Wetbacks,’ and the National Boundaries of Class,” published in Impossible Subjects. The U.S. government implemented the Bracero program in 1942 to satisfy labor deficiencies due to World War II, eliminate illegal migration, bring order to the labor markets, and protect foreign nationals from abuse. The program “imported nearly four million Mexican workers.”16 Through the program, the U.S. could import contract laborers through seasonal bracero contracts, dictated wages, and allowed the government to trace Mexican labor migration. While the bracero contract allowed these workers to work in the country legally, it did not offer them any legal standing, resulting in underpaid wages. Braceros were permitted to file complaints; few protested for higher wages, while most decided to abandon their contracts and look for higher-paying jobs. Carlos Morales, a Mexican laborer, states:
As a wetback … I may find a farmer who needs one man. He will pay me honestly, I think. But as a bracero, I am only a number on a paycheck … and I am treated like a number … not like a man. 17
Morales was willing to sacrifice his legal status for better employment despite his uncertainties. By deserting their contracts, legal workers automatically became “illegal aliens,” a figure the U.S.’s restrictive immigration laws constructed. Ngai concludes that “The old plantation class and its modern cousins in agribusiness … succeeded in molding the modern agricultural workforce into modes of racialized labor that had more in common with nineteenth-century colonial practices than with modern industrial relations.”18 The author alludes to indentured servitude and slavery in describing how these workers became replaceable and disposable. Mexican immigrants inherited racial ideologies that led to their othering and their susceptibility to labor exploitation. At the same time, the U.S. was able to finetune their imported colonialism.
One group that overcame the vulnerability of first-generation status in the American labor market was Chinese women garment workers in New York through intergenerational collaboration and cross-cultural solidarity to improve their working conditions. The ability to overcome adversity while being a first generation worker is much higher. In June 1982, twenty thousand garment workers went on a strike. Katie Quan shares her experience in “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown.” The garment workers were primarily women who had recently migrated “from Hong Kong and Southern China” due to the change in the 1965 immigration policy, which allowed men to apply for their families to join them.19 Quan, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, and community activist, became a factory worker to “try to organize from within.”20 Belonging to the union meant receiving vacation benefits, holiday pay, increase in wages, death benefits, defined pension benefits, access to the unions’ free health center, health care, and family coverage, and this incentivized health-conscious family caretakers to become members of the union. Although in 1970s, nearly 80 percent of the membership to the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), Local 23-25 was Chinese women, Quan states that “the union was viewed as an institution that was external to the Chinese community.”21 Despite high membership levels, the Chinese women’s participation was low due to non-translated events and union literature, and a lack of specific programs for Chinese members. Therefore non-Chinese union members often doubted the commitment of Chinese women to the union.
In 1979, Quan petitioned for the union to address child-care needs; this issue became popular among the rest of the women union members. According to Quan, “local union officials … refused to include members of our Committee in their meetings to consider child care.”22 By 1982, the manufacturers refused to sign the union contract and demanded that workers give back three holidays, medical, and retirement benefits. Quan wrote an article for the community newspaper, Sing Tao Daily News, in support of a strike. Chinese women volunteered to pass leaflets in Chinatown, spoke to strangers about the strike, and got invited to talk on a radio show. In Chinatown’s Columbus Park, twenty thousand garment workers rallied together. The union won the strike; Quan writes, “We showed that we could do it not just to union officials, but to our community, our families, and ourselves.”23 They were able to overcome otherness by acting on their class interest alongside other non-Chinese union garment workers. The union realized how important the Chinese were to the union and, as a consequence, implemented resources to improve staff relations with Chinese members, bilingual staff as cultural brokers, immigration paralegal aid, English classes, health services, and “an internationally-recognized model child care center for Chinatown members was set up a year later.”24 The union became internal to the social fabric of the community. Despite Chinese women garment workers being the most vulnerable labor force, they were able to overcome otherness by actively participating in a union through the aid of a cultural broker: Katie Quan. Eventually, however, the garment industry would export their labor abroad for even cheaper wages; the author concludes her article by calling for all garment workers to organize globally.
Today’s workers are in desperate need of a global organization that will protect their rights; Amazon’s model embodies contemporary forms of worker exploitation. While not all of their workers are first-generation immigrants, their workers are equally vulnerable. In the digital era, technological innovations have cheapened labor and allowed data firms to mine minimum wage-workers and gig-workers for their resources: both labor and data. Alessandro Delfanti, author of “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism: Digital Work in an Amazon Warehouse,” argues that when technology is given control, it will continue to exploit the worker. Through his research in the Amazon fulfillment centers, Delfanti states that “Technology dictates the pace of work at Amazon,” which hires part-time, full-time, and gig workers.25 In an interview the author conducted with a manager, when asked about the role of technology in the workplace, the state, “technology codifies, understands and manages. But the real machine is the human: everything is done manually.”26 The manager demonstrates that the workers are no longer considered human. Instead, in an Amazon warehouse, they become machines due to dehumanization and a subordinate relationship to machines. Delfanti points out the over-reliance the workers have on technology, so much so that the workers no longer have to think but perform a repetitive task. “Many perceive their job not only as physically demanding and repetitive but also as unskilled and alienating.”27 The alienation and datafication of the worker are harmful as it dehumanizes workers and reduces them to data points, similar to how the bracero worker Carlos Morales felt.
Further, Delfanti argues that the algorithm, which dictates how much time a worker spends on a task based on their previous labor, dominates the workplace, and the managerial tasks are authoritarian and replicate colonial structures. Delfanti argues that the totalitarian control created by the managerial algorithm demonstrates “Amazon’s ability to control and subdue its workforce while ensuring it continues to amass new workers in its warehouses.”28 The algorithm does this by pushing its workers to maximum efficiency, monitoring phone activity, surveilling with heat mapping, and promoting algorithm penalization, thus perpetuating ideas that workers are powerless, disposable, and replaceable. Delfanti then illustrates the power imbalance based on information asymmetries in Amazon, “The monopoly over knowledge about the warehouse inventory resides in machinery rather than with managers.”29 According to the company, the technology holds all the knowledge, and the workers have none of it. In contrast, workers are aware of algorithmic dependency. All they know about its processes and the data it collects is from personal experience. The algorithm has an ‘insatiable appetite’ for the data of clients and its workers shows how data mining is invasive and illustrates the data extraction done by Amazon’s algorithm. Delfanti demonstrates that the Amazon algorithm operates like a colonial power, creating dissatisfied workers, extracting resources from workers and users through data mining, and perpetuating centuries-old labor practices through technology.
It’s important to remember that the technology, laws, and policy across history are tools. These tools have been and are currently being used to exploit workers, but these same tools have potential if wielded by the workers. In the article “What Do Platforms Do? Understanding the Gig Economy,” authors Steven P. Vallas and Juliet B. Schor discuss how gig workers have been able to use technology to their advantage: “Some labor groups have constructed apps for day laborers to report untrustworthy employers and guard against wage theft.”30 The power of these tools can be decentralized by placing them in the hands of workers and out of reach to masters, tobacco firms, and other corporate bosses. Tools like language, technology, and laws have positioned workers and their employers in an asymmetry of information that has allowed labor coercion, taken away freedoms, and dehumanized people. Across different groups of laborers and periods, it is clear that upon arrival, immigrants inherit a labor institution that racializes the bodies of immigrants to justify labor exploitation to decrease wages as much as possible. These distinct groups of workers demonstrate that the “cheapest laborer” is malleable, the particular group of people who provides it changes over time and historical circumstance. What’s consistent is their vulnerability: those dehumanized through enslavement, reduction to a data point, or immigration status. The Chinese women garment workers were able to gain a better quality of life because they overcame perpetual otherness by acting in their class interest, thus gaining compassion and solidarity from their white counterparts. What Fields states about the recourse of the enslaved is true for all workers: “Ultimately, the only check upon oppression is the strength and effectiveness of resistance to it.”31 Labor exploitation can be prevented through developing class consciousness, organizing globally, and holding worker abusive firms and institutions accountable for their actions. By reclaiming tools of mass control and developing class consciousness, new arrivals in the future can inherit the historical resistance left behind by gig workers, minimum wage workers, union workers, braceros, coolies, the enslaved, and the indentured.
- “Indentured Servitude in the U.S.” History Detectives Special Investigations, PBS.
- Brendan Wolfe,“Indentured Servants in Colonial Virginia,” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities February 26, 2021.
- General Assembly,“Law Regulating Indentured Servants (1643),” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020.
- General Assembly, “How long Servants without Indentures shall Serve (1658),” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020.
- General Assembly, “Concerning secret Marriages (1658),” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020.
- General Assembly, “An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences (1696),” Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Humanities, December 7, 2020.
- General Assembly, “An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences (1696).”
- General Assembly, “An act for punishment of ffornication and seaverall other sins and offences (1696).
- Barbara Jeanne Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” New Left Review 181 (1990), 104.
- Fields,“Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” 105.
- “Slavery in America – Timeline,” Jim Crow Museum, Ferris State University, 2019.
- Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation, (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 13.
- Jung, Coolies and Cane, 18.
- Jung, Coolies and Cane, 11.
- Jung, Coolies and Cane, 38.
- Mae M. Ngai, “Braceros, ‘Wetbacks,’ and the National Boundaries of Class,” Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America – Updated Edition (Princeton University Press, 2014), 95.
- Carlos Morales quoted in Ngai, “Braceros, ‘Wetbacks,’ and the National Boundaries of Class,” 146.
- Ngai, “Braceros, ‘Wetbacks,’ and the National Boundaries of Class,” 138.
- “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” Amerasia Journal 35, no. 1 (200(, 77.
- Quan,“Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” 78.
- Quan, “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” 80.
- Quan, “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” 81.
- Quan, “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” 85.
- Quan, “Memories of the 1982 ILGWU Strike in New York Chinatown,” 86.
- Alessandro Delfanti, “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism: Digital Work in an Amazon Warehouse,” New Media & Society (December 2019), 2.
- Delfanti, “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism,” 2.
- Delfanti, “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism,” 3.
- Delfanti, “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism,” 5.
- Delfanti, “Machinic Dispossession and Augmented Despotism,” 8.
- Steven Vallas and Juliet B. Schor, “What Do Platforms Do? Understanding the Gig Economy,” Annual Review of Sociology 46, no. 1 (2020),15.
- Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America,” 103.