Female day laborers represent invisible, 'silent segment of city's population'
By Roberto Daza
San Francisco’s undocumented workforce waits patiently for a day’s work, crowding the early-morning sidewalks in San Francisco’s Mission District, from the dingy and unkempt landscapes of the 25th Street exit and nearby Rolph Park to the noticeably better-maintained streets of Guerrero and Dolores.
One drive through the area and it’s hard to miss the increasing presence of Latin America’s economic migrants. Groups of men pepper street corners, many of them gone by noon in hurried sidewalk negotiations, but one group is noticeably absent from these daily transactions and never really given a second thought: women.
At a time when the male day laborer has become the most recognizable face of economic immigration in San Francisco, and by extent the United States, the female day laborer goes unnoticed.
“They’re a silent segment the city’s population,” says Teresa Carillo, a professor at San Francisco State University (SFSU) who specializes in Latino politics with an emphasis in immigration. “Working in realms of domestic service that make it hard [for them] to be heard.”
Research by groups such as the Mexican Migration Project, a bi-national effort between the University of Guadalajara (Mexico) and Princeton, and the Urban Institute, a policy research organization in based in Washington, seem to support that claim.
Despite making up over 44% of the nation’s low-wage immigrant work force and, according to United Nations statistics, migrating for work in greater numbers than ever before, they remain invisible.
“There are still more male migrants than women, but the gap is closing quickly,” said Carillo.
Even Velia Garcia, a Raza Studies Department professor at SFSU, and colleague of Carrillo, whose research includes analysis of the migrant workforce in Pescadero on the California Coast, was surprised at how little thought she’d given to this issue.
“When you think of jornaleros [day laborers], you think of the men,” said Julian Romero, day laborer and member of the Women’s Collective, an organization that advocates for the rights of domestic service workers, in an interview in Spanish.
In some major cities, like New York, women can be seen standing side-by-side with the men seeking jobs as cooks, housekeepers, and caretakers. But in San Francisco, women tend to rely on each other and grassroots labor organizations to find their next job— a job that nevertheless is usually just as temporary as the landscaping and construction jobs the men find.
“ A lot of work is obtained by more familial or community-based networking,” said Carillo. “You will not see women standing in the streets for work.”
This statement still begs the question: why are the male and female day laborer experiences so different?
“It may have a bit to do with physical vulnerability,” said Garcia. “It isn’t very safe for women to be standing outside, alone, waiting for work.”
In fact, safety was a concern expressed by everyone interviewed for this article, and a concern that was also touched upon in a report by the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council. Focusing on violence against female migrant workers, the report found that “because of their subordinate status both as migrants and as women, female migrant workers are highly vulnerable to exploitation and ill-treatment.”
That vulnerability is also part of the reason why female migrants tends to stay for longer periods of time in the United States, for an average of seven years between arriving the US and returning to their country of origin.
In the case of female migrants of Mexican origin, border crossing is seen as a dangerous and costly ordeal.
“There is a lot of sexual violence: rape, robbery ” explained Carrillo. “Women are more vulnerable in the absence of the rule of law.”
As for the female day laborer experience in the U.S., according to a 2002 study of low-wage immigrant workers in the U.S. by the Urban Institute, they are likely to be single mothers supporting children in their native countries. Compared with their male counterparts, they earn less, despite higher levels of education, are also more likely to remain in the U.S., and send home a higher proportion of their earnings.
But the female day laborer, and her visible absence from public consciousness, may be the result of several factors, such as policy, politics, the inability to vote, and the need for affordable labor, that according to Carrillo, work in conjunction to “corral women into the unregulated, underpaid, and informal sector of domestic service” without having to provide adequate compensation.