In this country we cherish and value hard work, believing it to be dignified and worthy of recognition and respect. In the United States labor market, millions of workers, many of whom are Latino, are working hard for low wages—holding down jobs that offer no benefits, no safety from workplace injury, and no chance of upward mobility into good-quality jobs. Over the last several decades, job quality in the U.S. has declined as employers respond to stiff global competition by reducing wages, decreasing the standard benefits offered to workers, and in some cases willfully violating labor laws and health and safety standards. Occasionally, a story about exploited workers, severely injured or killed on the job, makes the evening news, offering a glimpse into the everyday experiences of workers in the low-wage labor market. Despite these news accounts, there is very little noticeable political and public will—certainly at the national level—to improve standards in the low-wage labor market. Some may believe that low wages, no benefits, and lax health and safety standards are a normal part of the underbelly of the U.S. labor market, while others may believe that workers who choose to take these jobs do not deserve more. Either way the result is the same—no significant improvement in the working conditions of low-wage workers.

In an effort to illustrate the impact of poor job quality, National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is releasing a collection of stories told by Latinos working in low-wage industries throughout metropolitan Washington, DC. This publication, We Needed the Work: Latino Worker Voices in the New Economy, tells the story of hardworking Latinos who have endured instability, mistreatment, and the violation of their basic rights, all in an effort to support themselves and their families. These stories also show that poor working conditions are common and widespread throughout the low-wage labor market, leaving workers with few options for better jobs. It is precisely the lack of choices that drives workers into unsafe workplaces, many run by unscrupulous and unaccountable employers.

This collection chronicles the everyday struggles of men and women who work long hours, encounter daily threats to their health and safety, and experience constant fear of being fired and blacklisted if they dare to stand up for their rights. Whether they work in restaurant kitchens, clean offices and hotels, or construct homes and buildings, they all face similar threats to their health, safety, and financial insecurity due to job instability and the absence of benefits. Workers describe the effects of poor working conditions on themselves and their families, emphasizing their stress, anxiety, and diminished physical health due to injuries and illnesses.

Take, for example, Rosa, a hotel housekeeper in northern Virginia who earns below-poverty wages and struggles to make ends meet. Four years ago, a new management company took over her hotel and began forcing all of the housekeepers to double the number of rooms they cleaned per shift and pay for their own cleaning supplies:

“When I go to the doctor he says that my muscles are inflamed,” Rosa told NCLR. “Well, look—it isn’t just me—all of my coworkers’ doctors say the same thing, that we have inflamed muscles from excessive work.” 

Rosa and her coworkers initiated a campaign to unionize their hotel, forcing her employer to reduce the number of rooms she cleaned per shift and requiring that her cleaning supplies be provided for her. Nonetheless, the managers still pressure her to work more; even with two weeks’ notice and a letter from her church, she was denied a schedule change to attend her daughter’s first communion:

“You feel penned in and it makes you want to leave and go somewhere else,” she explained, “but if we leave this fight, it will be as if our struggle was for nothing. If we leave this fight, everything will stay the same and they will continue exploiting more people.”

But, Rosa’s story is only one piece of the puzzle. NCLR’s research staff spoke with laborers who were either being undercompensated for the time that they worked, often working at below- poverty wages like Rosa, or who were being completely cheated out of their wages. Others were not given the proper safety equipment and training to work in dangerous situations, such as asbestos clean-up, or could not find a job that offered employer-sponsored benefits to help them and their families meet their basic health needs. Still others were forced to endure harsh working conditions without food or water breaks, with no sick leave or vacation, and with the fear that complaining could cost them their jobs. These stories are not anomalies—millions of low-wage workers encounter these conditions every day.

A strong workforce is critical to our nation’s economy. Yet, our workforce will remain weakened as long as a large segment of the labor market is unprotected. Latinos currently make up 15% of the U.S. workforce and are estimated to become 33% of the total population by 2050—they are the largest and fastest-growing segment of the American workforce. The experiences of Hispanic workers are a barometer by which to measure America’s job quality, economic health, and future stability; their experiences are critical to understanding and improving job quality in the U.S. To strengthen our current and future workforce, citizens and voters should listen to these stories and call on their leaders to restore dignity and respect for the millions of American workers who are the foundation of our economy.

Rosa’s story was taken from a report, We Needed the Work: Latino Workers Voices in the New Economy, which will be released by NCLR on Tuesday, May 24. The names of all persons, companies, and organizations have been changed or omitted to protect the interviewees.  



NCLR blog


Eric Rodriguez