The Exploitation of Day Laborers: Structural Forces and Future Research

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The ways in which people in the United States face exploitation in the workplace are vast and disturbing. From a sociological perspective, functionalism serves as a way of understanding cultural and institutional structures on a macro scale. Functionalists recognize that there are systems in place that are meant to stabilize and add control the working organism that is society. In opposition, conflict theory and conflict theorists recognize that material, political and social inequalities subject groups and individuals to the detriments and benefits of systems of power and structural forces that functionalists would argue keep certain groups oppressed in order to benefit society. Additionally, interactionism is a way of analyzing and identifying the subjectivity of the human experience when considering structural forces and identity formation in society on a micro scale. Day laborers and the exploitation that they experience can be understood using these frameworks and implications for further study can be alluded to when thinking about and discussing these two cases of day laborer exploitation. In general, research needs to be conducted in order to better understand the intricacies of such exploitation in order to benefit the oppressed.

In the first case under review day laborers in New Jersey are suffering at the hands of their exploiters. While being forced to complete work in harsh labor conditions with little enforced labor laws, more than ¼ of day laborers surveyed were severely injured and more than ¼ had been assaulted by at least 1 employer (Semple 2011). The irony of the situation is that labor laws have been in place and state statutes have been passed in order to protect workers from wage theft, injury, and assault. However, these laws have been under enforced to an immeasurable degree, and no bill has been introduced that would hold employers directly accountable even though the suggestion has been given attention by representatives (Semple 2011).

This issue is directly related to both functionalism and conflict theory at the macro state level. As it can be understood, the State is purposefully allowing these talks to take place and voices are, in a sense, being heard, while nothing is being done directly to mitigate the atrocities taking place. Processes have been slow and/or stagnant, and little is being done where it needs to be done in order to serve the purposes of capitalism and to perpetuate cheap labor and exploitation. Therefore, we can see that representatives of day laborers are either not actually filing claims or paying attention to workers complaints, or they recognize the politics behind the strategic lack of implementation to help those that do not have the means to help themselves and are forced to work in unbearable conditions although they are being ruthlessly exploited.

In the second case, day laborers at Los Angeles car washes are working for wages comparable to indentured servitude and many are earning less than $2 an hour, which is not a wage suitable for the standards of living in the United States (Nazario, Smith 2008). When regulators asked workers how much they were making almost all responded by stating that they earned minimum wage or more. However, upon regulator review of the record books, workers that were working 40+ hours a week were often documented only having worked 10-15 hours a week (Nazario, Smith 2008). It is evident that wages are being stolen and little repercussions are taking place for the employers that are actively stealing the wages of their workers, many of whom are of immigrant status.

Additionally, according to a 2000 census, approximately 92% of Los Angeles County’s carwashers were of immigrant status and migrated to the country illegally (Nazario, Smith 2008). Therefore, what we are seeing is the exploitation of illegal immigrants in a specific geographic area where they are high in population and face exploitation and discrimination despite their numbers. This case emphasizes interactionism theory. Unfortunately, even though the workers in Los Angeles County are strong in numbers, they also recognize their status and assume all carwashers are subjected to the same treatment. Not only is their identity formed in the context of their geographic area, it is also formed due to the fact that they are large in number, recognize their treatment, and do not have the volition to change their situation it in their perception as well as in reality.

In these two cases we see several basic social issues at hand: exploitation, race and class discrimination, and hegemonic oppression. In the United States as a society collective we can see that the relationships and the treatment of humans is unequal to say the least. Employers, whom are subjected to the scrutiny of the government, clearly play a role in constructing the invisible and underrepresented identities of many day laborers whose rights are undermined by their illegal status and the hopelessness that comes from exploitation and lack of means to climb the social ladder. Capitalism as an institution also serves to perpetuate this cycle of poverty that day laborers are subjected to. Employers seek to run businesses at minimal cost to them. Through forgery of paperwork and mistreatment of workers who often only get paid for 25% or less of the work they are doing coupled by the lack of benefits and workers compensation, employers are able to do business as cheaply as possible. The government does not strictly enforce rules against employers’ exploitation of their laborers, which is tied to the questionable morality of the treatment of human beings because their illegal status. Their rights as humans and as workers are mitigated, violated and misrepresented. The representation of day laborers is either false or dead end because they are still subjected to the same exploitation that they have been for decades, with little improvement.

There are several aspects of this issue that I would like to see researched further in order to increase understanding as to why human beings are treated so unfairly in the United States simply because they were not born here and did not have the means to obtain citizenship. Obtaining citizenship is costly, time-consuming, and nearly impossible for most that want it in order to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

First of all, upon reviewing these two cases, researchers need to look into labor laws across the United States and how they differentiate in addition to general trends of exploitation that day laborers are subjected to across states. While it is understood that day laborers are subjected to extreme wage theft, abuse, assault, and unsafe working conditions, it would be desirable to understand how these changes across industries and across states. Which states have the strictest enforcement of labor laws for both citizens and noncitizens, and which states protect the human rights of their immigrant workers most effectively? How can these measures be implemented nation-wide, and what roadblocks will be encountered?

In order to address the issues presented above, understanding the functions of the unfair practices of wage exploitation that subject day laborers to unfair treatment and harsh working conditions for little pay, a greater emphasis on feedback, continuity and communication across the groups of interest should be utilized (Karsten 1983). These are galling that sociologists aspire to achieve in order to educate the public and to understand the socioeconomic struggles that subject underprivileged individuals, such as those that have immigrant status, to unfair labor practices, low pay, and little upward mobility. In order to understand the exploitation of day laborers, it is important to understand the structural systems in place, the institutions that allow the systems to be active in the business of exploitation, and how this communication across groups actually affects change (or lack thereof) before implementing alternatives.

If an effective study were to be designed, it would be ideal to interview the ambassadors, the managers, and the representatives of noncitizen day laborers themselves. As it is understood, wage laborers feel powerless and do not have the fortitude and the volition to make much needed changes for themselves. Probing to get honest answers from the representatives of wage laborers themselves across the United States would be ideal. Creating a study design that addresses what is actually being done and addresses whether or not representatives actually acknowledge the pains of day laborers and is actually communicating with laborers in order to address their needs is key.

In conclusion, day laborers are exploited and misrepresented and their needs are not being met adequately. This type of exploitation can be understood through frameworks such as functionalism and conflict theory as well as interactionism on a micro level. In order to understand how this type of exploitation continues to happen, functionalism is the best framework to work with. It is clear that there are self-serving functions due to the institution of capitalism that allows this type of exploitation to persist. Although conversations are being had, and bills and statutes are being proposed in order to mitigate this problem of human suffering, it cannot be understood unless it is understood both on a macro level and a micro level. Wide-scale and far-reaching study would be able to assess trends, changes, and best practices in order to serve the exploited rather than the exploiters. There always seems to be a disconnect between representatives of the exploited and the exploited themselves. Interviewing representatives and regulators across industries in which day laborers work about the working conditions, complaints risen, and actual actions taking place on the ground would be ideal in understanding what can and should be done. A large scale quantitative and qualitative study sampling and interviewing representatives and regulators would be ideal for understanding the political and structural intricacies of this type of exploitation.

Works Cited

Karsten, Siegfried G. "Dialectics, Functionalism, and Structuralism, in Economic Thought."American Journal of Economics and Sociology 42.2 (1983): 179-92. Print.

Nazario, Sonia, and Doug Smith. "Workers Getting Soaked at Southland Carwashes." LosAngeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Mar. 2008. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.<>.

Semple, Kirk. "Study Finds Exploitation of Day Laborers." The New York Times. N.p., 9 Jan.2011. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <>.