Migrant and Black Women Workers Have Made this City

Walking the streets and trying to maneuver my way through the labyrinthic subway system, I keep encountering a woman who historically has nourished this city but has been kept in the shadows. She has had multiple faces throughout time. But if we take an attentive look at history, she’s the one always offering care: making food, cleaning, constructing, clothing New Yorkers, and much more. She is a migrant and a racialized, segregated worker. She tends to come from the Souths. She has endured low-paid, undignified, and unstable working conditions, and all her conquests have resulted from an incredible effort that ultimately has benefited all kinds of workers.

You might see her going back to Greenwich Village’s 1990s when she took to the streets and protested the inhumane working conditions endured by garment workers. She was demanding dignity for workers of the textile industry, who were mainly migrant women, perhaps arriving from Ukraine, just like Clara Lemlich, or from Italy. She used to work 11 hours, for 3 dollars a day in unsanitary and crowded sweatshops under the brutal treatment of her contractors. Lemlich headed the picket lines, often receiving beatings by policemen, but that wouldn’t stop her. She would stand in front of her co-workers speaking in Yiddish and shouting “I’m a working girl”. This episode of women workers protesting will later be remembered as the Uprising of the 20,000.

And yet, not all women workers have had the opportunity to organize, protest, and form unions. Especially if their labor has been seen as a unskilled trade not “worthy” of basic labor rights. And so, African American women domestic workers of the 1930s had other cumbersome paths to cross, very different from Lemlich’s uprising, to obtain the same basic worker protection.

If you stand on the corner of 170th Street and Jerome Avenue in the Bronx you can try to picture her again, our New York City worker, now rambling through the infamous Bronx Slave Market. There, she would wait in the corners until a potential employer approached. Then, she’ll have to bargain for her labor sometimes as low as 15 or 20 cents an hour to perform heavy-duty cleaning, such as window washing, at upper and middle-class white homes. Black women faced discrimination in the labor market after the Great Depression, companies and agencies often favored white women for upskilled and better-paid jobs. As Makoroba Sow (2022) explains the conditions under which Black women had to accept these street jobs and go to a stranger’s house, made them very vulnerable. Many reported being sexually abused or not even paid after an entire day of work.

The Bronx Slave Market was put under scrutiny thanks to the courageous undercover reporting of other Black women activists such as Lois Taylor and Ella Baker. But the struggle continues until these days. Domestic work, still performed almost entirely by migrant women, is widely regarded as unskilled labor and does not have the most basic protections or job security rights. Nowadays, it might not be the Black women arriving from the south the ones doing domestic underpaid works rather, Latina workers are the ones now providing all kinds of services, from cleaning to babysitting to cooking and even building the city and its homes.

The investigative work by Black women to uplift and dismantle street corner domestic work in the 1930s eventually established the Domestic Workers Union (DWU). But street corner markets are still alive.

You can go on 2024 to Williamsburg to find her again, the underpaid women worker, waiting in the street to be hired for one day. Popularly known as jornaleras, these migrant women workers are reminiscent of the African American women of the 1930s. Many aspects of their job are still shocking: their vulnerable conditions as newcomers to this city exploited by their employers with wage theft and gender-based violence tactics. Just like the 1930’s street markets, plenty of jornaleras are not paid the minimum wage and suffer sexual assault while performing their work.

Some migrant Latina workers tired of low-paid unstable jobs in the domestic service industry are now picking up new trade skills in construction to, hopefully, land in a high-demanding job and provide for their families, as Stefanos Chen and Ana Ley reported for the New York Times (2023).  

Now, every time I’m observing the city and I take a glance at any of those luxurious buildings popping up in Long Island City or Downtown Manhattan I wonder how many women are building and maintaining the spaces for others to live comfortably. I hope those women also get a dignified job and have a place to call home after their workday. How is it possible that the women workers providing care for New Yorkers and even building their offices and homes cannot call this city home?

María Fernanda Buitrago is the Community Educator at Violence Intervention Program, working with the Community Engagement Team. She has previously worked with other cultural and non-profit institutions in New York City and Colombia. María Fernanda is currently pursuing her master’s in Digital Humanities with a certificate on Women’s and Gender Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her capstone project focuses on documenting the lives of women in western Boyacá, Colombia through a digital collection that shines light on their resilience and memories.
https://www.gc.cuny.edu/news/digital-humanities-masters-student-sets-precedent

Photo credit:

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Mexican market wom[an]” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1898.
https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8a32ad90-c0bf-0134-946e-00505686a51c

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