2021 was an eventful year. Aside from several new waves of COVID that I, frankly, have lost track of, the previous year also bore witness to a big global shift in the way we think about work and labor relations.
Without getting too deep into the arguments just yet, chances are that you’ve recently become part of the growing list of people who have something to say about labor. It’s one of the few things that nearly every person on earth is subjected to.
Whether you work in an office building, a cornfield, or a bedroom that’s been repurposed as a home office, you are likely one of the roughly 3.29 billion people worldwide who are employed.
That massive number doesn’t count the number of economic contributors coming from underdocumented groups of workers like vendors in most of the global south and the women (and, sometimes, men) who maintain households to make dedicated, on-call work possible for many people.
Point is, work affects most of us and it only makes sense that we have strong opinions about it.
There’s an added emotional dimension to our stances on work that goes beyond the hard numbers that census data and employment figures can provide, though. When economists talk about labor, work, and employment, it’s easy to think of work as this clean, human factors-free cog in the capitalist machine.
But if you take the time to really feel rather than just think about labor, you’ll likely find that labor tensions aren’t just a David vs. Goliath fight between corporations and workers. It is, sadly, also a fight between workers themselves.
If you haven’t noticed by now, I am not a Caucasian person. My surname gives it away. My photo at the end of this article gives it away even more so. Well, my great grandparents were, but that’s an anecdote for a later article on colonialism. The thing is, I’m not really “white” and neither is most of my family.
Centuries of Spanish blood, last seen in a blue-eyed great uncle, and a smattering of Chinese merchant genes have long since given way to brown skin and small stature that are undeniable markers of the Malay people, seafarers who spread throughout Southeast Asia and left proof of their exploits in the fact that most of us look exactly like each other. Think Vikings but with coconuts instead of drinking horns.
These days, their descendants continue that proud tradition of international travel as foreign workers.
If you live in the Bay Area, you’ve seen at least one of us. Ask anyone of Southeast Asian descent why their parents or grandparents immigrated and you’re likely to hear that it’s because of better work opportunities.
Barring Southeast Asian-Americans whose families escaped the Vietnam War and other similar incidents, the majority of our people are economic immigrants who later bring over the rest of their families to the U.S.
As of 2020, 23.6 million Southeast Asians live outside of the countries they originally came from. Six million of those, the largest single group, come from the Philippines.
Often seen as the gullible maids and banana sellers of the world, the Mexicans of Asia, or, if you want to be really nasty, mail order brides, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to say we don’t have the most prestigious image on the international stage. But if you’re online and no one sees your face and hears your voice, it’s pretty easy to forget that racists exist and it’s just as easy to forget that brown people exist on the internet.
In my many years of living online, I’ve met dozens of people from all walks of life, each with different stories and perspectives that I could never even begin to imagine experiencing because it’s so foreign to me.
Aside from a few encounters with creeps, it’s been a positive experience because you realize that, at the end of the day, everyone is a person just like you and that alone makes connecting with them easier.
This also meant that when I, then an 18-year-old local brown girl, and R, a guy in his early 20s from what he often called the “Butt Crack of America,” started talking about books and a shared love for Shadiversity entirely through Discord messages, neither of us realized exactly who we were talking to.
That’s why it got pretty awkward when a chance convergence of timezones led to us hearing each other on a Discord voice channel after months of nerding out together. How awkward? R realized he was talking to someone with an obviously not American accent only to later discover that he was specifically talking to someone who was Southeast Asian.
Our friendship cooled for a few weeks after that. Obviously, I was confused. I didn’t get why this otherwise cool online friend didn’t want to talk about half-swording anymore. I figured he was just gone, lost to the abyss where friends you meet in co-op games disappear to.
And then a breakthrough. One simple message that basically boiled down to a neutral-on-the-surface “I didn’t expect you to be not-white.” It took me a few minutes to process. When I did, it felt like being smacked over the head with the realization that “Oh sh*t, that’s a loaded statement.”
As much as I want to say that I have definitively made R completely abandon his racist beliefs about foreigners stealing (white) American jobs, the truth is that it was just a start. The only thing I did was make him realize that the brown men and women he lowkey hated and feared so much were people just like him, some of them just as nerdy as he is.
He also made me realize that so much of anti-brown hate is just fear and disillusionment. You’d expect R to be the one who’s better off between the two of us but, and this isn’t to brag at all, I live like a queen compared to him.
At the time, his family was deep in debt. His father had passed away years prior and his mother was disabled, leaving him with all the responsibility of providing and caring for two younger siblings.
So there he was, a regular 20-something Caucasian male struggling to survive on the day-to-day and, at one point, half-jokingly calling himself “white trash” and all around him, what he saw was a system that was better equipped to help brown immigrants than him.
Suddenly, the whole “foreigners are stealing muh job” line isn’t just a stereotypical meme associated with “rednecks” to me. It was a symptom of growing dissatisfaction with the way the U.S. is unable to take care of its citizens efficiently and this dissatisfaction manifested in anxiety about immigrants making already scarce social services even more difficult to come by.
Love him or hate him, this was the same anxiety that former President Donald J. Trump was tapping into when he began to restrict the influx of immigrant workers into the U.S.
That said, were foreign workers ever to blame for perceived job shortages in America? Yes, but also no.
Let’s start with the “no” part. I think we can all at least agree that foreign workers from the global south, whether they’re Southeast Asian or South American, don’t have a hidden shadowy organization aimed towards the economic undermining of the (white) American worker. It’s not like brown people hire themselves and fire white workers. If anything, the vast majority of Americans believe that immigrants fill jobs that U.S citizens don’t want to work in.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans across race and political boundaries largely agree that immigrants typically take jobs that are deemed undesirable. In a way, this is true. The vast majority of immigrants work in jobs that are typically categorized as unskilled labor. This is clearest with unauthorized immigrant workers who are typically employed in the agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries.
This lines up with differences in what Americans say about foreign workers. While most Americans agree that foreign workers do undesirable jobs, the exact percentages of how many of them think that way differ based on educational attainment. This isn’t a “racists are just stupid” thing.
In descending order, it goes something like this: 88% of adults with post-graduate degrees, 84% of bachelor’s degree holders, 78% of people with some degree of college education, and, strikingly, 69% of those who have a high school diploma or less.
Groups with lower educational attainment believe that immigrants have jobs that U.S. citizens would want to have at a higher rate than those with higher educational attainment even though we’ve already seen that foreign workers typically do unskilled work. These stats often get used to paint racists as a monolith of evil and stupid people, but they’re really a key point in considering why people feel that way towards immigrant workers.
They really do stand to lose their jobs to them.
Even workers who are employed in degree-gated roles find themselves indirectly threatened by what is, and let’s be clear here, the exploitation of all workers. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the rise of r/Antiwork and the Great Resignation, it’s that corporations and even government institutions will do everything except pay workers more.
Teachers in the U.S. have been leaving the profession in droves to work in better-paid fields with better conditions. This should serve as an incentive to make schools pay teachers more, but instead, they are slowly being replaced by freshly imported teachers from the Philippines who take the job because the pay is even worse back home. New teachers in some private schools can be paid as little as Php 15,000 to 20,000 a month. That’s the equivalent of roughly 300 to 400 U.S. dollars.
Rather than pay workers in the U.S. a living wage, corporations instead turn to the exploitation of immigrant workers. Basically, exploitation-ception with one exploited group being exploited to further the exploitation of another. Cue the National Anthem of the USSR.
Jokes aside, immigration has been used to drive down the negotiating power of U.S. workers while taking advantage of the weaker protections in place for foreign workers. While native workers have the luxury of suing and resigning for a better job, many immigrants, even if legal, can’t afford the risk of losing their income in a country where they aren’t quite part of the social safety net VIP list.
This means that they’re often more willing to just “put up” with inhumane practices that range from being made to do illegal amounts of overtime work to being placed in indentured servitude by staffing agencies to being forced into sex work.
Many foreign workers find themselves unwittingly trapped by unscrupulous recruiters in what is essentially indentured servitude. “Fly now, pay later” schemes are popular in countries that supply the world with brown labor and these setups have workers taking on debt for flight tickets and/or their training.
A prominent recent example of this is the exploitation of Thai workers in Sweden, a country many of us think of as a laborer’s paradise, where berry pickers take on massive debt for a chance at a “better life.”
I don’t have any delusions about us all holding hands and singing kumbaya because there will always be racists out there. But with the ease of access to the internet, and thus, information about each other’s experiences with exploitative work practices, maybe we can create more common ground where we can realize that it sucks for everybody and it isn’t the brown worker’s fault.