Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age

Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age

by Nilda Flores-Gonzalez

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To date, most research on immigrant women and labor forces has focused on the participation of immigrant women on formal labor markets. In this study, contributors focus on informal economies such as health care, domestic work, street vending, and the garment industry, where displaced and undocumented women are more likely to work. Because such informal


To date, most research on immigrant women and labor forces has focused on the participation of immigrant women on formal labor markets. In this study, contributors focus on informal economies such as health care, domestic work, street vending, and the garment industry, where displaced and undocumented women are more likely to work. Because such informal labor markets are unregulated, many of these workers face abusive working conditions that are not reported for fear of job loss or deportation. In examining the complex dynamics of how immigrant women navigate political and economic uncertainties, this collection highlights the important role of citizenship status in defining immigrant women's opportunities, wages, and labor conditions.
Contributors are Pallavi Banerjee, Grace Chang, Margaret M. Chin, Jennifer Jihye Chun, Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán, Emir Estrada, Lucy Fisher, Nilda Flores-González, Ruth Gomberg-Munoz, Anna Romina Guevarra, Shobha Hamal Gurung, Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, María de la Luz Ibarra, Miliann Kang, George Lipsitz, Lolita Andrada Lledo, Lorena Muñoz, Bandana Purkayastha, Mary Romero, Young Shin, Michelle Téllez, and Maura Toro-Morn.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"By including the voices of the women currently doing the majority of reproductive work in the US, Immigrant Women Workers adds an important element to the conversation. Immigrant Women Workers captures many of the issues of perpetual importance to immigrant women workers."—Women's Review of Books

"This work carries important implications for labor educators and organizers… This book solidly reinforces the concept as Audre Lorde explains, that single issue research and organizing is ineffective because we do not lead single-issue lives."—Labor Studies Journal

"Grounded in rich ethnographic data, each of these informative case studies makes for compelling reading in addressing these workers' current conditions and positions. Highly Recommended."—Choice

"The editors have succeeded in bringing together a wide range of excellent ethnographic research from scholars from different social science disciplines. What distinguishes this volume from other academic books on the subject is the authors' explicit intention to make manifest their double role as academics and activists. The authors present concrete data and analysis meant to give basis to future strategies to improve the situation of women migrants… The collection provides relevant and timely case study material for teaching and research into the gendered effects of the recent economic crisis and neo-liberal policy-making on the lives of migrants in the USA."—Ethnic and Racial Studies

"An important volume that highlights the ways in which immigrant women in the US are both adapting to, and fighting to improve, their workplaces."—Labour/Le Travail

"A valuable addition to a growing body of literature that critically examines the experiences of women migrants in the informal economy.  What sets this collection of papers apart from other works on immigrant worker women is that in these narratives the women's trials and their triumphs are highlighted.  These women are not passive victim in their narratives.  Their agency is apparent, and presented clearly to the reader."—Gender & Development

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University of Illinois Press
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1st Edition
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Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age



Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09482-8


Street Vendors Claiming Respect and Dignity in the Neoliberal City


On a cold and windy morning in February 2009, I traveled to downtown Brooklyn to attend a march in support of street vendors called by Esperanza del Barrio, an organization working with Latina street vendors in East Harlem. The objective of the march was to protest the existing caps on food cart permits and general merchandise licenses that New York City imposed two and a half decades earlier. According to the organization's press release, "The City profits from hard working vendors by enforcing these antiquated and unjust regulations. Interactions between officials and vendors have also become increasingly aggressive. The unacceptable policy adopted by the Department of Health to pour bleach on the food of street vendors has added to tensions. It is time for a change. The City must put an end to the unequal and improper regulation of the vendors and instead, create laws that will encourage economic and cultural growth" (Esperanza del Barrio 2009).

At around 9:00 A.M., we started to line up in rows of three to make sure that we would not obstruct pedestrian traffic as we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge toward City Hall in Manhattan. Placards were distributed among the approximately fifty people who had arrived. As we made our way across the bridge, we shouted slogans while passersby read our signs and smiled approvingly. A driver shouted encouragingly and raised his fist in support. Tourists took pictures, trying to capture, I imagine, a "true" New York moment. As we reached Manhattan, we started to shout louder, "¡Aquí y allá! ¡El trabajo es dignidad! [Here and there! Work is dignity!]" "¡Consejales escuchar! ¡Trabajar no es ilegal! [Council members listen! Working is not illegal]." We made our way to City Hall, where metal barriers were already lined up, flanked by a dozen police officers. We moved diligently to our designated protest space. Despite the relatively low turnout, a handful of mainly Latina immigrant vendors appropriated that small patch of public space near City Hall to voice their demands for recognition of their livelihood and respect of their persons. This was not the first time that these women street vendors appeared on New York's public scene. They had been organizing for over six years, creating coalitions across ethnic lines and engaging City Council members to support their demands.

We stood there until noon, shouting our slogans. Alternating between Spanish and English, we shouted, "¿Qué queremos? ¡Permisos y licencias!" "What do we want? Justice!" In Spanish, vendors were asking for permits and licenses; in English we were demanding justice. This (mis)translation did not result from "limited language abilities" or vendors' arbitrariness but rather symbolized the various discourses on which grassroots activists draw to articulate their demands as well as the various social and political spaces and contexts where these discourses are articulated. Social movement scholars (McAdam, McCarthy, and Zald 1996; Tarrow 1998) talk about processes of framing to refer to the shaping of grievances into claims that resonate with broader audiences. In framing demands, activists draw on existing cultural understandings to appeal to a broad set of actors in various contexts. Demands must resonate not only with the people whom activists seek to mobilize but also with policy makers, politicians, and potential allies. How do street-vending grassroots activists frame their demands? On what discourses and cultural understandings do they draw to frame their demands? How are these demands then translated into policies and laws?

In this essay, I analyze grassroots organizing around street vending in New York City since 2003, paying particular attention to the debates surrounding vending in the city and the ways activists and government officials alike have framed the issue. Street vendor organizers have framed their campaigns and articulated their demands by drawing on neoliberal discourses as well as gendered constructs and alternative notions of citizenship. Grassroots activists and their supporters have framed the demands of street vendors by appealing to ideas of free enterprise and individualism. These frames resonate with prevailing discourses of neoliberal forms of urban governance that emphasize individual entrepreneurship and targeted state intervention in the market. Simultaneously, activists base their demands on notions of recognition and respect as humans, independent of legal status. Gendered notions of family and women's roles within it are also central to the framing of street vendor demands. Although I focus mainly on one organization, Esperanza del Barrio, I also draw on other actors to get a better understanding of how issues surrounding street vending are framed.

Neoliberalism and Urban Governance

Since 2003, New York City has seen a reemergence on grassroots organizing efforts among street vendors. These efforts have generated renewed interest and debates about the use of public space and the state's role in regulating that space. Historically, questions about street vending have reflected different ideas of the city, its inhabitants, who can use public space, and for what purposes (Bluestone 1991). During the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s) ideas of order, cleanliness, beauty, and efficiency guided urban planning. Streets were conceived as spaces where traffic could freely circulate. Shopping was transferred indoors in the form of retail arcades and department stores that conveyed images of order and control and bourgeois consumption. Consequently, street vending was seen as in opposition to ideas of modern urban commerce and middle-class mores, and as contributing to street congestion and neighborhood deterioration. The creation of formal zoning statues and street vendor regulations in New York City reflected these ideas. Vendors were moved out of the streets and confined to less visible and more controlled spaces (for example, street markets underneath the bridges connecting Manhattan to the outer boroughs). Thus, although central to the economies of many neighborhoods, particularly those where new immigrants settled, street vendors were relegated to public spaces away from those that symbolized modern city life (Bluestone 1991).

Ideas of the city and its inhabitants have subsequently changed. Prevailing neoliberal discourses in the United States have shaped how we think of urban areas. Neoliberalism is an ideology as well as a form of governance and a driver of urban change (Hackworth 2007; Ong 2006; Sites 2006). As an ideology, neoliberalism refers to the "belief that open, competitive, and unregulated markets, liberated from all forms of state interference, represent the optimal mechanism for economic development" (Brenner and Theodore 2002, 350). This ideology has shaped economic restructuring projects and has been expressed with greater intensity in urban settings. Neoliberalism as an economic model requires particular technologies of governance. As a form of governance, neoliberalism guides and regulates the political, following market-driven "truths" and calculations (Ong 2006). Leitner and her colleagues (2006, 4) note that neoliberal governmentality takes particular forms within urban areas: "The neoliberal city is conceptualized first as an entrepreneurial city, directing all its energies to achieving economic success in competition with other cities for investments, innovations, and 'creative classes.'" Within this context, municipal bureaucracies are professionalized agencies promoting economic development, privatizing urban services, and creating competition among public agencies. Public policy decisions are based on cost–benefit calculations. In New York City, the neoliberal project began in the mid-1970s as a response to fiscal crisis. During its initial phase, the neoliberal agenda included policies geared to market stimulus and austerity programs. In its second phase, policies targeted state intervention (Sites 2003).

Neoliberalism requires particular subjects that differ from the ideal of citizen, a subject endowed with rights claims to the state. Under neoliberalism, a person ought to be "a self-enterprising citizen-subject who is obligated to become an 'entrepreneur of himself or herself'" (Ong 2006, 14). Workfare programs are one example of the adoption of this notion of neoliberal subject. Neoliberal subjects, however, are not neutral. On the contrary, gender is central to realizing neoliberal projects.

Gender constructions and their associated hierarchies are often used to recruit labor and discipline workers (Mills 2003). The case of assembly shops is a case in point. Ong's (1987) analysis of assembly shops in Malaysia shows how women are specifically recruited because they are perceived as more adept at performing assembly work and conforming to the disciplines that this work entails. Thus, gendered ideas that view women as delicate and easily domesticated are articulated with neoliberal forms of production. Domestic work, care work, and other service industries so central to neoliberal economic development rely on gendered constructs. Gender constructs shape how certain jobs are construed as women's work and rendered less valued or unimportant and therefore are amenable to neoliberal projects in search for cheap, docile, and flexible labor. Street vending, however, although a service industry, stands outside in some ways from other forms of low-wage labor women enter. Women's entrepreneurial activities in the informal sector have often been seen as contributing to destabilize gender hierarchies. What is important, then, is understanding how gender constructs are interwoven within particular neoliberal projects. As Mills (2003, 47) notes, "Gendered hierarchies help to produce a segmented and flexible global labor force. However, the ways in which hegemonic gender meanings structure the lived experiences of actual women and men vary widely."

Thus, neoliberal projects do not constitute a coherent set of policies that can be realized independently of local particularities. Neoliberalism takes different forms depending on the scale and space where they actually take place, resulting in "destructive" and "creative" moments (Brenner and Theodore 2002) and areas of "exception" (Ong 2006). Neoliberalism is a contingent process that takes different forms across space and along other processes of urbanization. The institutional manifestations of neoliberalism are uneven, incomplete, and varied. These disjunctions create room for contestation and redefinition of neoliberal projects (Hackworth 2007). Leitner and her coauthors (2006) argue that contestations to neoliberalism may take advantage of the technologies born out of neoliberalism. Within the context of neoliberal forms of urban governance and their contestation, I look at the claims of street vendors, asking how they work within and contest neoliberal forms of governance.

Vending in the City

Street vending in New York has often been an occupation taken by newly arrived immigrants. In the early twentieth century, Irish, Italian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants walked the city's streets, selling all sorts of foods and merchandise, mainly in poor neighborhoods, such as the Lower East Side, where immigrant communities concentrated. Street vending was often seen as a way for immigrants to enter the economy, a path that might eventually lead to upward economic mobility. In practice, however, the "rags to riches" narrative was rarely realized, and many people spent between ten and fifteen years peddling in the streets before moving to different trades (Bluestone 1991). For many vendors, street vending ensured low overhead costs; for consumers, it was a means of purchasing merchandise at lower prices. Today, street vending continues to be a trade taken up mainly by immigrants, although vendors' places of origin have changed as the city's demographic outlook has shifted. Scholars see the growth of the informal economy, including street vending in immigrant neighborhoods, as the result of structural factors present in postindustrial economies as well as a way for immigrants to supplement wages in the formal economy and as alternatives to low-wage employment (Zlolniski 2006).

To date, no comprehensive surveys provide an overall picture of the characteristics, working conditions, levels of income, or challenges that New York's street vendors face. A small-sample survey conducted by the Street Vendor Project of the Urban Justice Center (SVP) found that New York City had between twelve and thirteen thousand street vendors (SVP 2006). According to this survey, most vendors (83 percent) are foreign born, with the top countries of origin (at least among vendors in Lower Manhattan) Bangladesh, China, and Afghanistan. Most of the members of Esperanza del Barrio are from Latin America, primarily Mexico and Ecuador. For many in the survey, vending is a last resort after facing barriers to employment in the formal economy.

Street vendors, unlike workers in other low-wage labor markets, are not usually viewed as "workers" in the traditional sense of the word. They are often considered entrepreneurs who own their own businesses, even though these enterprises often yield low and moderate incomes and entail long hours and harsh working conditions. According to the SVP survey (2006), 83 percent of vendors reported working independently. Unlike other low-wage workers, vendors have relative autonomy in their workplaces in the sense that they can set their own schedules and work rhythms, though such freedom is often illusory. More than a quarter of the vendors in the survey noted that they valued the flexibility associated with street vending. One woman street vendor preferred her occupation "because here no one bosses me around, no one shouts at me, no one scolds me" (Moda 2008b [translated by author]). Before becoming a vendor, this woman had spent twelve years working in the garment industry.

Vending also has a gendered dimension. Women often take up this type of job to "supplement" their household income—even when the income generated represents a substantial part of the household total—while tending to household responsibilities and child care. One of the founders of Esperanza del Barrio noted, "I started vending because I had my three kids in school, and I never liked my sons or daughters to be hanging out in the streets.... If I were to go to work in a factory, I would be leaving at seven in the morning and arriving home at seven at night, and my kids would be completely alone all day long. So I chose to sell tamales. I would bring my kids to school, then I would go to sell, and then I would return and would start cooking for them and later my children arrived" home from school (Moda 2008a [translated by author]).

In many cases, street vending allows women to tend to non-income-generating reproductive responsibilities while earning money. As with other forms of low-wage work that women enter (for example, domestic work and care work), the division between productive and reproductive activities is blurry. Vendors often sell food prepared in their own kitchens, transforming their homes into workplaces. Similarly, vendors sometimes bring their children to work, transforming the workplace into a space in which reproductive tasks are performed. Thus, street vending alters traditional gendered spatial segregation of labor, although this process does not necessarily imply the empowerment of women.

Despite—or maybe because of—the informality of street vending, local governments historically have attempted to control it by regulating public space and codifying vending activities. The New York City Administrative Code (1985) defines a general vendor as "a person who hawks, peddles, sells, leases or offers to sell or lease, at retail, goods or services, including newspapers, periodicals, books, pamphlets or other written matter in a public space." Various city agencies, state laws, and constitutional law regulate street vending. The city classifies vendors in three main categories, depending on the type of merchandise sold: general merchandise, food, and printed material. Each category of vending has its own set of rules and regulations. For example, unlike vendors of general merchandise, booksellers and artists do not require licenses, since their activities are considered free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment. In addition to vending licenses, food vendors must obtain permits for their pushcarts, which must conform to specific sanitary standards. The rules regarding where vendors can set up shop vary depending on which category of merchandise they sell.

Excerpted from Immigrant Women Workers in the Neoliberal Age by NILDA FLORES-GONZÁLEZ, ANNA ROMINA GUEVARRA, MAURA TORO-MORN, GRACE CHANG. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Nilda Flores-González is an associate professor with a joint appointment in sociology and the Latin American and Latino Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Anna Romina Guevarra is an associate professor of Asian American studies and affiliated faculty in gender & women's studies and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Maura Toro-Morn is a professor of sociology at Illinois State University. Grace Chang is an associate professor of feminist studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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