Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Rendered Invisible: African American Low-Wage Workers and Workplace Exploitation

Professor Llezlie Green Coleman offers an insightful thesis in her article Rendered Invisible: African American Low-Wage Workers and the Workplace Exploitation Paradigm published in the Howard Law Journal.  She states:

"The narrative of low-wage worker exploitation has increasingly narrowed in focus to reflect the experiences of undocumented immigrant workers whose immigration status makes them particularly vulnerable to wage theft and other denials of their substantive workplace rights. Indeed, much of the scholarship in this area rests solidly at the intersection of immigrant justice and employment law.

This article disrupts this paradigm by arguing that this limited narrative has rendered African American low-wage workers invisible. It also draws from the voices of low-wage worker advocates who have borrowed from current activism to announce that #BlackWorkersMatter. Given the role of paradigms in defining which issues merit our attention, analysis, and assessment, this article argues for a shift in the scholarly conversation to consider not only the historical reasons for the distancing of African Americans from worker advocacy, but also the current dynamics that have facilitated this phenomenon.

Despite the reality that low-wage workers in this country are predominantly white, images and narratives of African Americans historically dominated the images and narratives of low-wage work, particularly where that work involved the labor of farm workers (sharecroppers) and domestic workers. In recent years, however, the focus on low-wage workers has shifted toward Latino workers: often recent immigrants and sometimes undocumented. This shift in our attention, however, is not based upon a mass departure of African Americans from the low-wage workforce. While the number of African Americans engaged in low-wage work has decreased as a result of immigration patterns, African Americans continue to occupy a significant number of low-wage jobs.1

Nevertheless, the standard narrative of low-wage work has shifted to one that is inextricably linked to the exploitation of immigrants. Given the particular vulnerability of our immigrant population and the resulting high levels of wage theft and other workplace exploitation in the immigrant community, targeted efforts to address the intersections of these issues is both important and necessary. In the midst of this change, however, the experiences of African American workers have received very limited attention in the media, and even less attention in the academy. Indeed, the more common narrative of the African American work experience has become one of unemployment, rather than low-wage employment.

This article draws from critical race theorists’ black/white binary analysis to consider whether there exists an immigrant/non-immigrant binary paradigm in the analyses of low-wage worker exploitation. Finally, it considers the particular vulnerabilities and disadvantages this paradigm creates for African American workers."

A copy of the full article is available here.

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