On International Women’s Day, it is fair to remember the valuable contribution of immigrant women to the growth of our country. They have been at the forefront of the fight for workers’ rights in the U.S. Although some advances have been made over time, immigrant women remain relegated to a secondary role.
Immigrant women were and continue to be an important part of economic development, as well as of the movement for workers’ rights. The inhumane conditions that garment workers endured at their workshops in the 19th centuryled to strikes in which women played a crucial role. Tragically, the event that drew attention to this issue was a fire at one of these factories on March 25, 1911, which killed 146 people. Of the victims, 123 were immigrant women between the ages of 16 and 23 who had just arrived in New York from the Middle East and Italy. Protests against labor exploitation of this type flared as a result.
Over a more than century after the fire, workers may no longer get locked up in sewing workshops, but the exploitation of immigrant working women continues. It is true that there are many successful professionals who work hard and have the will and wisdom to make the most of the opportunities that come their way, but it is still an uphill battle. Of the estimated 32% of all immigrant women who are professionals in their countries of origin, only 13% end up reaching the same status in the U.S., according to American Media.
The reality is that most immigrant women are currently working at the lower levels of the labor structure, and hold jobs without benefits which trap them in poverty. In 2013, there were nearly 13.1 million female immigrant workers, representing 7% of the country’s workforce. Many of them were undocumented, a situation that made them vulnerable to exploitation by their employers.
The lack of legal status also exposes them to mistreatment at home. Many endure domestic abuse, as it is difficult for them to escape these situations due to lack of enough culturally-sensitive shelters. The threat of deportation and of losing contact with their children is another unrelenting torture.
There is still a long way to go to gain equal opportunities, treatment and compensation for immigrant women. The most optimistic data shows that 52% of them became U.S. citizens when they had the opportunity to do so, a higher percentage than men. This demonstrates a desire and an interest to participate in the political decisions that affect other immigrants and that will determine their children’s progress.