U.S.-Mexico Exploitation of Migrant Workers in the Bracero Program

After careful thought over the two sides of the immigration issue in the Obstruction of Injustice piece, I desired to call attention to a third, more sinister side to the immigration debate some years after this time: employer exploitation of migrants. My great-grandfather from my mother’s side, named Joseph, was from Mexico and had gained employment in the United States during the first years that the Bracero program was in operation. The Bracero program itself was implemented during World War II in order to offset the U.S. worker shortage, accomplished through transportation of Mexican men north to take over vacant jobs. It lasted well until the 1960s.

During his time in the United States, Joseph frequently had to move around to different areas to fulfill his work duties, which largely consisted of harvesting tomatoes and later cutting cotton. Most of the work in the Bracero program consisted of this type of work, being difficult jobs out in the fields for hours on end. One would surmise that, as important that the additional work effort was to the U.S., that workers would be compensated well. This was definitely not the case, as some workers had necessary work equipment given to them, but docked from their pay. In the cases of some field workers, their physical health was put in jeopardy, as they were made to till fields with twenty-four-inch rakes, leaving them with serious back problems. Joseph did not stay in the program as long as his brothers did, returning to Mexico disillusioned with the whole work scheme.

The final nail in the coffin of supposedly “fair” worker compensation was the withholding of most of the workers’ pay after their permission to work had ended. In the case of Joseph, as my great-grandmother recounted, he was unable to receive any of the accumulated pay he had been rightfully owed. As a wartime bracero, ten percent of his US wages were withheld by US employers and placed in American banks to be sent to a bank in Mexico. When my great-grandmother went to collect the money under his name, the bank would deny ever having had that type of money for him in their possession. In sum, it was a double-sided form of exploitation from the U.S. and Mexico at the time. The story of Joseph is not that far off from the prior 19th century development of U.S. exploitation of Irish and Chinese migrants in terms of hazardous work conditions and poor compensation.

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