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  • The Social Geography of Day Labor: Informal Responses to the Economic Downturn
  • Sean Crotty (bio)


The roots of the recent global financial crisis, popularly known as the “Great Recession,” are firmly entrenched in the United States housing market and in the financial techniques invented to drive growth in that sector from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s. The housing boom of the early 2000s did not create an equivalent formal-sector growth in construction employment. Rather, the construction industry underwent a large-scale reorganization that can be generally understood as “flexibilization” within the neoliberal context (Theodore 2007, 251). Informal day labor, a type of low-wage contingent employment, grew considerably during this time period as a result of increased demand for labor in residential construction (Valenzuela et al. 2006; Doussard 2013). This was certainly the case in the San Diego Metropolitan Area (SDMA), where forty-five informal hiring sites were used by approximately one thousand men looking for work each day. The nature of day-labor work requires these men, known as day laborers or jornaleros, to adapt quickly to changing employment circumstances. During periods of high employment, they may work for five different employers in a week on five or more different projects. The Great Recession, however, caused profound shifts in labor market circumstances, and fundamentally restructured day-labor markets in the SDMA.

The macro-scale problems caused by the Great Recession are well documented (Harvey 2008; Elsby, Hobjin, and Sahin 2010). There is a disconnect, however, between the macro-level analysis in these studies, and an engagement with the grounded effects of the downturn on individuals, families, and communities. Macro-level analyses are weakened by their inability to link discussions of structural economic issues with the grounded effects of those issues in a meaningful way. This disconnect between macro-level analysis and intensive qualitative research is a common and unnecessary weakness, [End Page 22] in critical geographic research (Fairbanks and Lloyd 2011). In this paper, I draw on data collected during a five-year research project to demonstrate how a mixed-methods approach can generate a more-robust understanding of the impacts of the Great Recession in the SDMA.

My first and most important goal is to highlight the role that day labor spaces play as part of the survival strategies employed by individuals who were perilously poor even before the “Great Recession.” By telling their stories and highlighting their individual and collective agency, I connect empirically grounded accounts of people’s economic struggles to structural processes that generate inequitable social and economic outcomes—both across the globe and on the street corner. It is my hope that these connections strengthen the growing body of ethnographic research that situates observations within critical analysis of neoliberal ideology (See Fairbanks 2011; and Fairbanks and Lloyd 2011). The research should further demonstrate the effectiveness of mixed-methods research for scaling findings up, from the microgeographic to the regional scale. Drawing on more than five years of mixed-methods research on day labor in the SDMA, I present a qualitative typology of day-labor sites in the SDMA, and use that typology as a framework to analyze the effects of the economic downturn on day-labor markets in the region.


Day labor is one type of low-wage contingent employment that has grown in the past thirty years as neoliberal economic reforms have become entrenched in the North American economy (Theodore 2007; Valenzuela Jr. 2003a). That undocumented immigrants comprised roughly seventy-five percent of the United States day-labor population in 2004 reflects the fact that undocumented immigrant laborers, primarily from Mexico and Central America, were and are the preferred workers for employers hoping to cut costs through wage reductions and “flexibilizing” their work force (Theodore 2007, 251). Employers often accomplish further cost savings by avoiding health and safety regulations, violating labor law, and in some instances simply failing to compensate employees for their labor. In the pursuit of profitability, employers in a variety of sectors take advantage of undocumented immigrants’ unwillingness to report labor abuses and violations for fear of deportation (Harvey 2005; Theodore 2007). Labor and human rights violations are quite common in the contemporary day...