2014-Competition Winner-A

Labor On Demand: Dispatching the Urban Poor

by Gretchen Purser (Sociology Department, Syracuse University) 


“…[T]he misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all” (Joan Robinson, 2009 [1962], p.45).

“If people ever found out the naked truth about this place, it would get shut down for sure,” a soft-spoken, thirty-seven year-old, African-American man named Ronnell proclaims. “I ain’t never seen an establishment operate like this,” he continues, as we stand side by side, leaning our sweaty backs against the brick facade of the squat building where we have come, as we do most mornings before the crack of dawn, in search of a day’s work. “As you can see, this ain’t a professional operation,” he continues. “This place here is a racket. A con game.” Yet, nervous about the potential—albeit exaggerated—impact of my research, Ronnell pleads: “But don’t get it shut down.”

For nearly three years, I worked alongside men like Ronnell as a day laborer out of the Oakland and Baltimore branch offices of a company that I call InstaLabor. As a leading “on demand staffing” or formal day labor company, InstaLabor is in the business of providing highly disposable workers to a wide variety of employers for their “just-in-time” labor needs, predominantly in the sectors of construction, warehousing, manufacturing, events and service. As one agency dispatcher explained the business to me in strikingly unadulterated terms: “We’re in the labor industry. You might say we rent people. I mean, we do it legally. We rent people, we don’t rent appliances.”

The predicament faced by InstaLabor’s day-to-day workforce, the overwhelming majority of whom in my two field sites are poor, formerly-incarcerated, African-American men, is captured in this exchange with Ronnell who asserts an awareness of exploitation, tempered by a feeling of utter dependency. Although day laborers routinely denounce the triangular employment relationship of day labor staffing as akin to the “flesh-peddling” trades of slavery and prostitution, they are simultaneously quick to acknowledge a lack of genuine alternatives, given both their limited labor market mobility and the industry’s increased stranglehold over lowwage labor markets. Thus, they hope, and even come to expect, that something will happen to change what they view as the unscrupulous business practices of day labor agencies, colloquially referred to as “labor pools,” “work halls,” or more disparagingly “body shops.” At the same time, they fear the loss of the few companies that are willing to “hire” them, albeit only to “fire” them by the close of the day, spinning them through a never-ending cycle of employment and unemployment, work and job-searching, wage labor and wagelessness, and thus condemning them to extreme precarity.

Labor On Demand brings readers into these day labor halls and introduces them to the cast of characters who make up this ever-growing, liminal workforce. Though they operate in relative obscurity, day labor agencies, which make up the bottom rung of the broad and highly-diversified temporary staffing industry, are nevertheless ubiquitous in poor urban communities across the country. In fact, InstaLabor is one of the nation’s largest private employers, annually luring in hundreds of thousands of cash-strapped individuals—often right out of prison or from nearby homeless shelters—with the promise of “work today, pay today.” Day labor agencies have become a critical engine and lubricant of the broader low-wage labor market, reshaping the practical workings and cultural terrain of employment. Moreover, they exemplify two of the most important changes in contemporary employment relations: the growth of contingency and the  increased role of labor market intermediaries. Whereas the former has contributed to the widespread uncertainty and unpredictability of employment, the latter has contributed to an increased structural and regulatory ambiguity of employment relationships. Day labor thus sheds considerable light on characteristics of the broader labor market, as evidenced by trends like oncall staffing in retail and adjuncting in academia.

The day labor business epitomizes what Pierre Bourdieu called flexploitation. The result for day laborers is that they face a double battle on a daily basis. They face the battle to be exploited, competing for a day’s job hauling debris, sorting recyclables, cleaning stadiums, or working on high-speed assembly lines. And, once employed, they face the battle to resist exploitation, to maintain dignity in the face of shockingly degraded and degrading working conditions. This book uncovers and analyzes these daily battles, rendering visible the plight of these broke and brokered subjects, or as one worker put it, “the poor and the pimped.”

With precarity widely regarded as the defining characteristic and rallying cry of the day, this is a timely and urgently-needed book. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the degradation of work, the transformation of labor markets, and the reproduction of urban poverty and inequality in the U.S.


Labor On Demand is based upon nearly three years of extensive fieldwork carried out in and around the day labor agencies of Oakland, California and Baltimore, Maryland, two comparably-sized port cities with significantly high concentrations of poverty. To carry out this fieldwork, I employed the method of participant observation, immersing myself in these labor pools by waking around 4:00am, throwing on some work clothes and steel-toed boots, signing up at the agency by 5:00am or 5:30am and waiting around in the hopes of finding work, or “getting on a ticket.” As a day laborer, I worked on construction sites, at the ports, in the stockrooms of national retailers, on assembly lines, in warehouses, at auto auctions, in kitchens and cafeterias, on eviction crews, in parks and parking lots, in packaging plants, and at arenas and stadiums. Though never trying to survive as a day labor, I nevertheless faced the same set of work-specific uncertainties as did my co-workers, a set of uncertainties to which I eventually became acclimated. From day to day, I had no idea whether I would get work and if I did get work, I had no idea what I would be doing, where I would be going, what time I would be returning, with whom I would be working, for whom I would be working, how much I would be earning, who I would be transporting or by whom I would be transported, whether there would be food and water available at the worksite, and under what set of conditions I would be employed. In addition to vivid ethnographic field notes, I draw upon data gathered through 78 formal, indepth interviews conducted with day laborers, agency dispatchers, on-site employers, and representatives of both state and non-profit poverty management institutions (e.g. homeless shelters, unemployment offices, and prisoner re-entry programs). I also draw upon extensive corporate, legal and policy research related to day labor and temporary staffing.

The result is a book situated at the juncture of the longstanding traditions of workplace and urban ethnography. However, it necessarily diverges from standard workplace ethnographies, for day laborers have no “workplace” in any recognizable sense of the term. The growth of precarious and “nonstandard” work requires a shift away from traditional ethnographies of singular, bounded worksites towards innovative ethnographies of work that capture the temporal turbulence and spatial splintering characteristic of the neoliberal landscape of employment.  Rather than focus on the labor process of the organizationally-bounded shopfloor, this book focuses on the processing of labor that takes place between organizations and across worksites. The firstperson descriptive dispatches interspersed throughout the text aim to capture the unpredictable and jarringly diverse experience of working as a day laborer.


“What would a writer be doing working out of a slave market?” (Octavia Butler, Kindred, p.53).

For nearly three years, I worked as a day laborer, immersing myself in the store-front “labor pools” or “body shops” of Oakland, California and Baltimore, Maryland. As a highly-educated, white woman amidst a workforce predominantly comprised of poor, formerly-incarcerated, African-American men, this meant crossing the well-demarcated and rarely-traversed lines of race, class and gender that stratify the labor market. In the preface to the book, I bring readers into the setting of the day labor hiring hall and introduce the concept of an ethnographic “breaching experiment” to address how my presence in these labor pools violated the naturalized fit between degraded, disposable jobs and degraded, disposable bodies, thereby revealing the taken-for-granted fact that day labor agencies operate as employers of last resort for employees of last resort.

Introduction / Broke and Brokered

This chapter gives a broad overview to the formal day labor, or “on demand staffing,” industry, outlining its stupendous growth since the early 1990s and its well-entrenched role in the broader labor market. It delineates day labor agencies from other kinds of temporary staffing companies, juxtaposes the hypervisibility of the informal day labor market to the relative invisibility of the formal labor pools scattered throughout low-income communities across the nation, and situates day labor within a broader discussion about the degradation of work, the transformation of the labor market, and the plight of the poor. It introduces the main themes and arguments of the book, as outlined in the synopsis above.

Chapter 1 / “Opportunity” for Outcasts

This chapter focuses on the organizational practices, institutional linkages and rhetorical frames through which day labor agencies recruit their product, or as one dispatcher I interviewed put it, “drum up bodies.” Drawing upon interviews with day laborers and agency dispatchers, it documents the trajectories that lead people to try their luck at the labor pool as well as the links between day labor agencies, parole offices, prisoner re-entry programs and homeless shelters. It goes on to show that day labor agencies exploit the ambiguity of the triangular employment relationship, downplaying their role as profit-driven employers and emphasizing their role as supposedly altruistic labor market intermediaries for the chronically-jobless and hard-to-employ. Peppering the industry’s promotional materials and hovering around the hiring halls is the ubiquitous trope of “opportunity” which frames day labor, the very definition of degraded and degrading dead-end work, as a conduit of personal transformation and as a route to social mobility. Overall, this chapter positions day labor agencies within the broader urban landscape of neoliberal poverty management and shows that they reproduce discourses concerning the responsibilization of the poor and the resacralization of work, however precarious, perilous and poorly-paid.

Chapter 2 / “Doing Time”

Day labor agencies are premised on the assumption that would-be workers have nothing but “time on their hands.” They operate on the basis of the temporal expropriation and spatial retention of a surplus pool of stockpiled laborers. This means that day laborers wait, wait without pay, wait for an indeterminate length of time, and wait without ever knowing if the wait will be worth the while, all under the watchful eyes and managerial control of their would-be employers. This chapter explores, in vivid ethnographic detail, how workers experience and understand this incessant pattern of waiting (a form of what Guy Standing calls “work for labor”). It situates this within the larger pattern of waiting, or “doing time,” experienced by the poor. The chapter explores the myriad ways in which this waiting benefits the agencies (and not the other way around) and documents dispatchers’ strategies to keep workers invested in this uncertain pursuit of work.

Chapter 3 / “They Got Their Picks”

Just as day laborers are subject to the whims of the market, so, too, are they subject to the whims of dispatchers. This chapter builds upon the previous chapter, focusing upon the role of the dispatchers in this brokering business and the incessant contestation between dispatchers and their “just-in-time” workers. Though workers are led to believe that jobs are distributed on a firstcome- first serve basis, jobs are actually distributed according to a principle referred to as the “best match for dispatch.” This means that dispatchers have complete discretion over the distribution of jobs, a fact that leads to nepotism, discrimination, and widespread abuses of power. The chapter documents the ways in which workers compete to “get in with” dispatchers and the ease with which they are punished for acts of insubordination. It documents the racial and gendered dynamics that shape workers’ relations and negotiations with dispatchers and explores struggles over the informal day labor market that so often takes place outside of agency doors.

Chapter 4 / “If I’m Gonna Die, I Wanna See My Last Light”

Day labor agencies are to some degree transportation agencies, their brokerage role predicated upon the “spatial mismatch” between supply and demand. This chapter examines how agencies orchestrate the transport of workers to clients’ spatially-dispersed worksites, or how, in other words, they orchestrate the “shipping and delivery” of their product (a service offered to clients “free of charge!”). Some agencies own their own fleet of vans and hire drivers to transport workers to and from the job sites for a steep fee automatically deducted from each workers’ daily paycheck. More commonly, agencies formally orchestrate an informal and entirely unregulated “car pool” service, wherein a worker with a vehicle serves as the driver for any number of workers assigned to the same “ticket.” This chapter explores the issue of transportation through each of three lenses: the fusion of informal and formal economic activity, the externalization of risk, and the lateralization of conflict.

Chapter 5 / Dirt, Danger & Degradation

Day labor agencies enable employers to outsource their dirtiest, most dangerous and most degrading jobs to a destitute and utterly disposable workforce. The triangular employment relationship of day labor staffing creates blurred lines of employer responsibility, rendering  violations of labor standards commonplace. This sector is thus part of the growing “gloves off economy.” This chapter focuses on the clients of day labor agencies and the experiences of day laborers on the job sites, with a heavy focus on issues of wages and safety. This chapter documents the dizzying array of sites to which workers are dispatched and the effects of labor on workers’ bodies. The chapter conveys that though day laborers work at practically every workplace, they belong to none of them, and the precarious conditions of their employment remain completely obscured.

Chapter 6 / “We Ain’t No Goddamn Slaves”

This chapter focuses on the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which workers contest the abuse, contempt, and disregard with which they are so often treated on the job. Not only are these workers invisible to the general public, but the triangulated structure of the employment relationship makes it so that their own employers, those who directly extract and profit from their labor, never see their full investment in work or the destabilization of everyday life that precarity engenders. On-site supervisors (their de facto employers) never see the start of their workday – the hours laborers spend anxiously whiling away in the hiring hall, hoping and maneuvering to get on a ticket; dispatchers (their de jure employers) do not see the often dangerous conditions and humiliating treatment workers endure on the job sites. I discuss the implications of this structural blindness and the challenges of fomenting collective identity under the disorganizing conditions of day labor. I also discuss the contradictions of the one consistent type of collective resistance enacted by day laborers: lobbying for more “hours” from the on-site employer. Finally, I document, through detailed narratives of worker resistance, how agency staff and onsite employers collaborate to enforce submission at the worksite.


In the conclusion, I return to the concept of flexploitation, urging readers to understand its wideranging implications for work, workers, and movements for workplace justice. I call for greater attention to the ways in which an erratic rhythm and triangulated route of employment have become normalized for ever-increasing numbers of workers at the bottom of the labor market and further discuss day laborers contradictory consciousness with respect to day labor agencies, which they view as both ruthlessly exploitative and as their only source of protection in a highly discriminatory and otherwise impenetrable labor market. I end with a discussion of the nascent efforts to regulate the day labor business and to counter extreme precarity in the labor market and the ever-more inventive ways companies manage to profit off of the poor.

Methodological Appendix

The appendix offers an extended and reflexive discussion of my research methods, picking up where the preface leaves off. It chronicles my own path towards becoming an accepted and expected, though always anomalous, presence in the labor pool. In it, I share the story of how I was nicknamed Sweet Polly Purebred, that character from the 1960s-era cartoon Underdog: an anthropomorphic, hyperfeminine, white poodle who works as an investigative reporter. I use this story of Sweet Polly Purebred, a classic “damsel in distress,” to address the relentless sexual harassment I, and other female day laborers, encountered on a daily basis. I explain how I became a key resource for the performative requirement of masculinity in what was a highly emasculating, even dehumanizing, set of working conditions and explain how the organization of day labor exacerbates workers’ vulnerability to harassment.