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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Future of Work Must Include Asian American and Pacific Islanders: Harnessing the Power of the Fastest-Growing Working-Age Population in the Labor Movement

This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

The rich history of AANHPI workers in the labor movement should be recognized for its contributions to a fairer and more advanced labor movement.


Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) workers have been embedded in the U.S. labor movement since the 19th century, when plantation workers in the Hawaiian Islands began forming unions to protest working conditions. By the turn of the 20th century, Asian Americans in the continental U.S. joined the fight for better working conditions on farms, in canneries, on the railroads, and in the garment industry. This paper will explore the state of AANHPI workers today and the policy landscape that circumscribes their working conditions, and will make recommendations for the way forward. Section one will provide a background on the labor movement and collective struggle for workers’ rights. Sections two and three will describe the fundamental policies that delimit the power and freedom of AANHPI working people. Section four will provide policy and organizing recommendations for policy makers, organizers, and advocates to build the power of AANHPI workers. Weak and exclusionary federal labor laws leave workers vulnerable, especially workers who hold multiple marginalized identities. The path forward must start with strengthening protections for worker organizing in order to effectively push a visionary policy agenda for all working people.


Wage theft. Workplace discrimination. Retaliation for speaking out. Unsafe working conditions. These are only a sampling of the oppressive job conditions that AANHPI and all workers are facing in today’s economy. They are working under weak labor protections and even weaker enforcement practices. But when workers are able to band together and form unions, they have the power to negotiate for more secure and better jobs. Organizing and collective bargaining are cornerstones to the creation of the American middle class. The improvement of wages and working conditions, and the standardization of benefits, such as weekends and paid leave, have become part of the fabric of the workplace due to union organizing.

AANHPI workers have always needed to organize and take action for humane working conditions. At the end of the nineteenth century, AANHPI workers began organizing after facing discriminatory employment practices, dangerous working conditions, unequal pay, and ultimately the inability to provide for themselves and their families.

In 1867, more than 5,000 Chinese workers went on strike to demand treatment equal to their white counterparts during the construction of the Central Pacific railroad.[i] In 1946, more than 26,000 sugar plantation workers in Hawaii went on strike for nearly three months. Japanese and Filipino workers demonstrated that plantation workers could successfully reach across ethnic backgrounds to oppose plantation owners.[ii] In 1982, Chinese women waged strikes against their employers. More than 20,000 members of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) marched through Chinatown in New York City to demand the renewal of their contracts that included higher wages and better working conditions.[iii] The rich history of AANHPI workers in the labor movement should be recognized for its contributions to a fairer and more advanced labor movement.


Today, as the fastest-growing working-age population representing more than 21 million people across the country, AANHPI workers are becoming an even bigger force in advancing the labor movement and political power.[iv] Just as AANHPIs are not a monolithic ethnic community, the AANHPI workforce is just as diverse: members occupy positions across myriad job sectors including some of the most vulnerable occupations like domestic work and restaurant jobs — they also have a variety of immigration backgrounds, skills, education levels, and English language proficiency.

The AANHPI working population has grown nearly ten times faster than their white counterparts over the last decade. In 2017, the labor force participation rate of Asian Americans was 63.6%. The NHPI labor force participation rate of 67% was the highest among all racial groups, including people of two or more races (66.9%) and Hispanics (66.1%).[v] Broadly, the AANHPI population has a higher rate of foreign-born people: 66% of the Asian American population is foreign-born, more than four times the national average of 14%. Twenty-one percent of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (NHPI) population is foreign-born, which is 1.5 times the national average.[vi] Of particular note is that 4 out of 5 Asian American low-wage workers are immigrants, and foreign-born AANHPIs have a higher poverty rate than their native-born counterparts.[vii]

By population, AANHPIs are overrepresented in occupations making under $20,000/year full time as well as in occupations making $100,000/year full time.[viii] AANHPI workers are overrepresented in sales, office and administrative support positions; and in computers and mathematics occupations, which typically offers higher wages and salaries. They are also overrepresented in positions related to food preparation and services, and health care support, which typically trap workers in the lowest wages across all occupations.[ix] AANHPI workers, especially immigrants and women, are vulnerable to employer abuse due to systemic racism, xenophobia, and sexism, and devaluation of their labor.

While the AANHPI working population keeps growing, the rate of union membership has been slowly declining — a trend in line with the declining union membership rate among all workers. Many factors contribute to the decline of union membership rates, including the rise of jobs in sectors with lower unionizations rates like health care and hospitality; legislation to hinder unionization; and an overall political climate that is hostile to working people.[x]

Despite these attacks, the union difference is clear. In 2018, Asian American union workers had median weekly earnings of $1,119, which was 2.5% higher than their non-union counterparts who earned $1,092. The union advantage is even greater for Asian American women, who had median weekly earnings of $1,033, compared to their non-union counterparts who made $929 a week — an 11% difference.[xi] AANHPI union workers are also more likely to have health insurance and retirement plans than their nonunion counterparts in the same occupations.[xii] Through collective bargaining, union members are able to negotiate for adequate benefits and fair wages. Studies have found that low-wage are the most likely to spend extra earnings immediately on previously unaffordable needs or services.[xiii] Contrary to anti-union narratives, unionization boosts many workers and therefore their local economies.

However, while the labor movement’s contributions are indelible, exclusionary standards were built into our federal labor laws that continue to leave workers of color vulnerable to exploitation. The policy landscape and the institutions which govern the working and living conditions of AANHPI workers are inextricable from their opportunities for economic mobility — and by extension, the stability of the American economy.


AANHPI workers are not operating in a policy vacuum: their ability to access quality jobs, provide financial security for their families, and collectively organize is heavily impacted by the policy landscape that underlines all workers’ rights today. This paper explores three critical, interlocking aspects of labor policy that undergird American workplaces while leaving many AANHPI workers vulnerable. The National Labor Standards Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act provide minimum guarantees for a majority of workers, but create loopholes in the safety net for AANHPI workers. In addition to uneven policy coverage for certain workers, a lack of enforcement of existing labor law leaves millions of AANHPI workers susceptible to economic instability and weakened power to change their conditions. Finally, direct threats to the right of AANHPI workers to organize collectively is undermining the potential strength of the economy.

A.   Fundamental labor laws are crucial to workers’ rights, yet often exclude vulnerable AANHPI workers.

Created during the New Deal, the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) are fundamental safeguards to workers’ rights, including the right to form a union and bargain collectively to secure a minimum wage and to receive overtime pay. The NLRA created the National Labor Relations Board, which arbitrates labor disputes and serves as the oversight body for unionization campaigns. However, since their inception, these laws have excluded low-wage workers, who are predominantly workers of color, from baseline labor standards. Farmworkers, domestic homecare workers, and tipped workers — like restaurant employees and nail salon workers — are excluded from NLRA and FLSA protections. The intentional exclusion of black and brown workers maintains a white economic and social hierarchy which undermines AANHPI workers’ access to economic success as well.

The uneven coverage of workers’ rights has left thousands of AANHPI workers defenseless to the whims of exploitative or negligent employers. Pema Lama, a domestic worker based in Queens, New York, illustrates the precarious working conditions for workers that are not protected by NLRA or FLSA. Lama had to escape her home country of Nepal due to intimate partner violence, and found work in the U.S. as a home care provider.

“I had to use harsh cleaning supplies like ammonia and Clorox, which harmed my skin and exposed my lungs to toxicity… They asked me to do things beyond the scope of my job, such as doing laundry, dishes, and house cleaning for the whole family. It was as if I was their household maid on top of being the caregiver for their elder. I endured this mistreatment because they not only threatened to report back to the agency, they also threatened to call the police because my visa expired.”

This fear that employers will use workers’ immigration status against them becomes a way to further tilt the balance of power in the hands of employers. The problem is compounded by xenophobic rhetoric and anti-worker policies that have contributed to a climate of fear for immigrant workers in the U.S.

Under current law, there are no penalties against employers nor compensatory damages for workers when employers retaliate against employees. As a consequence, AANHPI workers are institutionally set up to fail and be exploited by their employers.

B.   Economic and non-economic conditions undermine the stability of AANHPI jobs.

Even the limited protections AANHPI workers are entitled to are often weakened due to loopholes, lack of enforcement and the overall economic instability of many AANHPI households. A 2019 survey found that nearly one in four California AAPIs are working and yet still struggling with poverty.[xiv] Meanwhile, major corporations are eroding labor standards in industries with high numbers of AANHPI workers and other workers of color by changing the structure of employers’ relationships with workers.

In the restaurant, service, gig, and tech industries, corporations have used multi-layered contracting, staffing or temp firms, franchising, and employee misclassification as independent contractors to shift risks and costs onto workers and reap billions in profits. In addition, enforcement of workplace safety laws has steadily declined as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cut back on complicated inspections and the number of inspectors and enforcement staff. Wayne Chow, an electrician and IBEW member based in Portland, Oregon, relates an incident in which a union had to step in to make up for weak government oversight.

“A few electricians and I were working in a building when we realized asbestos particles were being released into our area because there were workers stripping the roof. Instead of prioritizing the safety of workers, our superintendents threatened to take us off the job, claiming that, ‘If you don’t want to be here, we will find someone else who will.’ We then took matters into our own hands and worked with the union to help us. We weren’t able to get OSHA to come out by ourselves, but with the pressure of the union, we were able to get OSHA to come out soon after.”

The structures for dealing with workplace violations are deeply insufficient. Efforts to undermine worker safety, pay, and standards are harmful for AANHPI working people across all industries. The restaurant industry is the largest employer for AANHPI men — but these jobs are plagued by low or stagnant wages, wage theft, lack of employee benefits, and discrimination. Government agencies and courts at the federal and state levels responsible for enforcing workplace laws ultimately rely on workers to come forward after a violation has occurred, which causes many workplace violations to be swept under the rug. Over time, spending on investigation and enforcement has declined precipitously. This systemic undermining of worker safety and security creates an environment in which even AANHPIs with high-income jobs still face the same exploitation and instability that undermine all AANHPI workers.

C.   Attacks on the rights of AANHPI workers to organize undermines workers’ rights broadly.

Without meaningful protections from employer retaliation, workers will continue to be silenced and vulnerable to exploitation. One survey found that, out of 4,000 workers, 43% experienced retaliation after making a complaint or attempting to unionize.[xv] Some retaliatory practices include firing, demotion, cutting hours, interfering with a worker’s schedule, harassment, unfair discipline, or even threatening to report employees to immigration authorities.[xvi] These actions have severe consequences for workers, especially those living paycheck-to-paycheck. According to the National Employment Law Project, lost wages can further lead to “missed payments, lower credit scores, eviction, repossession of a car or other property, suspension of a license, inability to pay child support or taxes, attorney’s fees and costs, stress, trauma, and more.”[xvii]


Retaliation and exploitation are all too common in low-wage industries where immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, continue to be a large part of the labor force. The occupations with the largest shares of undocumented immigrant workers include farming, construction, and production,[xviii] which overlap with large numbers of AANHPI workers. More than 14,000 AANHPIs work in farming, nearly 100,000 in construction, and nearly 500,000 in production.[xix] Thus, for AANHPI workers, the fear or very real threat of deportation becomes another tool for employers to exploit and retaliate against their workers.

This fear that employers will use workers’ immigration status against them becomes a way to further tilt the balance of power in the hands of employers. The problem is compounded by xenophobic rhetoric and anti- worker policies that have contributed to a climate of fear for immigrant workers in the U.S.


As the #MeToo movement have underscored, sexual harassment is another contribution to a climate of fear among workers. AANHPIs work in industries where workers are vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. These industries include accommodation, food services, health care, and social assistance.[xx] These industries are particularly dense with AANHPI workers: more than 500,000 AANHPIs work in food preparation and related occupations, and more than 940,000 work in health-related occupations.[xxi]

In 2016, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.[xxii] The same study found that claims of sexual harassment often go underreported because workers fear not being believed, face inaction to rectify it, and social or professional retaliation.[xxiii] For those who do report sexual assault charges, it is estimated that 1 in 3 women also alleged retaliation.[xxiv]

Research has found that Asian women filed 2.1 sexual assault charges per 100,000 women workers — the lowest number of charges across any racial group and the lowest among women as a whole.[xxv] The figure below show that Asian women workers are underrepresented in their share of EEOC sexual harassment charges filed compared to their share of the workforce.[xxvi] This data does not indicate that sexual harassment and assault is not happening to AANHPIs but rather suggests that AANHPIs are more likely to underreport sexual harassment and assault.

Under the current policy landscape, AANHPI workers, especially low-wage, immigrant, women, LGBTQ, and disabled workers face rampant harassement, discrimination, and retaliation.


The conditions above shed light onto how much more work needs to be done to protect AANHPI workers across all occupations. Mainly, it is imperative that Congress expands and strengthens worker protections with the labor movement and AANHPI workers being an integral part of that process. Below are policy recommendations for policymakers to champion and organizing recommendations for the labor movement and AANHPI workers in order to build a sustainable and rooted movement.


Congress must expand coverage under the NLRA, the FLSA, and other federal labor laws to all workers regardless of industry, size of employer, and worker classification type. Congress should look to the BE HEARD Act and the Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights as leading examples of policies that cover all workers by limiting carve outs. There is also an opportunity to strengthen the NLRA by enabling states and cities to pass stronger laws empowering workers as well as embrace industry-wide bargaining.[xxvii] One powerful example is the New York wage board which formed in 2015 and increased the minimum hourly wage for fast-food workers.


In addition to expanding coverage, Congress must shift the burden and risk of enforcing labor standards from workers to employers. Federal, state, and local policies must protect workers from retaliation and forced arbitration,[xxviii] and ensure they have time to bring wage theft claims and other complaints through lengthening or suspending the statute of limitations. Federal funding to the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other investigative and enforcement agencies must be increased in order to conduct more robust checks on employers across the country. These agencies need to make themselves accessible in the languages that workers speak and should affirmatively target and investigate high-violation industries by conducting unannounced sweeps and investigations. The California Labor Commissioner’s creation of a separate Retaliation Complaint Investigation Unit in order to provide more timely and effective enforcement of labor laws is a leading example of government agencies taking steps to protect workers.


At the very minimum, every worker should be compensated enough to meet their needs and live with dignity. The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 for ten years, the equivalent of poverty-level wages for a full-time worker with a family. That is why Congress must pass The Raise the Wage Act. It would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 and eliminate sub-minimum wages for tipped and youth workers and workers with disabilities. Congress must also pass legislation to ensure access to paid family and medical leave, fair and predictable scheduling, and affordable health coverage for all. There is still no federal law that ensures all workers are able to take paid sick days, leaving workers in many states unable to afford to go to the doctors or recover from being sick. We must hold Congress accountable to ensuring working people are guaranteed a living wage and good benefits. Healthcare, housing, food, and other basic needs, including family and child care, are basic human rights.


If Congress restores fairness to an economy rigged against workers by passing stronger employee organizing rights, workers can secure these protections and compensations themselves. Strong employee organizing rights foster a vibrant middle class because the standards, rights, and wages that unions secure bring benefits to union and nonunion workers alike. However, current law gives employers too much power and puts too many roadblocks in the way of workers trying to organize for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. The PRO Act and Public Service Freedom to Negotiate Act are strong policies to strengthen workers’ organizing and bargaining rights against employer interference.


A base of organized workers is critical to advancing a pro-worker policy agenda, therefore for workers to thrive in today’s economy, it is key to organize AANHPI workers and for AANHPI workers to unite together and fight for their rights. The labor movement must be intentional and innovative in recruiting women workers, immigrant workers, young workers, and other workers who are growing in power but are often overlooked.

As unions and the labor movement seek to expand, they must bring on immigrant workers through organizing around immigration issues. This looks like ensuring that union halls and union employer workplaces are safe spaces for immigrants. It also looks like investing in resources for language justice, such as providing real-time interpretation in union spaces, investing in organizers who speak the language or dialects for workers whose first language is not English, and creating translated materials as needed. Unions and community organizations can also provide free or low-cost English or in-language Know Your Rights and Citizenship Workshops for their members and other workers in the community. These workshops can help workers recognize when their own rights are being violated and provide an opportunity for organizers to foster deeper relationships with members of the AANHPI community.

When AANHPI women have a 66.7% labor force participation rate, second only to Hispanic women[xxix] and a higher unionization rate (11%) compared to AANHPI men (8%),[xxx] it is clear that AANHPI women are on the forefront of labor organizing in the AANHPI community. Unions and worker centers should make commitments to fight against and prevent gender- based violence in the workplace and provide affinity spaces, like the Coalition for Labor Union Women, and caucuses for women workers and leaders in their unions. Spaces such as these can foster open dialogue for sharing and combatting common challenges, such as sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination, that women in the workplace face, to bring a collective voice within the labor movement.

Affinity spaces are also effective to organize young people. Even more, workers rights advocates and organizers must expand and invest in programs that promote intergenerational organizing and training young workers. Mentorship programs, such as Union Summer run by the Washington State Labor Council, and UCLA’s DREAM Summer, play an important role in recruiting and cultivating young AANHPI workers in the labor movement. AFSCME’s Union Scholars Program provides a 10-week summer internship for students of color who are passionate about social justice, with an emphasis on workers’ rights. Unions can invest in young workers early through mentorship, paid internships, and financially supporting young workers to attend organizing conferences.


In this paper we have explored an ecosystem of policies and regulations that stack the deck against AANHPI workers. Historical exclusion of minority communities and regulatory capture by corporations have crafted an economy that harms AANHPI workers, especially those who are immigrants, low-income, and/or lack English language proficiency. We provide recommendations on a better way forward through a visionary policy agenda, but one that must be coupled with rigorous protections for worker organizing. Economic justice for the most marginalized workers is fragile; it is only through organizing and policy working hand-in-hand that we can build a stronger economic vision for all workers.

Founded in 1992, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO, is the first and only national organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) workers, most of who are union members, and our allies advancing worker, immigrant and civil rights. Since its founding, APALA has played a unique role in addressing the workplace issues of the 660,000 AAPI union members and in serving as the bridge between the broader labor movement and the AAPI community. Backed with strong support of the AFL-CIO, APALA has more than 20 chapters and pre-chapters and a national office in Washington, D.C. APALA is dedicated to promoting political education and voter registration programs among AAPIs, and to the training, empowerment, and leadership of AAPIs within the labor movement and APA community. Furthermore, APALA works to defend and advocate for the civil and human rights of AAPIs, immigrants and all people of color.


[i] Erika Lee, “We Have Heard Much of America: Filipinos in the U.S. Empire,” The Making of Asian America, (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 73.

[ii] American Post Worker Union, “Labor Organizing Changed the Hawaiian Islands Forever.” American Postal Worker magazine. May/June 2003.

[iii] Huiying B. Chan, “How Chinese American Women Changed U.S. Labor History.” Asian American Writers’ Workshop: Open City Magazine. May 1, 2019.

[iv]  “American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample 1-Year File 2017,” Bureau of the Census, data analyzed by AAPI Data, accessed Oct 5, 2019, pums_csv_2017&prodType=document (alternate source:

[v] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2017. August 2018.

[vi] U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table S0201.

[vii] “American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample 1-Year File 2017,” Bureau of the Census, data analyzed by AAPI Data, accessed Oct 5, 2019, pums_csv_2017&prodType=document; low-wage workers. U.S. Department of Labor. The Economic Status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Washington, DC: 2016.; poverty rate.

[viii] Johanna Hester, Kim Geron, Tracy Lai, and Paul M. Ong, “Asian American Workers and Unions:

Current and Future Opportunities for Organizing Asian American and Pacific Islander Workers.” AAPI Nexus, Volume 14, No. 1. Spring 2016.

[ix] American Community Survey 5-year Files, 2015. (

[x]  Dan Kopf, “Union membership in the US keeps on falling, like almost everywhere else.” Quartz. February 5, 2019.

[xi] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Union Members — 2018.” January 18, 2019.

[xii] John Schmitt, Hye Jin Rho, and Nicole Woo, “Unions and Upward Mobility for Asian American and Pacific Islander Workers.” Center for Economic and Policy Research. January 2011.

[xiii] David Cooper, and Douglass Hall, “How raising the federal minimum wage would help working families and give the economy a boost.” Economic Policy Institute. August 2012.

[xiv] “The Working Lives and Struggles of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in California.” PRRI, AAPI Data.18 November 2019.

[xv] Laura Huizar, “Exposing Wage Theft Without Fear: States Must Protect Workers from Retaliation.” National Employment Law Project (NELP). June 2019.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “Size of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Workforce Stable After the Great Recession.” Pew Research Center. November 3, 2016. workforce-stable-after-the-great-recession/

[xix] Current Population Survey Ongoing Rotation Group, 2018.

[xx] Maya Raghu and Emily Martin, Out of the Shadows: An Analysis of Sexual Harassment Charges by Working Women. National Women’s Law Center. August 2018. charges-filed-by-working-women/

[xxi] Current Population Survey On-going Rotation Group, 2018.

[xxii] Chai R. Feldblum and Victoria A. Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace.” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. June 2016.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Maya Raghu and Emily Martin, Out of the Shadows: An Analysis of Sexual Harassment Charges by Working Women. National Women’s Law Center. August 2018. charges-filed-by-working-women/

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii]  Dylan Matthews, “The big new plan to save unions endorsed by Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, explained.” Vox. August 22, 2019.

[xxviii]  Legislation to protect employees from forced arbitration of employment disputes such as the FAIR Act is an important step for workers to seek legal justice for wage theft, overtime violations, and job discrimination. Read more here: Alexia Fernandez Campbell, “The House just passed a bill that would give millions of workers the right to sue their boss.” Vox. September 20, 2019. (

[xxix] U.S. Department of Labor. The Economic Status of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Washington, DC: 2016.

[xxx] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor force characteristics by race and ethnicity, 2017. August 2018.