Filipino Migration to the U.S.

Filipino Migrant Workers in California

While Hawaii’s economy was essentially sugar plantations which demanded fixed or tied labor, California’s agricultural economy was seasonal and thus encouraged workers to move from farm to farm in response to seasons and crops. In response to the need for a steady supply of fluid labor, Filipinos arrived in California in huge numbers starting in the 1920s. Previously, Filipinos in California were mostly students sent by the Philippine government to study under the pensionado system. In the 1920s, there was a new demand for laborers on the West coast, particularly in California. Many Filipinos who came to California were sakadas who broke their three year contract with the HSPA. In California they worked under the contract system, i.e., a labor contractor entered into an agreement with growers to provide the necessary workers upon payment of a fee. The grower was then responsible for paying the wages of the laborers.

In 1920 there were 5,693 Filipinos living in the U.S., 3,300 in California. By 1930 45,208 Filipinos were living in the U.S. with 30,000 toiling in California and approximately 4,000 more arriving yearly. The Filipinos contributed to the creation of an excess labor supply which growers used against organized labor. Like Hawaii, many Filipinos were brought in as strike breakers. The growers also employed a "divide-and-rule" tactic which resulted in racial conflicts. It created animosity between the Filipinos and the Mexicans and between whites and Filipinos since they competed for the same jobs. As agricultural laborers, the Filipinos picked and washed asparagus and a variety of fruits such as peaches, melons, grapes, pears, apricots, apples, and citrus fruits. Others were engaged in rice harvesting; beet hoeing and topping; tomato and lettuce harvesting; and other jobs classifiable as ranch labor. Stockton, Salinas, and Watsonville absorbed much of the Filipinos, but a huge number of Filipinos also worked as agricultural farm hands in the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Glenn, Kern, Monterey, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, and Sonoma.

Like the HSPA, California growers preferred Filipinos as agricultural laborers because they were perceived as good and fast workers, quick learners, and willing to work for low wages. But like the sakadas, the Filipinos in California intended to only save money and to return home and live comfortably. They saw themselves as merely sojourners and there was no serious effort towards assimilation during this early period. Besides the divide-and-rule tactic of the growers precluded any interethnic association. Despite the differences in the nature of employment, the Filipino workers in California, like the sakadas, labored in pitiful working and living conditions too. They stayed in camps with run-down bunkhouses and shacks which looked like chicken coops. They worked long hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Work was extremely hard since they stooped most of the time, and by the end of the day their backs ached and they were itchy and sweating. The experiences of the Americans were movingly captured by Carlos Bulosan, a migrant worker himself, in his novel America is in the Heart.