Day Labor Agencies, “Backdoor” Hires, and the Spread of Unfree Labor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


This article focuses upon a previously overlooked aspect of the “flesh-peddling” day labor business, widely recognized as the epitome of the precarious regime of employment. By physically stockpiling surplus labor to meet their clients’ immediate and unpredictable demands, day labor agencies inadvertently give rise to informal day labor markets outside their doors. Drawing upon ethnographic research carried out in the day labor agencies of Baltimore and Oakland, I examine how day laborers and agency dispatchers negotiate and navigate the practice of what I call “backdoor” hiring, wherein employers hire workers from, but not through, the agency. The struggles surrounding backdoor hiring not only challenge and complicate the binary division in the literature between formal and informal day labor, but reveal the dogged efforts of dispatchers to cultivate workers’ dependency, restrict their mobility, and curtail their labor-market freedom. This article thus contributes to the growing debate within anthropology and related disciplines about the conditions exacerbating unfreedom at the bottom of the labor market.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-14
Number of pages10
JournalAnthropology of Work Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2019


  • day labor
  • labor-market brokers
  • temporary staffing agency
  • unfree labor

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology


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