Post 7: What is the social capital of day laborers? What is the importance of their social networks?

This is the seventh entry in a series of eight blog entries about the work the Institute for Immigration Research is doing with the Centreville Labor Resource Center (CLRC) to develop an in-depth picture of immigrant day laborers in the United States. In the past six entries, we have examined the services offered to the day laborers by the Centreville Labor Resource Center. We also analyzed the reasons the Guatemalan day laborers migrate to the US, the factors complicating their settlement in the US, the jobs they perform in Northern Virginia, and the importance of developing English language skills. Most recently in Post 6, we have highlighted the day laborers’ training options.

From the onset of day our laborer research, we suspected day laborers relied heavily on their social network in their home country to obtain employment and financial help. We were interested in finding out if the day laborers replicate these same customs when settling into American life. As a result, we inquired about the importance of social network in Guatemala compared to the United States. Additionally, we examined how their social networks operate. In other words, we wanted to evaluate the importance social capital in the lives of day laborers and assess if there is a difference in how they make use of it in the US, and compare those results to their country of origin.

Men working. December 2006 © Nathan Golon

As a scholar who works on the topic of social capital, Dr. Putnam, professor of Public Policy at JFK School of Government at Harvard, specifically defines it as: “Social Capital refers to social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity.” Social capital is not only showing a friendly attitude towards somebody, but also involves, “a wide variety of quite specific benefits that flow from the trust, reciprocity, information, and cooperation associated with social networks. Social capital creates value for the people who are connected.” We specifically focused on the practical help the day laborers offer each other in terms of finding housing, learning about jobs, and providing financial assistance to friends in temporary need.

Most of the day laborers confirmed that in Guatemala friends and extended family would help each other with practical tasks such assisting with farming, while immediate family members would offer each other financial support, if possible. As one day laborer responded, “Here the society is more individualistic. Back in Guatemala every problem will be talked about in the family. The help I get from friends is way less than the help I would get from friends in Guatemala. So basically the help I get here is very little. Only a couple of my friends help me here in terms of finding jobs. The other friends do not help. It is only a handful who will help.”

social capital images tw
One farm inspector teaches another Digital ICS in a village outside Barillas, Guatemala. ©

The day laborers mostly appear to have a strong social network here, but cannot rely exclusively on social networks to obtain jobs and other services. Some would say they had more friends back in Guatemala and others seem to have more friends here. As one day laborer put it, “I have more friends in Guatemala compared to here in the States, but the friends I have here are very important as they helped me when I first moved here.” The day laborers often share a town house or an apartment to keep their living expenses at minimum. Some say that they would help each other if there is a job opening or with translations of job applications. One day laborer mentioned that the friends who are specialized in one field might not always share their knowledge and yet others seem to rely heavily on their network of friends to become established in a field. A number of the day laborers also expressed an ability to rely on their church and its congregation for support, just like they did in their home country.

It appears the day laborers still depend on their social capital here in terms of finding work, housing, and other practical matters. Nevertheless, many of the day laborers had few social connections when they arrived in the US and have had to rebuild their social networks here. However, one apparent difference between the day laborers’ social capital in the United States and in Latin America is the practical assistance on which they can rely within the US social networks they have developed. Newly developed social connections in the US support day laborers for functional purposes, rather than filling the ‘loss’ of an established network in their home. It is therefore hard to qualify the difference social capital plays in the US versus in their home countries, but in some respects these new networks are both practical and essential to the lives of the day laborers.

We can also say with certainty that for most of our participants a social network is immensely important in both here in their host country and abroad in their country of origin. As detailed in Post 3, the CLRC plays an important role in the transition phase for day laborers settling in Northern Virginia, especially for those who arrived after the opening of the Center. We also learned from our interviews that the CLRC not only plays an important role in creating a solid social network in the initial phase after relocation to the US, but also continues to provide a greater platform for which the day laborers can build on their social capital. For this, reason the CLRC provides a venue for them to bond and expand their social network. As one of the day laborers said, “I come to the CLRC just to visit, as I feel very comfortable here and everybody knows me.”


Please look out for Post 8, which is the last entry in the series of eight blog entries. In the last post, we will discuss the future plans of these day laborers, and possible venues for future research.


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