A Look into Early AAPI Labor

A Look into Early AAPI Labor image
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Diversity and respect are fundamental. FCS insists upon a culture of common respect, expects transparency, and celebrates the fundamental value and dignity of all individuals. Our mutual equality as humans is the path to diverse and innovative collaboration. As part of an ongoing initiative taking a look into history and recognizing some of the challenges the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community has overcome to help make fundamental rights and opportunities available for all, this post reviews the history of AAPI labor and the fight for fair labor conditions for migrant workers. 

Chinese Laborers and the Expansion of the California Economy

Mainstream integration of Chinese immigrants into California society began as early as 1848, when news of a “mountain of gold” reached the villages of China. By 1851, 25,000 Chinese immigrants – mostly less educated men looking to strike it rich – reached California during the state’s Gold Rush. Chinese laborers soon represented 1 out of every 5 gold mine workers in the Sierra Nevada, and by 1870, the Chinese represented 20% of California’s entire labor force. Initially, while conditions were good and gold was plentiful, California’s new workers were treated well and seen as invaluable contributors to the economy. Those who were willing to take low-wage undesirable jobs were favored by Westerners. Once gold began to be depleted, California entered a recession, and the Chinese were often resented. 

These pioneers, who sailed to the US in hopes of bringing home fortunes, made California their permanent home as exit options dwindled. The Chinese Diaspora – and their recently born Chinese American children – faced a long, tumultuous period of xenophobia, racism, and hardships ahead, encapsulated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1898, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. Without a doubt, however, they were at the beginning of their immense contribution to California’s growing economy.

From Experiment to Legacy

Around the same time as gold fever, California’s newly founded labor population was at the epicenter of another growth moment for America. The prospect of creating a Transcontinental Railroad (connecting the Western Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads with the Union Pacific Railroad) was largely doubted by observers. The famed Sierra Nevada mountain range – known for its treacherous conditions and rugged terrain – was seen as an insurmountable obstacle. Still, the potential to connect the western frontier with the rest of the country, and the economic promise that came with it, was enough of a lure for robber barons and politicians alike to forge ahead.

When the major railroad companies couldn’t find white workers to accept the dangerous working conditions, low pay, and long work hours, they recruited Chinese laborers. Chinese railroad workers proved their mettle, moving through and laying tracks in the same Sierras that defeated the American pioneers of the Donner Party, before eventually working through the heat of Nevada and Utah.

Chinese railroad workers in the Sierra Nevadas. 1862-1869. Alfred A. Hart Photographs, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.

Chinese Railroad Laborers


Chinese railroad laborers banded together in rough conditions, which helped facilitate their success. They developed rituals of eating healthily, drinking tea, and bathing regularly which enabled them to be more energetic throughout the day and avoid disease that plagued other groups. In fact, just before rail proponent Leland Stanford drove in the ceremonial “Golden Spike” to commemorate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, thousands of Chinese railroad workers laid 10 miles of track in less than 24 hours, a feat that is still unbeaten today.

They developed rituals of eating healthily, drinking tea, and bathing regularly which enabled them to be more energetic throughout the day and avoid disease that plagued other groups.

The massive engineering feat of the century propelled America into economic expansion, shortening a months-long cross-country trip to one week, and opening up routes of commerce and industrialization across the West. In California, the railroad provided opportunities for farms across the state to export fruit. Stanford himself went on to amass a fortune due in part to the railroad, later founding Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA. And the engineering feat carried primarily by Chinese and Irish workers more than 150 years ago stands the test of time. The California portion of Amtrak’s Zephyr route still traverses the tracks laid through the Sierras.

Japanese-Mexican Collaboration for Equality

As railroad completion allowed California to connect and compete in the agricultural market across the country, collaboration between migrant cultures to champion fair working conditions yielded some success for farm workers. Physically demanding labor, withholding wages, and abysmal living conditions forced Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican workers to unite at critical times to negotiate better conditions with farm owners.

In the early 1900’s in Oxnard, California, Japanese and Mexican farm laborers worked side by side as beet pickers. When farm owners formed an organization in an attempt to pay migrant workers’ wages in the form of store credit at local, expensive stores, and replace them with Anglo  workers, the migrant groups united to stage the “first successful agricultural strike” in Southern California. Through their organized efforts they were able to force the farm owners to return to their original payment terms.

The attempt to undermine the progress of the JMLA and sow division between the workers proved unsuccessful, as the Mexican workers returned the charter and insisted that Japanese and Chinese workers should be included. 

During this time, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association (JMLA) was formed. A multi-racial labor union whose purpose was to negotiate directly with farm owners to raise wages, this was a unique collaboration as many members did not speak English. Meetings were held with both Japanese and Spanish translators. Leadership consisted of both Japanese and Mexican farmworkers and students. This union demonstrates the tangible power of groups when they come together for a common purpose. Though there were language barriers, Japanese and Mexican workers had shared experiences of targeted social inequality and racism, which they repurposed into something purposeful, impactful, and truly special.

The coalition was put to the test when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) interceded, offering Mexican workers a union charter that explicitly excluded Japanese and Chinese laborers. The attempt to undermine the progress of the JMLA and sow division between the workers proved unsuccessful, as the Mexican workers returned the charter and insisted that Japanese and Chinese workers should be included. 

Though the counteroffer was rejected, the JMLA achieved hard-fought success with their strike of over 1,200 members comprising 90% of the farm workers in the area.  

While Japanese and Mexican workers found themselves on opposing sides of some agricultural labor issues in the future, this period was historic for its display of cross-sectional unification of diverse cultures for social and economic progress.

Oxnard Beet Workers Circa 1903


Filipino Nurses in California and the US

From transportation and commerce to healthcare, the AAPI community has brought invaluable resources to the US. Nursing is the nation’s largest healthcare profession, with nearly 4.1 million registered nurses (RNs) and more than 920,000 licensed practical/vocational nurses (LPN/LVN) as of October 2019. Since 1960, over 150,000 Filipino nurses have migrated to the US, carrying their legacy on to future generations of Filipino American nurses, and playing an essential role in US healthcare.  An estimated 4% of RNs in the US and 20% in California are Filipino.

How Did We Get Here?

When the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898, more westernized hospitals and nursing programs emerged, with Filipinos gaining more experience in western healthcare practices. During this time, the Philippines was experiencing high rates of unemployment, along with political instability. The economic opportunity presented by the nursing field became an enticing option for many Filipinos, and groups of Filipino nurses seeking socioeconomic mobility were given the opportunity to travel to the US to further their training. Eventually, many Filipinos began to replace American supervisors. 

Filipino Nurses


In 1944, the US implemented the Exchange Visitor Program (EVP) through the US Surplus Property Act, which allowed foreigners to study and gain work experience in the US, to create a level of mutual educational and cultural exchange with other countries. During the Vietnam War, the US experienced a shortage of American nurses, and Filipino nurses were sponsored via the EVP to fill in low staffing numbers throughout the country. The passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 allowed these nurses to petition to stay in the country permanently. The introduction of the Medicare and Medicaid Act put an additional strain on the US medical system. As more people became eligible for healthcare, there was an increased demand for health care services, resulting in more nurses being sent to the US from the Philippines.

According to ethnic studies professor Catherine Ceniza Choy, “U.S. hospitals specifically looked for Filipino exchange nurses because they had been trained in an Americanized nursing curriculum and work culture. And they were also fluent in English as a result of American colonial education and legacy.” Philippines President Marcos encouraged nurses to participate in these programs to help boost the Philippines economy as nurses earned and sent more money back to their families overseas. The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration also began allowing more contract labor to foreign employers who could leverage the trained Filipino medical staff, including nurses. 

While the process to bring Filipino nurses to the US has become more streamlined, the treatment of these nurses has not always been just. In 2012, a group of Filipino nurses claimed targeted harassment of an “English only” policy imposed at Delano Regional Medical Center, while co-workers who spoke other languages were not disciplined. The center paid $975,000 as part of their settlement.  

Despite these ongoing challenges, Filipino nurses continue to support the healthcare system in California and the greater United States community. 

Many California hospitals recruit from the Philippines, with nurses typically working in underserved areas, such as inner-city and public hospitals. Often these nurses encourage their family members and classmates to move to the US as well, further increasing the nursing workforce in the state. Working in these highly impacted healthcare settings in close proximity of patients, saw these frontline workers experience direct impacts of COVID-19 throughout the pandemic.

Despite these challenges, Filipino nurses continue to support the healthcare system in California and the greater United States community. With the population of Filipino nurses so large in California, an increase in professional networks and associations has emerged. Two such organizations, Philippine Nurses Association of Southern California and Philippine Nurses of Northern California were created with goals to promote welfare of their members and health of communities and provide professional networking and professional development programs. 

As of August 19, 2021, Filipinos are the second-largest group of California’s active registered nurses’ workforce. Nearly 40% of Philippines-trained RNs reside in California, earning an average of $100,000 per year. Many live in multigenerational families, tending to patients in the healthcare setting, as well as aging parents and children at home, and often integrating Filipino cultural values with modern medicine, for comprehensive caregiving attitudes and practices.

Interested in learning more? Access curated resources that support the AAPI community and organization.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the original author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of ADEC Innovations, and/or any/all contributors to this site.


This article was a collaborative effort from members of our AAPI group.

Yiu Kam. As Lead Creative, Yiu is responsible for the art direction of both the ADEC ESG Solutions and FCS business units’ marketing strategies. He enjoys collaborating with a great team of marketing professionals to creatively connect the dots between our company and their customers. Yiu juggles in-house design needs with external-facing client projects daily. As Visual Simulations lead at FCS, Yiu utilizes 3D modeling to empower clients and communities to “see” new projects before they’re approved. Yiu also works closely with the ESG Professional Services team to help companies publish science-based and graphic-rich Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Reports.

Adrienne Garcia. Adrienne Garcia is an ESG project manager specializing in ESG Disclosures and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) reporting. She provides ESG consulting services and supports clients in reporting on their ESG efforts in alignment with global reporting frameworks and sustainability indices. Since 2018, Adrienne has assisted companies in maximizing performance in CDP, data management, and developing comprehensive CSR reports. 



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About the author

Melissa Ramirez

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Melissa recently joined the FCS Publishing Department as a Word Processing and Document Specialist. She is responsible for formatting, word processing, and assembling FCS’ technical reports, environmental analysis documents, proposals, and other internal- and external-facing client deliverables. Melissa has more than 10 years’ experience in legal services and document review.

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