Civil Rights

Asian American and Pacific Islander women and the fair wage fight

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While there are many faces in the fight for a fair minimum wage, the faces of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and gender nonconforming people are often missing. 

Asian Americans, often proclaimed the “model minority,” need fair wages just as much — if not more — than anyone else. 

And yet our stories are often missing from mainstream dialogues about the federal minimum wage.

Nearly a third of all AAPI women working full-time earn less than $15 an hour. While mainstream culture often depicts AAPI women in field such as technology and science, Asian American women make up 4 percent of the low-wage workforce— 1.4 times their share of the overall workforce.

{mosads}They occupy positions in food service, personal care work, retail service, and domestic care. In 2016, one in five employed Asian American women work in service occupations — which include food prep, waitressing, dishwashing, housekeeping, childcare and personal aid.


These are the faces, the lived realities, of the AAPI community that are desperately lacking when we talk about raising the minimum wage: stories of AAPI women garment workerspoultry plant workersnail salon technicians and restaurant workers. We need to expand who we think of when we think of low-wage workers and the AAPI workforce.

Occupations that are considered “female-dominated” are often devalued in our culture — a reality further compounded when we take into consideration race and ethnicity. Occupations typically occupied by women of color are undervalued and underpaid, leaving women of color in positions of economic insecurity and forcing them to continue in the low-wage workforce.

Unfortunately, wage disparities for women of color are attributed to our occupational choices, rather than a history of devaluation of women’s labor and unfair wage setting.

Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander working women earn relatively low wages — and experience high wage gaps compared to non-Hispanic white men. 

Federal legislation aimed at increasing the minimum wage is a vital and necessary step in the direction of racial and gender equity for AAPI women and gender nonconforming workers. In 2017 alone, 19 states passed laws for higher minimum wages. 

Yet, of the top 10 states with the fastest growing AAPI populations, seven of them have minimum wage laws less than $10 an hour — including Georgia’s $7.25 minimum wage.

All people should be paid fairly for the work that we do — regardless of gender or race. Passage of the Raise the Wage Act would mean that fair wages would not be contingent simply on where you happen to live. 

For thousands of AAPI women and gender non-conforming workers struggling to make ends meet, such legislation could mean the difference between paying rent, affording groceries, obtaining childcare, paying for hospital or medical bills, and other necessary and basic human rights.

For AAPI transgender and gender non-conforming workers, the federal minimum wage has a different urgency. In one national survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 18 percent of AAPI transgender and gender nonconforming respondents reported a household income of less than $10,000 a year.

Low wages further compound the housing and economic insecurity many AAPI transgender and gender nonconforming people experience — not to mention may push costly transition-related services and care out of reach for those that desire it.

In order for reproductive justice to become a reality for all AAPI women and gender nonconforming people, we need policies that support economic security and wage equity.

Each person in our country deserves the ability to define and make decisions about our bodies, families and communities; however, economic insecurity interferes with our ability to make such decisions. Choices about whether or not to become a parent, or how we choose to parent, should not be contingent on our income. Furthermore, parenting choices made due to economic insecurity only serve to further economic disparities in the AAPI community.

It is not a matter of whether AAPI women and gender nonconforming people belong in the fight for $15 — we are leaders in economic and labor movements and our lived realities are a daily reminder of what is at stake. Our voices and stories of economic insecurity deserve to be seen and elevated. 

Our labor — including our advocacy — deserves to be visible and our work deserves to be fairly compensated.  

Sung Yeon Choimorrow is the executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Asian Americans Gender Gender equality Pacific Islanders Wage Equality

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