11 January 2022, 15 - 16.30 

Learning to Labor Like a Hard-working Immigrant


Michel Anteby

Questrom School of Business, Boston University

Immigrant laborers are often extolled for their superior work ethic, a presumably essential trait which characterizes immigrants prior to working in host countries. The trope of the hard-working immigrant appears in both popular and scholarly accounts. In contrast, we consider hard work as a learned disposition, and ask, how do foreigners learn to embrace working hard at low-wage jobs? Based on a qualitative longitudinal study of international student workers in temporary service jobs, we examine hard work as a process of acculturation to the American workplace. Using ethnographic data on three seasons in a tourism-dependent location, we show that, over the course of their seasonal employment, students shift from consumers seeking a cultural experience to economically motivated hard workers: industrious, managing multiple jobs, and uninterested in leisure. While their employers see foreign students as possessing a superior work ethic, we argue that their work habits result primarily from prevailing labor conditions in the work setting and beyond, including high living costs, restricted leisure time, and precarious pay and hours. In the course of becoming structurally disadvantaged, these students become hard-working immigrants. Our findings inform debates on labor and immigration by unpacking and partly debunking notions of culturally specific work ethics.