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The U.S. Department of Labor Recruits Workers from Puerto Rico

The United States acquired the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico in 1898 after its victory in the Spanish-American War. After a period of limited local autonomy, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship in 1917. The arrival of large, U.S.-backed sugar plantations of the island displaced many erstwhile subsistence farmers, creating a rural wage labor force; by the start of World War I, these rapid changes in the island's economy had led to high levels of unemployment. At the same time, labor shortages in the U.S. caused by the American entry into the war prompted the Labor Department to propose a plan to bring workers from Puerto Rico to the mainland to work on war-related projects. The resulting migration of some 10,000 Puerto Rican workers was only one of many successive waves of Puerto Rican immigration to the U.S.; by 1960, over 600,000 people of Puerto Rican birth or parentage were living in New York City alone.

Government Work for 10,000 Already Arranged and First Arrivals Will Land Within Month. 75,000 Islanders Now Available.

As one of its means of augmenting the common-labor supply, the Department of Labor, through the United States Employment Service, will shortly begin bringing Porto Rican laborers to continental United States. Within a month the first arrivals will be engaged in construction work on Government contracts, and the Employment Service already has arranged for the employment of more than 10,000 islanders on war work at Norfolk, Newport News, and Baltimore and vicinity. Approximately 75,000 Porto Rican laborers already are available for work in the mainland.

The Porto Rican laborers will receive 35 cents an hour, with time and a half for overtime work. They will be fed by the Government commissary, each man paying 25 cents a meal. Housing will be furnished to these men without cost, and a representative of the Department of Labor now is in the cities in which they will be employed arranging housing accommodations in advance of their arrival.

Army Transports Used

The transfer of this labor, which brings American common labor into the continent, has been heldup for some months through lack of shipping accommodations. The War Department, however, has just agreed to bring over the islanders on the home trips of transports carrying supplies to the mobilization base at San Juan. The possibilities of Porto Rico as a source of common-labor supply were investigated last October by the department through F.C. Roberts, a special representative, who went to the island.

His estimate of 75,000 available men was subsequently confirmed by Santiago Iglesias, member of the Porto Rico Senate and President of the Free Federation of Labor for Porto Rico, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Labor.

Source | "To increase common labor supply with Porto Rican," U.S. Employment Service Bulletin,Department of Labor, Washington, D.C., 21 May 1918 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives).
Creator | U.S. Department of Labor
Item Type | Government Document
Cite This document | U.S. Department of Labor, “The U.S. Department of Labor Recruits Workers from Puerto Rico,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 26, 2021,

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