Connecting Personal Biography and Social History: Women Casino Workers and the Global Economy

Article excerpt

Economic globalization has been described as the "most fundamental redesign of the planet's political and economic arrangements since as least the industrial revolution" (Mander, 1996). This article explores its implications in the lives of a group of women casino workers. Based on a qualitative study in which data were collected from key informants, focus groups of community leaders and professionals, and in-depth interviews with women casino workers themselves, the study attempts, in the spirit of C. Wright Mills (1959) and social work's tradition of person-in-environment, to connect "the patterns of [individual] lives and the course of world history."

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[Working in a casino], it's the only way I could survive. I had to work for money for food, it's not like I enjoyed it. I wouldn't be cleaning rooms in my country. I was a teacher.

Maria Ortiz, housekeeper originally from El Salvador

What does a casino offer? It doesn't offer much, does it? Because I don't think being a dishwasher you're going to end up being a supervisor or being one of the top.... They want you as a dishwasher. They're not going to say, well, this person has been here for many years, let's give [her] a chance doing this and doing that.

Ynez Rodriguez, former casino hostess from El Paso

What part is the worst? It's all the worst.

Hilda Gomez, casino maid for 18 years, also from El Salvador

This article describes the work lives of women like Maria, Ynez, and Hilda who are employed on the lowest rungs of Nevada's gaming industry--as maids, janitors, change people, and hostesses. It explores the connection between their daily struggle for survival and self-realization and the economic and social forces associated with globalization. These are the women of the global labor market, women who are essential to Nevada's booming tourist economy, but are by and large locked into low-paid, low-benefit jobs. Far from passive, they like others have "defied all odds to reinvent themselves and to open up new possibilities for their children" (Arriaza, 1997, p. 6).

These women are at the center of a study we began two years ago on women casino workers in the context of economic globalization. The study proposed three research questions:

1. What is the experience of women who work as maids, cooks, hostesses, change persons, waitresses, and dealers in casinos in northern Nevada?

2. What can their stories and the observations of helping service professionals and other community members who work with them tell us about the social and economic health of Nevada families and our community?

3. Do the women's work experiences reflect factors associated with economic globalization?

Thus, in the spirit of sociologist C. Wright Mills (1959) and social work's tradition of person-in-environment, we proposed to connect "the patterns of [individual] lives and the course of world history"--in this case, to understand women casino workers' personal biographies within the context of the enormous economic, political, social, and technological changes occurring at the intersection of two millennia. Our objective was not to establish a causal relationship between globalization and the women's lives, but rather to explore their multiple and complex interconnections, that is, to juxtapose realities and ideas in such a way as to stimulate others to consider the issues and formulate their own conclusions. As social work educators and activists, we also wished to narrow the divide between academics and the working people of our community--and to challenge the invisibility and stigma that surrounds women's casino work. In this, we sought to revive the legacy of Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Edith Abbott, E. Franklin Frazier and others who--at another time of enormous economic change--devoted considerable effort to studying how working conditions affect the health of individuals, families, and communities, and used their findings in the fight for more just public policies. …