Contract Labor, Foreign

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CONTRACT LABOR, FOREIGN. During the Civil War (1861–1865), immigration went into a sharp decline, creating, among other things, a shortage of industrial labor. As a result, in 1864, the Union government adopted a contract labor law—the Act to Encourage Immigration. The law provided for the creation of the United States Emigration Office and companies such as American Emigrant Company, which sought to provide both skilled and unskilled foreign labor from Europe to U.S. companies suffering shortages. The contracts exchanged labor for prepaid passage to the United States. Yet because it was difficult to prevent workers from breaking their contracts, the American Emigrant Company and others never succeeded in attracting more than a few thousand workers.

The contract labor law was repealed in 1868, ending government involvement in recruiting foreign laborers. However, companies like the Six Companies continued to recruit. Unlike the American Emigrant Company, their focus was on bringing unskilled laborers from China to the railroad and mining industries. Yet this too had limited success. Racist sentiments rose against such immigrants, and labor unions organized around the issue that such workers were being brought in as strikebreakers. Stating that contract labor violated the free labor system, organizations such as the Knights of Labor pushed for the passage of the Foran Act in 1885, which prohibited the contract labor system. The law did exempt actors, artists, lecturers, singers, and domestic servants, as well as skilled labor required for new industries. Enforcement and revision of the Act became an ongoing issue for labor organizations. The American Federation of Labor successfully sought updates to the Foran Act in 1891, 1903, 1907, and 1910.


Erickson, Charlotte. American Industry and the European Immigrant, 1860–1885. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1957.

Parmet, Robert D. Labor and Immigration in Industrial America. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981.

Peck, Gunther. Reinventing Free Labor: Padrones and Immigrant Workers in the North American West, 1880–1930. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.


See alsoImmigration .