The regimen of the laborers booklet was a system of compulsory labor, which was implemented as a result of the shortage of free workers that Puerto Rico experienced from the beginning of the 19th century. Labor was a problem for the landowners because several factors prevented them from being able to rely on rural peasants as workers. The first factor was the “seasonal nature” of agricultural work and the monoculture that left the workers idle for approximately six months. There was work in the coffee and cane fields only during the cane harvest or when collecting coffee, but after that the workers were unemployed. They could support themselves only with what they could plant at their own homes and so their work habits were very irregular and undisciplined. They could not be relied on for labor. Given this, the regimen of the laborers booklet was imposed.
The Police and Good Government Unit, created in 1838 by Governor Miguel López de Baños, was charged with identifying as day laborers all people who did not own property that they could use to support themselves. These people were considered obligated to make themselves available to work for someone else for wages. There was an office in each municipality where each free citizen without the means of self-support had to register. Each worker was given a ticket with his registry number. A worker who went a month without a job was considered indolent and the authorities would force him to work on a farm for a year. This first attempt did not provide a great number of workers. But in 1849, under the government of Juan de la Pezuela, new regulations were issued along with a new classification for day laborers. Thus arose the regimen of the laborers booklet. Pezuela now defined a day laborer as a person who had a plot of land or planted another’s land but did not produce enough for subsistence. A person was considered a laborer at age 16. Each worker was given a booklet and was required to carry it at all times. In it, the terms of their work were recorded: wages, time, debts and observations of their conduct made by the employer. These observations were often unfavorable for the worker and damaged his reputation, making it hard to find work elsewhere. The workers’ hands were tied so that they were not free to find work, which left them in a condition of slavery.
Workers suffered numerous abuses at the hands of the employers who, among other things, inflated the amount of money owed by the worker due to salary advances. They brutally exploited the workers and thereby forced them to work more. The ranks of laborers grew until the work by black slaves and the work by free day laborers was nearly equal. In the final third of the 19th century, in 1873 both the abolition of slavery and the laborers booklet were abolished.
Author: Zahira Cruz
Published: September 12, 2014.
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