Undercover with lettuce and chicken
Chances are the last time you strolled through the produce aisle and nabbed a head of Dole lettuce for your evening salad, you didn’t wonder about the migrant worker who cut it under the blazing sun from a field of a million others like it. “Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do” seeks to change that.
Curious about the jobs worked in the Latino culture he regularly covers, award-winning and Spanish-speaking journalist Gabriel Thompson embarks on an ambitious mission: to go undercover, work for two months, then write about the experiences he’s had in the three industries that rely heavily on Latino immigrants: agriculture, poultry processing and restaurant work that does not entail interacting with customers.
First Mr. Thompson heads to Yuma, Ariz., near a Dole plant where he seeks employment cutting lettuce, a job he’s heard is as physically difficult as it is swarming with immigrants, both undocumented and with papers. In his search for employment in the various fields, Mr. Thompson fashions weak cover stories, telling potential employers he’s traveling or has “always wanted to try” whatever job he’s attempting to get. Despite this, he only receives a few curious looks from potential employers, whereupon he is immediately hired. (This, Mr. Thompson asserts, is because he’s white and bilingual.)
Mr. Thompson’s surprise and delight over the generous $8.37 wage he’ll earn cutting lettuce is short-lived after he plunges into the grueling work. Physically he is pushed to the edge: He endures long hours under the hot sun and suffers from back pain and swollen and sore feet and hands.
Mr. Thompson’s political leanings are evident and tucked between the personal narrative and lively anecdotes. Though his entire crew actually has guestworker papers, he claims “many guestworkers find the system stacked against them” before they even get into this country because of their need to pay for visas and other fees.
While it’s tempting to be sympathetic, Mr. Thompson says many of the guest workers prefer to work in American fields as opposed to Mexican ones because of the higher wages: One “co-worker” said he earned $10 a day in Mexico and nearly $9 an hour in Yuma for similar work. Not bad for a guest worker.
After eight weeks of cutting lettuce, Mr. Thompson hikes over to Alabama and gets a job at a poultry plant called Pilgrim’s Pride. Though it doesn’t require the strenuous use of his whole body like lettucecutting, it’s still difficult. He’s put on an assembly line of sorts tearing chicken breasts at the rate of one every four seconds, or 7,200 an hour; he also dumps containers of chicken breasts into tubs — 25 tubs weigh 1,765 pounds — during the graveyard shift, no less.
Mr. Thompson heads north and gets hired at a flower shop in New York City, transferring branches and plants to various parts of the city. This job seems the least interesting, if only for the lack of swollen appendages and stench as described in his previous jobs. Still, the work conditions at the flower shop demonstrate clear violations of labor laws. For two days and 21 hours at the flower shop, Mr. Thompson makes less than $7 an hour despite New York City’s $7.15 minimum wage.
He also moves sharp branches without gloves and works without a break. After Mr. Thompson is (strangely and) promptly fired because he’s not “cut out for this work,” he finds his final job as a bike delivery man for an upscale Mexican restaurant in New York City. His wage of $4.60 plus tips puts him in the highest income bracket among his delivery peers, and he also sees them suffer from extreme exploitation.
Mr. Thompson’s reporting seems to push the reader toward a level of sympathy for immigrants doing backbreaking work for less than a spoiled American teenager makes flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Does that mean there are indeed jobs in America that Americans won’t do? Maybe. But as Mr. Thompson notes, one irritated citizen in Alabama asked: Who did immigrants think did these jobs before they came? Plus, as Mr. Thompson witnessed on occasion, when an employee felt really disgruntled, he quit. Likewise, every immigrant he spoke to came to America and worked — sometimes without abiding by American laws! — of his own volition. I’ll now think twice about swinging through McDonald’s to grab my kids a four-piece order of Chicken Nuggets, and I’ll certainly tip my local delivery guys more.
Nicole Russell has written for theAtlantic.com, Politico, National Review Online and the American Spectator.