Undercover with let­tuce and chicken

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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