Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do
by Gabriel Thompson (Nation Books, 2010, 320 pages)
Studs Terkel’s description of the violent nature of work, taken from his 1972 tome Working, sums up the depressingly vivid descriptions Gabriel Thompson details for us in his book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do.
Book review by Cindy Strong
“Work is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” — Studs Terkel
Thompson’s purpose, in his third book about immigrants, is to explore worlds of work that are far removed from the purview of most of our lives. In a type of journalism termed “immersion journalism,” made popular by John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me and, more recently, by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, Thompson recounts his experience as an undercover worker in the agriculture, poultry, and food-delivery business.
Having done previous reporting on immigrants, Thompson is well versed in their world of work. Recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award and the Studs Terkel Media Award, this English- and Spanish-speaking author spent a year working undercover in agricultural fields, a poultry plant, and the back of a restaurant, in an effort to see what it is like to do the mind-numbing, back-breaking work that many nonimmigrant workers would not deign to perform.
Hard Cash in Lettuce Cutting
Thompson commenced his work in the lettuce fields of Yuma, Arizona. He helps the reader to visualize the harsh nature of this type of work, with his descriptions of days sweating as he labors in the hot sun, attempting to learn how to cut and bag lettuce for the Dole Corporation.
Despite being in good shape, Thompson finds that lettuce cutting is not as easy as it might seem; he must be bailed out regularly by his patient fellow laborers in the field. Rather than complaining about Thompson’s ineptitude as a lettuce cutter, his considerate co-workers (mostly Mexican immigrant guest workers) come to his rescue by picking up the numerous heads of lettuce he leaves behind.
Though the nature of the work is punishing, Thompson finds his immigrant co-workers congenial and thankful for the stable employment they have with the Dole Corporation. As guest workers, their wages are more than adequate when they nightly return to their homes across the border in Mexico. Thompson finds the immigrant workers are never shorted wages by Dole. Additionally, the company employs fair bosses, and it stresses workplace safety.
Dole is very safety conscious about working conditions in the field, but by the nature of their jobs, field workers still end up with “crooked fingers, permanently hunched backs, and swollen hands.” In addition, they are often exposed to pesticide poison. The brutal nature of this work results in a low life expectancy for farm workers.
Paltry Conditions in Poultry
Although the bodily pain and damaging nature of Thompson’s one-month tenure working in the fields for Dole was agonizing, it was the best of his three experimental jobs.
From Yuma, Thompson traveled to Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant, in rural Alabama. He unsuccessfully attempted to acquire work in deboning, the most onerous and dangerous section of poultry processing, which is primarily staffed with Guatemalan immigrants.
Where Dole cared about safety and offered training to that end, work at the Pilgrim’s Pride Russellville plant was chaotic, unorganized, and provided meager training regarding safe work habits. Working the 11 p.m.–7 a.m. shift, Thompson constantly struggled with sleep deprivation and staying awake while performing line-work of a monotonous nature. During his time at Pilgrim’s Pride, several of his co-workers were fired for falling asleep on the line.
While Thompson’s goal was to write about immigrants working in behind-the-scenes jobs, his inability to obtain a job in the deboning section, where Guatemalan immigrants labored, precluded him from doing so. He was surprised, however, to discover the demanding nature of work that his fellow Anglo co-workers performed and the toll it took on their bodies.
“The first thing an outsider at the plant will notice is that every American worker over forty is missing some front teeth; and the gummy smiles, combined with the thick creases that carve up cheeks and foreheads, make people look decades older.”
The Ugly Side of Flowers
After his stint in Alabama, Thompson moved closer to his home in New York City. He attempted to find work in that city of immigrants, where 36 percent of the residents are foreign-born, and many of these work in the underground economy.
With a bike as his main mode of transportation, Thompson pedaled around the city in search of work. In his travels, he encountered numerous restaurant delivery workers who informed him of the jobs available in their line of work.
Following up on their job tips, he inquired about jobs at a number of restaurants, only to be greeted with suspicious looks and told that the job had already been filled. At one upscale Asian restaurant, he was informed that the work was very hard and that the “Mexicans do the delivery.”
Desperate to find work, he ended up in a flower shop located in New York’s flower district. With minimal coherent instructions and much verbal abuse, Thompson finds work in the flower shop to be incredibly frustrating.
Despite receiving below minimum wage and working in a tenuous and tense situation in this informal economy, immigrants from southern Mexico and Honduras often work six to seven days a week without complaint. With little training, low pay, and inadequate tools to perform their jobs, immigrants in this shadow economy forge ahead with little hope of change. Their reported perseverance is admirable.
Essential and Dangerous
Accompanying Thompson’s detailed descriptions of the arduous work he performs are tidbits of research statistics. Sprinkled throughout the book, the additional information adds depth and enlightening information regarding the dangerous but essential nature of the work immigrants perform.
Thompson reports about the dangers of sleep deprivation while working in close proximity to machinery in poultry plants. He notes the 10,000–20,000 farm workers a year who are diagnosed with pesticide poisoning. As immigrant workers navigate these and other daily dangers associated with their place of work, they are risking their health to provide people with lettuce for burgers and chicken for dinners.
Another example of information that deepens the understanding of the reader is when Thompson reports the reason for the ineffective efforts of organizing a union at the poultry plant.
A union official assures Thompson that the goal of plant management is to “strike fear in the Hispanic workers, because they know the majority of them are undocumented.” Anti-union videos and sessions held with bilingual management representatives discouraging union membership are a regular occurrence at the plant.
Not Such “Good News”
A particularly disappointing aspect of the scenario Thompson paints for us is his negative characterization of the part Christianity plays in the Pilgrim’s Pride business.
With implied irony, Thompson describes the American Bible Society award that Bo Pilgrim, CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride, receives for “25 Years of Workplace Evangelism.” Bo Pilgrim considers his job a calling and portrays himself as a Christian businessman as he thanks “Jesus Christ for our new Hawker 800 XP airplane.”
The excessive expense Pilgrim’s Pride spends on a new jet is juxtaposed with the plant workers who ask for an extra pair of gloves to alleviate freezing, but are denied such resources. The implication is that Bo Pilgrim is a hypocrite. He claims to be a Christian businessman, but unjust practices in his poultry plant persist and are not dealt with.
Pope Benedict’s recent encyclical letter, titled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth), speaks to the need for business management to address more than just the issue of profits.
He writes that business management must “assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business,” including the workers. Pilgrim’s Pride would do well to take Benedict’s challenge seriously.
An Eye-Opening Read
Thompson’s illuminating stories of hard-working and uncomplaining immigrants are an important addition to the growing body of immersion journalism.
Additionally, Working in the Shadows, with its detailed vignettes of shadow-economy employees performing grueling and dangerous work, would provide eye-opening reading for those who rail against the influx of foreign-born workers.
For those who are concerned about the ethical treatment of all employees, this is a must read.