Gabriel Thompson, Working in the Shadows; A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] Americans Won't Do (New York: Nation Books, 2010), 298pp.
There are about 10 million undocumented workers in the United States, roughly 5% of our work force. "Immersion journalist" Gabriel Thompson went undercover for a year to experience what it's like working long hours for low wages in unsafe working conditions that tax the human body and spirit. His book brings to mind Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (2001), which I thought packed more punch. Unlike Ehrenreich, Thompson was more interested in the working conditions of immigrants rather than how an average American makes financial ends meet with a minimum wage job.
Thompson chose three jobs, staying at each one for about two months. Low-skilled labor, he learned, is extremely arduous and demands remarkable resilience on the part of those who do it. In Yuma, Arizona, about twenty miles from the Mexican border, he was a lechugero or lettuce picker. Working for Dole at $8.37 an hour, "on most crews, each cutter harvests six heads of lettuce each minute, or 360 an hour. At this pace, a farm worker earning an hourly wage of $8.37 is paid just over two cents per head." In Yuma these farm workers harvest up to 12 million heads of lettuce each day. Although Thompson could harvest only at about half the rate of his co-workers, at the end of his two months they exclaimed, "The white guy can work!"
In Russellville, Alabama, a rural town of 10,000 people that's home to the Klan and similar white supremacy groups, Thompson lived in a trailer and worked the 11pm to 8am shift at the Pilgrim Pride poultry plant. Pilgrim processes about 1.5 million chickens per week and pays its workers about $8.80 an hour. Thompson had wanted to work on the deboning line where chickens zoom by at 38 birds per minute. Instead, he dumped 70-pound tubs of meat and ripped apart chicken breasts with his hands. The challenge at the poultry plant was the mind-numbing boredom of doing a repetitive task, and finding much of interest to write about: "in a single shift I could be asked to tear through more than 7,000 chicken breasts or lift, carry and dump more than thirty tons of meat."
Back in his home town of New York City, Thompson worked for two days at a flower shop before being fired. He then signed on as a bicycle "delivery boy" at an upscale Mexican restaurant. As with his jobs cutting lettuce and slopping tubs of chicken, the immigrants who populate the back kitchens of many restaurants do "punishing work at poverty wages." Thompson has no illusions. He's a thirty-year-old white person who speaks Spanish and has published several books; for him this project was "an exhausting learning experience; but for my co-workers it is their life." For people who read his book, it will be an eye-opening introduction to the people who clean our hotel rooms and put food on our table.