Thursday, August 12, 2010

Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows

I really enjoyed Gabriel Thompson's new book Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs [Most] American Won't Do.  Back in 2007 I reviewed his book There's No José Here.  To highlight the plight of low wage immigrant workers, he gets a job picking lettuce in Yuma, Arizona, then in a chicken factory in Russelville, Alabama, and finally a restaurant in New York City.

It is a very well written book, and he captures how incredibly hard the work is.  For example, the lettuce:

I feel like someone must have crept into my bedroom overnight and beaten me on the back with a two-by-four, then continued pounding on the soles of my feet.  I swallow several painkillers and put in my contact lenses, noticing that my eyes are bright red.  My neck is also crimson; I'm lathering myself with sunscreen twice a day, but it doesn't stand a chance against my overactive sweat glands.  There's a also a tennis-ball-size bruise on my right thigh, where the gancho jabs each time I bend (p. 29).

For all three jobs, he wanted to quit early and was relieved when it was done, acknowledging the privilege he had in doing so, when in fact others were doing two such jobs at the same time to make ends meet.  It should surprise no one that there are also all sorts of abuses (interestingly, the lettuce picking had the least) as well.

He actually finds the poultry plant more taxing because it is so fast paced and low skill (not to mention a night shift), whereas picking lettuce required being taught how to do things correctly:

I spend the following week tearing breasts.  I figure a conservative estimate has me going through a breast every four seconds, or 7,200 breasts a shift.  I arrive home each morning with throbbing hands, sleep fitfully throughout the day (I never manage to sleep more than five hours at a time), eat some food, take my ibuprofen, and wait for Kyle to pick me up to start all over again (p. 145).

In New York City he gets a job for a company that delivers decorative trees, but is quickly fired because, as they put it, he was a "happy chicken."  He figured his efforts at banter with other workers made them nervous.  As in Yuma, simply being white makes everyone suspicious.  Then he gets a job as a bicycle delivery man for a Mexican restaurant.  Especially after talking to others who do delivery, he notes "It quickly became obvious that I don't need to 'investigate' the prevalence of illegal wages in the food delivery business.  That's all there is" (p. 270).

He ends with a list of possible policy solutions, though I felt that was rushed and not well developed.  At any rate, the suggestions have been out there a long time--immigration reform, enforcement of minimum wage laws, right to organize unions, etc.  Sadly, it just doesn't happen.  But the next time you have a salad, think of the person who might have been the last to touch the lettuce, only 2-3 days before.  Could you handle that job?


leftside 5:53 PM  

Although I certainly see the value in experiments like this, the argument I'd like to hear more often is one of basic fairness and economic hypocrisy.

If we believe capital and business has the right to roam the world in search of the greatest profits, how can you argue that labor ought to be restricted? You either beleive in free markets or you don't. Europe understands this, as does the Wall Street Journal.

Labor has always been the necessary countereight to capital, so to give capital all the advantages leads to the exploitation we see here in the US and abroad.

I happen to believe in the right of a soveregn state to plan and organize its economy as best fits the time and place. That means allowing more and less freedom of capital and labor at different points in time, in different spheres. For example, during a recession with high unemployment like now it does not make sense to allow tons of excess workers into the country. Until proponents of immigration are upfront about the costs of immigration, they will never win this issue.

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