Living Laboriously

Gabriel Thompson tells the stories of immigrants and others who do backbreaking work for low wages

When Gabriel Thompson showed up in Yuma two years ago to work the lettuce fields, he was offered a promotion—twice—before he'd cut a single leaf.

"Maybe it would be better if you worked inside, in the plant," the puzzled Dole manager told him. "You could make more money, and it wouldn't be so hard."

Thompson was an American, and white, and the lettuce bosses weren't accustomed to people like him wanting to work in the fields. Their workers were Mexican, and the last white guy they'd hired had lasted only two weeks. However, Thompson turned the bosses down. He wanted to do the work that immigrants typically do in America.

A journalist based in New York, Thompson undertook an immersion-reporting project for his new book, Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do. He went undercover to work three separate jobs, as a lettuce-harvester in Arizona, a poultry-plant worker in the Deep South, and a food-delivery guy in New York City. He did not identify himself as a reporter.

During his year of living laboriously, Thompson earned pitiful wages and suffered physically. Food-delivery workers, most of them immigrants, earn less than the minimum wage—Thompson earned $4.60 an hour, plus tips—and, as he discovered, run the risk of being mowed down by cars. Cabs crashed into Thompson more than once as he zipped around lower Manhattan delivering—ironically—upscale Mexican food.

At the gigantic Pilgrim's Pride poultry-processing plant in Russellville, Ala., he labored in near-freezing temperatures alongside Guatemalans and down-on-their-luck Americans.

"The immigrants were the backbone of the workforce," he said by phone last week. "They would stay a long time. The locals would do it for a shorter period of time. The immigrants have a very different conception of what 'hard' is. The chicken plant might be awful, but they're coming from something worse."

The machinery in the plant was so loud that workers couldn't even socialize as they did the repetitive, mind-numbing work of splitting and packing chickens. They start at $8.05 an hour, and they age rapidly, with many developing carpal tunnel at young ages.

"The chicken work strains the wrists, hands and tendons," he said. "At orientation, they told us to take painkillers. Even the vending machine in the break room sold painkillers."

Still, picking lettuce was "probably physically the most punishing" of his jobs. "I wondered, 'Can my body take this?'" Thompson was just 30, but his back ached mercilessly from bending over. His feet throbbed, and his hands swelled up to an alarming size.

He'd return so exhausted that he'd fall asleep by 8 at night.

"I had the idea that I would write at night!" he says, looking back on his naiveté.

At least he was to collapse in his rental room at night. Most co-workers were legal guest workers who made long commutes each day between the lettuce fields and their homes in San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora. And they had children to care for, meals to make and houses to clean when they returned home. One of his co-workers stayed on the job until right before giving birth.

"I was blown away by these people," he said. "These folks do it all the time. It's awe-inspiring. When you're so removed from that (physical labor), it's eye-opening to see how much work and effort is necessary to get ahead."

Yuma is the nation's winter-lettuce capital, with some 100 growers shipping 12 million heads of lettuce daily, Thompson writes. It's a "billion-dollar-a-year-industry" that pays its workers $8.37 an hour—or about two cents for every head of lettuce. And the work is not only backbreaking but highly skilled.

Thompson was mortified to find how clumsy he was with the knife and how slow he was to learn; it took him weeks to begin to handle his share of the work. His fellow workers, he said, taught him patiently, and when he was too fatigued to keep up, they took up his burden.

The camaraderie was one of the pluses of the job: "You're with the same crew for the season. You get to know people."

But the Yuma lettuce-pickers enjoy advantages over immigrant farm workers in other locations, Thompson said. When he started working the fields in early January 2008, Arizona's employer-sanctions law had just gone into effect. Employers who were caught hiring illegal immigrants ran the risk of losing their business licenses, and they were being careful to make sure all of their workers were documented. Some of Thompson's co-workers were legal permanent residents, but most had guest-work visas that permitted them to travel into the United States each day. Living at home in Mexico, just across the border, they had the advantage of a lower cost of living and higher American wages.

"Yuma is a very unique situation. Normally, guest workers are flown to the middle of nowhere, where they're more easily abused" and trapped in their jobs.

Thompson began the project after reading a New York Times story in 2007 about a North Carolina hog slaughterhouse that was having trouble finding enough workers after a series of immigration raids. The new American employees didn't stay long; they "find the work grueling and the smell awful," the Times reported.

Thompson said he doesn't feel dishonest for not telling his employers what he was really up to.

"I didn't lose any sleep over misrepresenting myself to these corporations," he said. "I wanted to explore what it was like to work in these conditions."

If he had come clean as a journalist, he wouldn't have been allowed in, or he would have received special treatment. In fact, when the chicken-plant mangers found out he was a journalist writing a book, they fired him.

"For me, the biggest ethical issue is you're taking stories about immigrants, people whose voices are not often heard, and I was a white guy channeling their voices," he said

The book calls for a higher minimum wage, protection of rights to unionize, and enforcement of existing labor and safety laws.

Thompson is chagrined that reviewers and interviewers tend to focus on his undercover adventure instead of the hard lives of the country's lowest-paid workers, immigrant and American alike. His "crazy experience" doing these jobs is not what's important, he said.

"Two months in the lettuce fields is not a huge accomplishment. These workers do this year after year without fanfare."

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