As work conditions shift, inhumanity of immigrant labor becomes human rights concern


Photo: Gabriel Thompson.

Gabriel Thompson worked alongside immigrants in the back of restaurants in New York City and in factories that produced some of the most basic foods in the American diet: lettuce and chicken.

Not an immigrant himself, Thompson used his investigative reporting techniques to lift a veil on working conditions that many undocumented immigrants and low-income Americans face daily. His colleagues experienced excruciating soreness from physical labor. They had no employee benefits. And they had to do monotonous and repetitive work, which led to a high rate of injuries.

“What makes the work with chickens so oppressive,” Thompson said, “is that the noise is so loud you have to wear earplugs, and you have a line of people doing one deliberate move all day long. There are 38 chickens passing you a minute.” But Thompson’s one-year immersion into the lives of working immigrants, documented in his recent book, “Working in the Shadows,” comes at a time when working conditions are changing. It is not because factory and restaurant owners are becoming nicer, less profit-oriented and more humanitarian in their practices, but because the immigrant workers are leaving the workplace under pressure from law enforcement, a trend that is forcing the employers to look for new ways of attracting workers, Thompson explained at a talk last week at the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center, which studies working conditions and workplace economics.

This reverse migration constitutes a significant shift in the makeup of the American economy. The Pew Hispanic Center estimated in 2008 that there were 8.3 million undocumented workers in the United States, making up 5.4 percent of the workforce.. Changes to their opportunity for employment ripple throughout the U.S. economic system.

Amid the recent tightening down of anti-immigration legislation, high numbers of undocumented immigrants have either been deported or voluntarily left out of fear of being deported. Over the last year, immigration officials report that a total of 396,906 foreigners were deported, the highest number in the last decade.

A series of raids by immigration agents in the massive slaughterhouse of Smithfield Foods in North Carolina in 2006 resulted in the arrest of only 21 undocumented immigrants, but in the subsequent resignation of more than 1,100 Latino workers. The 5,200-employee plant was left severely short-staffed.

In the fall of 2007, the New York Times published an “Crackdown Upends Slaughterhouse’s Workforce,” by labor writer Steven Greenhouse, documenting the difficulty facing Smithfield Foods in securing a stable workforce. In response to the exodus of immigrants, Smithfield stepped up efforts to recruit U.S. citizens.

Based on wages alone, this shouldn’t have been overly difficult: Most of the local jobs paid minimum wage and positions at the plant averaged $12 an hour. Still, as Greenhouse reported, “The turnover rate for new workers — many find the work grueling and the smell awful — is twice what it was when Hispanics dominated the workforce. … At the end of the shifts, many workers complain that their muscles are sore and their minds are numb.”             

In an effort to attract more workers, this and other factories have ‘upgraded’ the working conditions by increasing wages, or by obtaining workers from areas farther away from the immediate towns. But the fact that is emerging with this recent shift in the workforce is that these jobs, so deeply entrenched in the economy, are jobs that most people — that is, people who are not living in desperate conditions and need any way they can to earn $8 an hour — would ever want to do.

That there have been so many people doing this work for so long, maintaining the status quo of the American economy, gives a window a system constantly in need of desperate people looking for means of survival.

“The jobs have become so unskilled,” Thompson said, “that any of you could go into these factories take any of the jobs and within 10 minutes be bored. So if that’s your job for 20 years, it presents a different challenge.”

Inside the poultry factory, he described, there is a wall with posters filled with corporate motivational messages, saying things like “You can do it!” and one that reads, “Pride out fear” and in front of it, another wall is stacked with painkiller dispensers. He explained there were about eight kinds of minor painkillers, and that every three or four hours he would take one — the usual way to proceed, he explained to an awestruck audience in Berkeley.

Asked about injuries, Thompson said there were lots, mostly from repetitive stress, carpal tunnel and tendonitis.

“I met women who couldn’t pick their children up,” Thompson said. “Then you realize how important hands are for everything — shaking hands, opening jars, even sleeping. When I would fall asleep and turn over on my hands I would scream because of how sore they were.”

Thompson said that throughout the process of writing his book he was speaking to his grandparents, who were immigrants and once worked factory jobs.

“I think we tend to idealize the work of immigrants in the American past as a romanticized history we have moved on from,” Thompson said. “And the reality is that this is not history, it is still happening today.”

As the economy adjusts to this reverse migration, writers and researchers are beginning to wonder whether work conditions will become more humane, or whether the economy will find new forms of exploiting vulnerable populations to maintain the standard American model of production.

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