Inside The World of 'Unskilled' Labor
When I drive past the exit for Tar Heel, N.C., on highway 40 headed for the beach, I think about how close it is to my home in the Piedmont, and how little I know about the lives of the people who work in the Smithfield Foods slaughterhouse there. The reminder that I live just shy of two hours away from one of the U.S.’s largest and most notorious meat-processing plants shocks me—and then I’ve passed the exit and the sand hills are rolling past with their unappealing pines, and the twinge of curiosity is followed by a twinge of guilt that I don’t think of this more often, and then the ocean is so close it’s hard to think about much else. I suspect that a lot of people, if they could, would just make a fold in the curvature of Carolina and hop right over the sand hills to the beach—even those of us who spend a good amount of time thinking about issues like food production and human rights.
This is one of the reasons why works of experiential journalism like Gabriel Thompson’s Working in the Shadows are so important. At their best, they can extend our imagined experience of the lives of people very near to us but separated by class, social structure, the layout of neighborhoods and cities. Doing so is one of Thompson’s personal goals as he sets out on a yearlong mission (which will inevitably remind readers of Barbara Ehrenreich’s in Nickeled and Dimed) to explore jobs that are dominated by Latino immigrants. He’s inspired to do so by a 2007 New York Times article about raids on Smithfield Foods by immigration agents, and Smithfield’s difficulty in replacing the 1,100 Latino employees who quit in their wake.
The three principal jobs he chooses are all related to food production: working in the lettuce fields of Arizona, at a chicken processing plant in Alabama, and in the back end of a restaurant in New York. He vows to remain at each for two months and to live in the communities where he works. In the book’s first section, Thompson describes cutting iceberg lettuce in Yuma, for Dole Fresh Vegetables. Here and throughout the book, he intersperses discussion of the industry with his reportage. His coworkers mostly live in Mexico and commute to Yuma for work—the $8.37 an hour that lettuce cutters earn is more than what they can make at home. They are expected to cut six heads of lettuce per minute; at this rate, they earn about two cents per head, while each head of nonorganic lettuce is sold for about a dollar. When Thompson brings out the math, with the help of a study by agricultural economist Philip L. Martin, we learn that increasing farmworker wages by 40 percent would raise a typical household’s yearly spending on fruits and vegetables by $8. This would increase the price of a head of lettuce, Thompson infers, by only two or three cents.