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U.S. temporary workers face low pay, exploitation

Michael Grabell | 3/14/2014, 6 a.m.

Day Davis, 21, was crushed by a machine and killed at a Bacardi bottling plant barely 90 minutes into the first day on the first job of his life. Samir Storey, 39, suffocated from hydrogen sulfide gas on his first day when he was assigned to clean the inside of a tank at a paper mill. Mark Jefferson, 47, died after collapsing from heat stroke after a long day on a garbage route.

Here too, the plight of the lowest level workers has changed little. The workers who reaped the nation’s fruit and vegetables also passed out from working in the heat or became sick from pesticides such as DDT.

In “Harvest of Shame,” two Florida towns – Belle Glade and Immokalee – became symbolic of the plight of farm labor. Today, researchers have identified “temp towns,” such as New Brunswick, N.J., and Little Village in Chicago, Ill. “Temp towns” are often densely populated Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they are cities where it has become nearly impossible for anyone, even for whites and African-Americans with vocational training, to find blue-collar work without going through a temp firm.

New Jersey has five of the counties — Middlesex, Passaic, Burlington, Camden and Union — with the highest concentration of temp workers in the country.

Lou Kimmel, an organizer for New Labor, a workers advocacy center in New Brunswick, said that when he first started working there, the founder used to say, “We’re all farmworkers in a way.”

For temp workers today, he said, “A lot of the conditions are the same: low wages, wage theft, unsafe conditions, working with chemicals, with no respect and dignity, and no organized effort to try to fight back.”

Murrow opened his documentary with the scene of a “shape up,” in which labor contractors hawk available jobs. Temp agencies today use a similar system that researchers have called a “modern-day shape up.” Temp workers stand on street corners or arrive at agency hiring halls as early as 4 a.m. so the agency’s dispatchers can round up enough to fill an order. In New Brunswick, one agency operated for a while out of a neon-lit beauty salon.

One morning last year, in Little Village, Chicago, workers lined up in an alleyway behind a dentist clinic and a shop selling quinceañer adresses. They knew little of where they were going to work, except that everyone called it los peluches — Spanish for stuffed animals — and that a guy named “Rigo” told them there was work. After following the bus, I discovered the warehouse was run by Ty Inc., one of the largest makers of stuffed animals in the world.

Rigo, whose full name is Rigoberto Aguilar, was what’s known in Little Village as a raitero, a Spanglish invention that roughly means “a person who gives rides.” But raiteros do more than that, essentially serving as immigrant labor brokers for the temp agencies. They recruit the workers, often charging them to apply for the job; then round up the workers in the predawn hours, charging them for the obligatory ride to the warehouse or factory. At the end of the week, the raiteros pick up the workers’ paychecks from the agencies and bring them to check-cashing stores, where workers are charged to cash them. If they don’t have the money for the ride, dozens of workers said, they don’t get their paychecks.