“Please don’t make me do this [job] again—it is really, really hard.” That’s what Stephen Colbert said to a Congressional committee on immigration, recounting his day as a farm worker. Colbert was responding to the claim—often repeated but rarely explored—that undocumented migrant workers take jobs that would otherwise go to American citizens.
Gabriel Thompson’s response to the debate over immigration and employment was to embark on a serious piece of investigative journalism. He immersed himself in work at the bottom of the scale in terms of pay, rights, and working conditions. His experience, described in Working in the Shadows, makes it clear why these are not only the jobs most Americans don’t do, but also the jobs most won’t do.
Thompson, an award-winning writer, went undercover to investigate the underside of the American economy. Presenting himself as a drifter with a sketchy resume, he took jobs cutting lettuce in the fields of Arizona, processing chickens in a plant in Alabama, and delivering food in New York City. It’s evident from the first day in each new setting that, although an impressive resume is not required, each job is extremely demanding in its own way.
Thompson catalogues the hardships of these jobs: the need for physical strength and endurance when bending, cutting, and bagging in the lettuce fields; the likelihood of an industrial accident during an exhausting night shift in the chicken processing plant; the frantic pressure of restaurant delivery work. Despite discomfort—at times, outright pain—Thompson remains clear about the difference between his choice and the financial realities that compel others to do this backbreaking work: “This book was an exhausting learning experience for me; for my coworkers, it’s life.”
Whatever the workplace, he sees how those in charge “will do whatever they can get away with” to make higher profits, and that while undocumented workers “suffer disproportionate abuse on the job, it is a mistake to pretend that their plight is unrelated to that of American workers.”
Thompson describes the development of the local economy and the political aspects of each of the three places he works. He exposes our broken regulatory systems, the need for strategic organizing to develop collective bargaining power, and the skewed immigration policies that punish working people rather than corporations.
Most importantly, Thompson describes the lives of the working people who keep the economy going. Coworkers befriend him, and he sees how they provide solidarity and community for each other. Their conversations reveal their life histories, dreams and aspirations, and the bleak realities of life on the edge of economic survival.
What stands out are two recurring themes: Despite their current woes, many of Thompson’s coworkers have actually known worse. And, just as importantly, that people take pride in a job well done. Thompson asks us to look a little deeper and see if we can’t find a little bit of ourselves in the working class, urging readers toward an attitude that is even more crucial in times of economic crisis: to re-evaluate how “we honor the dignity of work, no matter who is doing the work.”
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