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15 April 2024

US offers lots of lousy, unsafe jobs


By Jeffrey Burke

Bend, grab head, cut through stem, unbend, shake head, bag head, put on platform. Repeat – hundreds of times.

In this back-breaking way, a 31-member crew harvested 30,000 heads of iceberg lettuce one day in early 2008.

It's one of the stints Gabriel Thompson undertakes for Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do. He also clocks in at a poultry plant, a wholesale florist operation and as a restaurant delivery man.

In Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers, Dick J Reavis looks at the labour hall, where workers go each morning in the hope of "catching out" a job ticket for a few hours of low-level, low-paying toil.

The two journalists bring back from the margins reports of exploitation, injury and injustice. It can be eye-opening to see what the body will endure, yet it isn't pleasant reading – neither writer holds out much hope of better prospects.

Thompson, who speaks Spanish and spent three years reporting on Latino immigrants before researching his book, targets industries that depend on their labour. The lettuce fields are staffed by Dole Food Co, which pays him $8.37 (Dh30.7) an hour and, he says, runs "a pretty fair programme".

Almost all the workers he meets are legal, living locally or commuting across the Mexican border each day. He finds no "glaring abuses" of workers. Yet few can escape the fields, or reach retirement age in them. Life expectancy is 49.

Workers at the poultry plant, in Alabama, make between $8 and $10 an hour depending on punctuality. The work is dull, smelly, painful and dangerous. Jobs range from "neck breaker and oil sack cutter to giblet harvester and lung vacuumer".

One man puts lids on boxes for an entire shift.

"It's the mindlessness of the jobs that can make them so difficult," says Thompson.

Reavis, 63, was looking to supplement his retirement funds when he began frequenting an agency called Labor-4-U.

The work can involve cleaning up at a construction site, painting culverts, demolishing small buildings, patching asphalt, sorting through a dead man's personal papers. It's anything that can be done more cheaply by temporary help.

Cheap is the word. One day, after waiting three hours for a job that paid $6.46 an hour, Reavis said he had spent "seven hours in pursuit of $20 in net wages".

He likes the loosely structured work, yet worries over the lack of concern for safety.

For those forced to depend on this sort of work as a main source of income, it's a tough life. He cites a study that reports some 117,000 workers wait on street corners each morning seeking day jobs with monthly earnings ranging from $500 to $1,400.

Both writers note that their research began before the deep US recession, so the numbers can only have worsened.


Both books are out now starting from Dh95


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