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The Skammerz Ishu

Permanently Temporary

One morning this October, I listened as the roar of a Ford Econoline 15-person van shattered the predawn silence of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, the largest Mexican community in the Midwest. I had come there at an ungodly hour to witness the...
December 13, 2013, 12:00pm

A worker waits to be picked up in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood at 4:30 in the morning. All photos by Jackson Fager.

One morning this October, I listened as the roar of a Ford Econoline 15-person van shattered the predawn silence of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, the largest Mexican community in the Midwest. I had come there at an ungodly hour to witness the roundups of temporary workers catching rides to warehouses.

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The raiteros, or drivers of these vans, weren’t happy to see us. One spotted us approaching and then floored it, peeling out and speeding away. Moments later, the same van screeched around another street corner and picked up the very people he had tried to fetch earlier who had also moved down the block. He refused to talk to us as he packed bodies into his van.

Every morning at 4:30 AM, the small fleet of white vans fans out to the edge of town, where hazardous, low-wage temp jobs are highly sought after. To get these jobs you can apply at a staffing agency, but it’s better if you know a raitero. They are the on-the-ground field captains of temp work who control your chances of employment. To the many undocumented temporary workers in Chicago and beyond, so much depends upon a raitero.

While it may sound like it, the word raitero isn’t Spanish. It’s a bilingual portmanteau of the English word ride with the Spanish suffix -ero, to note the one who does it. It’s pronounced “ride–ero” and entered the lexicon of American labor during World War II when seasonal and temporary agricultural workers migrated from Mexico and Central America to work California’s fertile Central Valley. Your raitero, simply speaking, gave you a ride.

Since then the definition of the word has evolved. For Isaura Martinez, a 47-year-old mother of three, her raitero is not only a driver but also her ad hoc employer, her payday check casher, and sometimes, a source of harassment. Isaura’s typical experience with raiteros is indicative of her fellow passengers: She will show up at his pickup spot before sunrise and climb inside his crammed van. In an hour she’ll have been driven to a warehouse on the outskirts of town. She might arrange boxes of chocolates, unload boxes of underwear, or paste labels onto crates of Beanie Babies. Or she’ll spend the day unpacking shipping containers.

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At the end of the workday, Isaura’s back will ache and her hands will cramp. Another hour in the raitero’s van, and then she will be home with nothing to show for it except a few bucks and submitting to the fact that she’ll have to do it all over again the next day. She makes minimum wage—$8.25 per hour in Illinois. The raitero gets eight bucks a day per person and requires that she take only his van. Isaura is caught in a kind of exclusive licensing agreement with her raitero. He controls where she works and how she gets there. After this expense, her average take-home pay is $58 per shift.

Isaura Martinez is a 47-year-old temp worker living in Chicago. After paying her raitero, she makes $58 each shift.

In Illinois, forcing and charging an employee for rides is illegal, but the practice persists, largely because Isaura, like many of her fellow undocumented colleagues, has no choice. And that’s just what’s involved in getting to work.

“People can’t even imagine, they really have no idea—everything that one goes through so that they can hold a product in their hands—how people suffer on the inside,” Isaura told me during my visit to her basement apartment in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The “inside” she referred to is the industrial warehouses that serve as the integral hubs of the international supply chain, keeping shelves at Walmart stocked, and fulfilling millions of online orders around the country. These are the warehouses to which she is transported by her raitero.

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You’ve probably seen at least photos of these leviathan-like buildings. Their construction is accelerating in exurban landscapes across the country, filling any gaps along the tangled spaghetti of interstate off-ramps. In Southern California’s Inland Empire, an hour east of LA, warehouses are built where there were once citrus groves and dairy farms. Outside Chicago, warehouses are replacing factories, a clear reminder of America’s transition from a production-based economy to a consumer-driven one. Off exit 7A of the New Jersey Turnpike, Amazon is building two warehouses that each will be bigger than 35 football fields on top of what were once cornfields. These will be the nerve center of the online retailer’s new Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service. Increasingly, the topography outside our cities is transforming to match our consumption desires. Cargo ships dock into ports with more and more T-shirts and furniture and toys, the warehouses multiply in number and size, and the invisible army of workers who must navigate the Dickensian world of opaque staffing agencies, raiteros, scheming warehouse managers, and bottom-line-driven executives is getting bigger, too.

Isaura has been working as a temp in Chicago for three years, but she’s never really sure where she’ll work on any given day. “When the raitero tells you, ‘Get ready, I’m going to pick you up, there’s work for you,’ even if they tell you that you’re going to go to a certain location, with a certain agency, they might change it that day and take you somewhere else.” Because she doesn’t know where she’s going, Isaura keeps her three agency ID cards with her at all times. (One is named MVP, which stands for Most Valuable Personnel.)

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Payday gets even more complicated and miserable. Warehouses use multiple staffing agencies, so Isaura could physically work in one place and still not know who owes her at the end of a pay period. Unless she assiduously tracks her hours, a staffing agency could short her.

Isaura’s raitero also controls how she gets paid. At the end of the week, he’ll collect her checks from the staffing agency and go to a certain check-cashing joint. After she signs the check, he’ll deduct his daily transport fee from her already paltry wages. In Illinois, regulating someone’s pay like that is also illegal, but what other choice does she have? She makes $280 a week, which is the average wage for someone in that sector of labor.

Rafael Sanchez in his tiny home in New Brunswick, New Jersey: “I’m starting to get the impression that I’m going to be staying here for a while.”

The temp worker clings to the lowest link of the great chain of logistics: an umbrella term used to describe the vast system of cargo ships, rails, trucks, and warehouses that help move products from the companies that make them to the happy customer—at, of course, the lowest price possible. Big-box retailers contract out their operations to warehousing companies, which employ full-time staff, truckers, drivers, and office managers, and they subcontract out the least skilled labor—like unpacking and labeling the goods—to temp-work staffing agencies. These agencies, some of which are national, publicly traded companies, find the bodies through raiteros.

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According to the American Staffing Association, an industry group for temp-staffing employers, 2.96 million people were employed on average by temporary-staffing companies each business day in the second quarter of 2013. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last year that in this tepid economic recovery, where job growth across the board has been stunted, temp jobs are up 8.2 percent compared with the same quarter last year. The ASA doesn’t keep specific statistics on how many workers are employed in warehouses, but Warehouse Workers’ United, an organization in Southern California that advocates for the rights of temp workers, estimates that there are 200,000 workers in Southern California alone.

Javier Rodriguez is 38 years old and worked at NFI, a cross-dock warehouse in Southern California’s Inland Empire, until May when he was terminated. More than 75 percent of merchandise shipped to LA goes through the warehouses in the Inland Empire, and the cross-dock is specially outfitted to sort goods for further shipment in less than 24 hours. The pace of operations there is staggering. Javier said that he was fired after he tried to file a grievance about unsafe working conditions. Over the year that he worked at the NFI cross-dock, he made less than $11,000, even though he worked almost every workday.

“People are not just being physically damaged, but emotionally too,” Javier told me in his tidy apartment in Juropa Valley, California, that he shares with his wife and two small children. He described how management “becomes wealthier with the work from the people who are truly poor, who really need jobs. They mess with our morale because we need the job.”

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The economics behind temp workers makes perfect sense. Large retail companies are eager to shed the responsibility and hassle of maintaining a work force. Temp labor agencies compete to provide the cheapest contract. The neat subdivision of managerial work looks impressive on a PowerPoint presentation. When everything goes according to plan—cheap prices for the consumer—the temp worker suffers the most from the squeeze.

By its nature, warehouse work is dangerous and taxing on the body. In California, heat and poor ventilation inside warehouses are a problem. In Chicago, packing machines have repeatedly sliced off peoples’ fingers. In many warehouses across the country, petty interpersonal battles between managers and workers make for a psychologically taxing workplace. As Leone Bicchieri, the director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, put it, things get ugly when “rats are fighting over scraps of cheese.”

Stacks of shipping containers at the Port Newark-Elizabeth Sea Terminal in New Jersey. These containers move goods to the US that are then sorted and repackaged in vast warehouses.

In 1960, Edward R. Murrow and CBS News produced an hour-long documentary called The Harvest of Shame, which details the squalid lives of seasonal agricultural workers. Temporary and seasonal work has always been a necessary mechanic of the American economy, and in the decades since Harvest aired, legislation, namely, the H2A-Agricultural Guest Worker program has provided measures to ensure the rights of nonresident immigrants are upheld.

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The easiest fix would be a clear determination of when temporary work crosses the line into full-time employment. Temp workers depend on raiteros and agencies because warehouses can keep them in employment limbo as long they like. During the holidays when warehouse work increases, companies hire more temp workers. Those same so-called temp workers are kept in that position for the rest of the year, because it’s cheaper for everyone. Employers evade paying certain benefits, like healthcare or workers’ compensation insurance. Behold the era of the permatemp. “It’s like a brave new world: war is peace, up is down, left is right, temp is perm,” Leone Bicherri told me back in Chicago.

Could a warehouse guest-worker program or immigration reform help prevent the abuse of the undocumented permatemp worker? Raphael Sanchez isn’t sure. He is a 63-year-old undocumented immigrant and temp worker who lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He came to America 12 years ago and has worked all around the country. He told me that it’s the same shit, different warehouse.

Once completed, a warehouse for Amazon’s new grocery service near exit 7A of the New Jersey Turnpike will be larger than 35 football fields.

I met Raphael on a dead-end street right beside train tracks that zoom New Jersey’s commuters to New York’s Penn Station, where he told me about his experience. “I can’t really complain about the agencies because when you need work you can go to them. But at the same time, they take advantage of the workers. They know that we need them, and oftentimes we don’t have the option of fighting for our rights, because if we complain, they’ll just say, ‘Fine, you won’t go to work tomorrow.’”

Immigration reform was obviously at the forefront of Raphael’s mind, but he was practical about any grand efforts at reform and what it means to work in this country: “It’s better to work for an agency than to be a bum.” Now that New Jersey voters passed a one-dollar increase in the minimum wage in this November’s election, Raphael will make $8.25 an hour.

After our chat, Raphael asked if I wanted to see where he lived, pointing to a chipped-clapboard house at the end of the block. I followed him as he walked down the driveway past the house to a two-car garage. I was confused until I realized he didn’t live in the house; he lived in the garage—one room made of drywall spackled together and just big enough for a bed and a few boxes.

It was a cold early November evening and I asked him what it was like cooping up there over the winter. “I’ve lived in other places that have been even more destitute, even more inadequate,” he said. “But I’m starting to get the impression that I’m going to be staying here for a while.”

It’s easy to malign the mechanisms of global demand, but it delivers what we want: a winter coat trendy enough for this season but still cheap enough so you can buy one next year and not think twice. The raitero, the staffing agency, and the soulless large warehouses make for easy villains. But taken in a broader context, the system of our international supply chain, which provides us with goods as available and disposable as we like, creates a class of disposable people.

Watch The Last Mile: Temp Labor and America’s Supply-Chain Pain, produced in conjunction with Pro Publica, in 2014.