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The Modern-Day 'Harvest of Shame'

America's 2.8 million temp workers face wage theft, injury, and even death while laboring for some of the country's biggest corporations.

by Michael Grabell of ProPublica
Mar 10 2014, 4:15pm

Photo via ProPublica

This story is a collaboration between VICE News and ProPublica.

Half a century ago, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow came to the pancake-flat town of Cranbury, NJ to document the plight of migrant farmworkers for a historic television special called “Harvest of Shame.” Today, many of Cranbury’s potato fields have been replaced with giant warehouses forming a hub of distribution centers off Exit 8A of the Jersey Turnpike.

Amid this 21st Century system of commerce, an old way of labor persists. Much like farmworkers did for harvests 50 years ago, temporary workers make a daily migration on buses to Cranbury. They face many similarities in how they get hired, in how they live, and even in what they can afford to eat. Adjusted for inflation, many of today’s temp workers earn roughly the same amount as the farmworkers Murrow profiled.

These conditions aren't unique to Cranbury. Across the country, farms full of migrant workers have been replaced with warehouses full of temp workers, as American consumers depend more on foreign products, online shopping, and just-in-time delivery. It is a story that begins on either side of the country at the ports of Los Angeles and Newark, NJ, follows the railroads to Chicago, and ends at your neighborhood box store or doorstep.

The temp industry now employs 2.8 million workers — the highest number and highest proportion of American workers in history. As the economy continues to recover from the Great Recession, temp work has grown nine times faster than private-sector employment as a whole. Overall, nearly one-sixth of the total job growth since the recession ended has been in the temp sector.

Many temps work for months or years packing and assembling products for some of the world’s largest companies, including Walmart, Amazon, and Nestlé. They make our frozen pizzas and sort the recycling from our trash. They unload clothing and toys made overseas, and they pack them up to fill our store shelves.

The temp system insulates companies from workers’ compensation claims, unemployment taxes, union drives, and the duty to ensure that their workers are citizens or legal immigrants. In turn, temp workers suffer high injury rates, wait unpaid for work to begin, and face fees that depress their pay below minimum wage.

Temp agencies consistently rank among the worst large industries for the rate of wage and hour violations, according to a ProPublica analysis of federal enforcement data. It is one of our fastest-growing industries, and one of the few in which the injury rates have been rising.

A ProPublica analysis of millions of workers’ comp claims found that in five states, representing more than one fifth of the US population, temps face a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than permanent employees. In Florida, for example, temps were about twice as likely as regular employees to suffer crushing injuries, dislocations, lacerations, fractures, and punctures. They were about three times as likely to suffer an amputation on the job in the four states for which records were available.

The disparity grows even worse when specifically examining dangerous occupations like manufacturing, construction, and warehousing. In Florida, temps in blue-collar workplaces were about six times as likely to be injured as permanent employees doing similar jobs.

In 2012, 21-year-old Day Davis was crushed to death by a machine at a Bacardi bottling plant barely 90 minutes into the first day of the first job of his life. Last year, 39-year-old Samir Storey suffocated from hydrogen sulfide exposure on his first day when he was assigned to clean the inside of a tank at a paper mill. Two years ago, Mark Jefferson, 47, died after collapsing from heat stroke, having worked a 9-hour day on a garbage route during a heat wave.

Here too, the plight of the lowest-level workers has changed little in the past half century. The migrant workers who picked the nation’s fruit and vegetables also passed out from working in the heat, and 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, NJ and Little Village in Chicago. Temp towns are often densely populated Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they're cities where it has become nearly impossible for anyone, including 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.

Edward R. Murrow's 1960 documentary "Harvest of Shame"

One morning last year in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood, workers lined up in an alleyway behind a dentist clinic and a shop selling quinceañera dresses. 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 they 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.

In “Harvest of Shame,” the farm laborers had similar brokers known as “crew leaders,” who skimmed money from workers’ wages.

After ProPublica published a story on the raiteros in Chicago, some temp agencies there stopped using them and started providing free transportation for the workers. Many agencies stopped giving the paychecks to the raiteros — although others continue to operate as they have for years. The Illinois and federal departments of labor have launched a joint initiative to investigate issues temp workers face on the job, and have since opened investigations into three temp agencies for issues involving the transportation of workers.

Raiteros, however, are barely better off than the temp workers. When I knocked on Aguilar’s door one Friday night, he was holding his infant son. He was renting a small apartment with peeling paint and mold in the bathroom, and he spoke of his own struggles to make ends meet. At one point, Aguilar's adult son Victor grew angry as we talked about how the temp agency deals with his father.

“They don’t want to pay him,” Victor said. “They have all the people come here. They don’t care. 'Screw you. You take the people. You give them the ride and you charge the fee. We don’t want to have anything to do with you.'”

Here again, the past mirrors the present. Officials at temp agencies and the third-party warehouses told me they are squeezed by the retailers and big-name brands at the top of the supply chain. When workers are killed or don’t receive their pay, those companies deny knowledge or responsibility, directing blame at the temp agencies. Such was the case with migrant farmworkers. A farmer told Murrow’s correspondent that he was “trapped between what society expects and his market demands.” He, too, pointed to the supermarket chains at the top demanding a price that didn’t allow him to improve the poor working conditions.

In “Harvest of Shame,” the farmworkers traveled in buses and packed into the backs of trucks. Today, temp workers travel in buses and pack into vans. Workers say the drivers sometimes carry 22 people in a 15-passenger van. They sit on the wheel wells, in the trunk space, and on milk crates. Female workers complain that they are forced to sit on the laps of men they don't know. Sometimes workers must lie on the floor, the other passengers’ feet on top of them.

As before, the products change by the season. But instead of picking strawberries, tomatoes, and corn, temp workers pack chocolates for Valentine’s Day, barbecue grills for Memorial Day, turkey pans for Thanksgiving, and clothing and toys for Christmas.

Back then, the farms provided housing, which was often a shack with shoddy bunk beds. Today, temp workers rent rooms in rundown houses, sometimes in a basement or attic with little space for anything other than a bed. It is not uncommon to find a different family in every room. Rosa Ramirez, a 50-year-old temp worker, rents the living room of an old boarding house in Elgin, Illinois. There is a cheap mattress on the floor; a sheet blocks the French doors that separate her room from the hallway. A trap set up near her door guards against the rats that have woken her up at night.

“Harvest of Shame” reported that migrant farmworkers in 1960 worked 136 days of the year and earned just $900 — that's $7,087 in today’s dollars. In 2010, a good year in which she wasn't left unable to work due to an injury, Ramirez earned $6,549 according to tax forms she provided.

One of the most memorable scenes in “Harvest of Shame” comes when the correspondent asks the mother of a migrant family, “What is an average dinner for the family?” Surrounded by her children, she replies, “Well, I cook a pot of beans and fry some potatoes.”

Remembering this scene, I began asking the temp workers I met the same question. A conversation with one Chicago man, whose family shares an attic with another family, underscored how little things have changed. “Frijoles y algunas papitas," he said.

Beans and some potatoes.

@MichaelGrabell

Watch our video "Permanently Temporary: The Truth About Temp Labor"