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Shelf Life

Taking on the job of a migrant worker

Marketplace Staff Feb 2, 2010
Shelf Life

Taking on the job of a migrant worker

Marketplace Staff Feb 2, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: At one time or another a lot of us have probably had jobs that were a good deal more physical than what we’re doing now. Maybe even actually difficult or dangerous. A lot of those kinds of jobs are at the lower end of the economic ladder. They are often done by minorities or Latino migrant workers.

Gabriel Thompson spent the better part of a year doing some of that work. In the lettuce fields of Yuma, Ariz., and a chicken-processing plant in Alabama. He wrote about his experiences in a book called “Working in the Shadows.” Gabriel, welcome to the program.

GABRIEL THOMPSON: Great to be here, thanks.

Ryssdal: Tell me about the average day of a lettuce picker in the American economy.

THOMPSON: One of the things that’s just incredible is how much work farm workers do. In Yuma, every day about 12 million heads of lettuce are cut.

Ryssdal: Say that again, 12 million every day.

THOMPSON: Twelve million every day. So on a typical day we’d start around 7:30 in the morning, maybe end around 6 p.m. And during the course of a day I could be asked to cut about 3,000 heads. You’re also trimming and you’re bagging, so your typical day looks like a lot of time is spent stooped over, usually squeezed between two other cutters in a very thin row, feet aching, hands aching, but also, you know, strangely a lot of camaraderie among the other workers.

Ryssdal: Which was interesting because you’re not a guy who fits in with the standard migrant worker profile. You’re a white guy, you’re 30-35 at this point that you’re doing this job.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I never saw another white person in the fields. And our crew kind of became known as the crew that had the white guy who, at one point, I think some people thought I was an undercover immigration agent. Eventually they just figured, when I wasn’t trying to deport anyone, that I was a nice guy who maybe wasn’t completely right in the head.

Ryssdal: This book veers inevitably into immigration policy. And you know one of the big threads through that debate is that illegal immigrants in this country are taking jobs that Americans would ordinarily want to do. There aren’t, though, very many Americans who are going to want do these kinds of jobs.

THOMPSON: One of the things was I found both in the lettuce fields, and in the poultry plant, and especially I would say in poultry — because also in that situation working with whites and black U.S. citizens — there wasn’t that same amount of anger about the threat of immigrants taking jobs. The real challenge was surviving the jobs. When I got a job at the poultry plant, I was hired within a week, went through an orientation. A week after that orientation half of the people in my orientation class had quit. So if anyone wants to right now that is listening they can go to Yuma and steal back a job in the lettuce fields.

Ryssdal: It struck me, actually, as I was reading this book, that the most substantive parts are about food, lettuce and chicken, and I was thinking how far removed we are from where our food comes from.

THOMPSON: Yeah, there’s a huge movement around food right now. I think that movement, looking at where the food comes from, whether or not it’s grown organically, hasn’t quite yet looked enough at who are the workers within that food system, in what ways can we make their lives better?

Ryssdal: For as tired and as physically beaten down as you were at the end of a day in the fields or at the chicken plant, you could basically go back to your rented room and collapse. But you were working with people who had kids in school, who had to take care of their parents. I mean, they had other obligations, and I’m wondering how they did it if you were so wiped out.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I wonder that to this day. It’s true the amount of sacrifice that people will do, and often it’s not, they’ll talk about improving their own lives, but really it was they didn’t want their kids to be farm workers.

Ryssdal: Gabriel Thompson’s book is called “Working in the Shadows.” Gabriel, thanks a lot.

THOMPSON: Great. Thanks for having me.

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