Half a century ago, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow came to the pancake-flat town of Cranbury in central New Jersey to document the plight of migrant farmworkers for a television special called “Harvest of Shame.”
Today, many of Cranbury’s potato fields have been built up with giant warehouses that form a distribution hub off Exit 8A of the Jersey Turnpike.
But amid this 21st century system of commerce, an old way of labor persists. Temporary workers make a daily migration on buses to this area, just as farmworkers did for every harvest in the 1960s. Temp workers today face many similar conditions in how they get hired, how they live and what they can afford to eat. Adjusted for inflation, many of today’s temp workers earn roughly the same amount as those farmworkers did 50 years ago.
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 at the ports of Los Angeles and Newark, N.J., follows the railroads to Chicago and ends at your neighborhood box store, or your doorstep.
The temp industry now employs 2.8 million workers – the highest number and highest proportion of the American workforce 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, cut our vegetables and sort the recycling from our trash. They unload clothing and toys made overseas and pack them 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, yet 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 a fifth of the U.S. 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 Florida and the three other states for which records were available.
The disparity was even worse when we looked just at dangerous occupations, such as 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.
Day Davis, 21, was crushed by a machine at a Bacardi bottling plant barely 90 minutes into the first day on the first job of his life. Samir Storey, 39, suffocated from hydrogen sulfide gas on his first day when he was assigned to clean the inside of a tank at a paper mill. Mark Jefferson, 47, died after collapsing from heat stroke after a long day on a garbage route.
Ninety minutes into his first day on the first job of his life, Day Davis was called over to help at Palletizer No. 4 at the Bacardi bottling plant in Jacksonville, Fla. Watch what happens next. Here, too, the plight of the lowest level workers has changed little. The workers who reaped the nation’s fruit and vegetables also passed out from working in the heat or 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, N.J., and Little Village in Chicago, Ill. “Temp towns” are often densely populated Latino neighborhoods teeming with temp agencies. Or they are cities where it has become nearly impossible for anyone, even for 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.
One morning last year, in Little Village, Chicago, workers lined up in an alleyway behind a dentist clinic and a shop selling quinceañer adresses. 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.
LOCATIONS OF TEMP WORKERS
These counties had high concentrations of temporary help service workers for counties with more than 100,000 workers in 2012. Overall, 2.2 percent of private-sector workers were temps in 2012.
|Counties With High Temp Worker Concentrations|
|Greenville County, S.C.||8.3%|
|Kane County, Ill.||7.4%|
|Kent County, Mich.||6.7%|
|Middlesex County, N.J.||6.4%|
|Shelby County, Tenn.||5.8%|
|Lake County, Ill.||5.4%|
|Passaic County, N.J.||5.2%|
|San Bernardino County, Calif.||4.8%|
|Fayette County, Ky.||4.6%|
|Burlington County, N.J.||4.4%|
|Fulton County, Ga.||4.2%|
|Source: ProPublica analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data; Updated July 1, 2013|
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 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.