Three Days in the Life of a Migrant Laborer: Part II

David Van Arsdale

In the July/August edition of the Peace Newsletter, I described my first day of finding work in Upstate New York with Latino migrant workers from New York City. Here, in this second part of the series, I describe two more days of work in factories run with migrant workers supplied by employment agencies (“agencias de empleo”) in New York City. 

Maria’s boxes, Food for the People. Photo: David Van Arsdale

The workers in the food factory abide by an unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Don’t ask anything personal about other workers and don’t tell anything personal about oneself. Not only is this policy upheld by the workers, it is also upheld, for different reasons, by the owners and managers of the factory.

I realized the depth of this policy on my second day working undercover as a migrant worker. On that day, I asked a very young-looking woman (Maria) her age. Her job was to fold boxes at the front of the conveyer belt. I was in charge of supplying her with the boxes and supplying the women next to her with frozen hot dogs, which they would place into the boxes. The pace was intense and the women worked fast and hard.

The speed of the line depended greatly on how fast Maria could fold boxes and place them on the conveyer belt. I learned later that Maria had been chosen for this job by her co-workers because her hands were quick and agile. Maria and I learned to communicate without using words. Every ten minutes or so she would slip me a look that indicated it was time for me to fetch a new package of boxes. Roughly three-quarters of the way through our eight-hour shift, I noticed Maria’s hands were raw and beginning to bleed. As I continued to deliver hot dogs to the women on the conveyer belt, I glanced at her empathetically, and she returned my look with a firm shake of the head, as if to say, “Please don’t say anything.” Maria was wearing high heels to appear taller and older and was embarrassed when I asked how old she was. She stood tall and said, hesitating a bit, “dieciocho”(18). The older women next to her were uncomfortable with my question. It was clear that they did not want the manager to hear, and they may have become a bit suspicious of me. “We work hard, no questions,” one of them said. I apologized and continued to work at the requisite fast pace.

Pedro and I had shared food with each other during our shift break. Over lunch we spoke about our work in the factories and the agencies who dispatched us. Pedro had been a day laborer for the past ten years and appreciated my interest in his profession. When I asked him if he liked working for the agencies, he responded: “Depending on agencies to sell me for a day or two at a time to some factory that doesn’t even know my name, who would like that?”

Pedro went on to explain that the agencies allow the factory to “be free from taking care of the workers and to be free from worker problems.” Not only do the agencies free factories from the responsibility of providing health insurance, but they free them from dealing with the daily problems of human existence, such as sickness, child care, and mental health crises. When workers experience these kinds of problems, they simply don’t show up at the agency. And, if a worker experiences say, a mental health crisis while working at the factory, the factory will simply send him or her back to the agency. 

The agencies also serve to protect the companies from the legal responsibilities of employment. The food factory owners and managers don’t need to care about the legal status or age of the workers. If Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) inquires about the status of workers in the plant, the company explains that the workers belong to the agencies and that all employment responsibilities rest with them. Given the proliferation and success f third-party employment providers in the US like Manpower, Labor Ready and Kelly Services, three of the largest employers in the US, employment agencies have gained legitimate status, freeing employers from human resource responsibilities. 

“What about the agency?” I asked. “Does the agency care about your personal crises?” Pedro laughed sarcastically and then explained that “the agency consists of a boss and a few workers who sell your labor. Try telling them you have a headache and can’t work and see what they do for you.” Pedro then said that he is “pimped by the agency and the factory. They may say that they care about you, but neither of them will take responsibility for the problems they create in your life.”

When I showed up at the agency on the third day the dispatchers announced that the food factory would not need workers for a couple of days. The food factory’s storage freezers were apparently full, so they would not need workers for production until more of the product was sold. The job dispatcher was surrounded by a swarm of perhaps 65 people waiting for work. Juan, Maria, Pedro, and Rosa, mirgrant workers that I had befriended my first two days of working, were among them. The woman in charge of selecting workers told me that they did not need too many men, so I waited patiently to see if I’d get chosen. In the meantime, the workers who did get picked moved quickly into the vans waiting to transport them to the factory.

My name was called and I promptly entered one of the vans, where there was a seat left in the back row.  Pedro also made it into the van and warned me that the factory we were going to was not as nice as the food factory. We drove onto one of the many industrial strips off Highway 80, ten miles from the George Washington Bridge. Our three vans pulled up to the work site at 3:30 pm, followed by more than a dozen other vans, bringing workers from other agency sites. We funneled out of the vans and into the factory, where an office registered new workers. The office is yet another employment service subcontracted by the factory to manage its human resources. I learned that the agency would be responsible for paying us and that they pay a flat rate per worker to the other temporary agencies that delivered us. In exchange for my name, the woman handed me a number. She then walked me and other new workers over to a machine on the wall which digitally registered our fingerprints. Reluctant to give our fingerprints, the agency explained that it had nothing to do with “legally tracking us,” but it was rather to keep track of “their workforce” and to “prevent the workers from sharing their tickets/jobs with other workers.”

Mariana preparing men’s cologne. Photo: David Van Arsdale

This plant was roughly the size of a football field. Every worker in the plant, with the exception of management, security guards, maintenance, and forklift operators, was an agency worker—a ratio of about ten full-time workers to 150 agency workers. After registering my fingerprints I walked through a gate toward the assembly lines. Inside the gate, there was a 15-foot razor-wire fence which a security guard told me exists to “prevent workers from stealing goods out of the factory.” The factory produces many shapes and sizes of plastic moldings used to package various products: batteries, toys, electronics, cosmetics, etc. My work for the day involved packaging men’s cologne, which I later saw on sale in a Target store. In the plastics division of the factory, workers feed machines with plastic wrapping that is melted and molded into hard, plastic shapes. The smell of melting plastic permeates the air and workers could probably benefit from ventilation masks. After the moldings are shaped, they are ready to enter one of the factory’s two large packaging divisions. In these areas, workers perform the tasks that allow the goods to move down conveyor belts and into pressing machines that seal products into the plastic moldings. I worked on the other side of a pressing machine, removing nicely packaged men’s cologne from castings and placing it onto a conveyor belt headed for boxing. As the cologne moved toward boxing, colleagues checked for imperfections in the moldings and placed various advertisement stickers on the packages. There are nearly 20 production lines like this in the factory, packaging various kinds of goods.

Mariana was working close to me on the conveyer belt and recognized me from the food factory. She is 33 years old, married, from Peru, and has two children. When I asked her how she thinks factories come to use certain agencies, she explained that she had met workers from many agencies. But, from what she could tell, factories use “different agencies until they find an agency that supplies a workforce that they are happy with.”

“It is clear to me,” I said, “that the factories that we have worked at this week like to use agencies supplying mostly Latino workers.” Mariana agreed. “We work hard,” she said proudly, “and for probably less money than they have to pay agencies supplying American workers.” Although I was paid for my work by the agency at the plastics factory ($7.40 an hour), I received the money under a different Social Security number than I had reported. Furthermore, eight dollars was taken out of my check for “other deductions,” which I was told were for transportation. This lowered my actual pay to $6.40 an hour, before taxes.

Flexibility, Migrant Workers and Employment Agencies
The migrant workers at the factories work hard and abide by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy largely because they need to continue working. They are young and old, documented and undocumented, and in this study, mostly women. Had it been a study of Latino construction workers sent out by employment agencies, most of the workers would have been men. The agencies are simultaneously “pimp and lord.” They are able to communicate with the factories and open up work opportunities for the immigrants within their communities. They are also in business to make a profit, and therefore, sell their workers to factories at the highest price possible. Some agencies are more benevolent than others, to be sure, but regardless of their profit formulas they find themselves in the position of selling workforces to employers like lords of the land. This results in a hierarchy within immigrant communities, with the newest and poorest immigrants relying most heavily on the agencies.


An earlier version of this article appeared in New Labor Forum, 17:2, 108-117, under the title “Agencia de Empleos: Three Days in the Life of a Temporary Worker,” by David Van Arsdale. The current version was prepared for the Peace Newsletter.

More of David’s experiences and analysis will soon be available in his forthcoming book, Waiting for Work: A Study of Economic Insecurity & Temporary Labor, to be published by Brill Press in 2012.

Ultimately, however, this hierarchy is an extension of the logic of neoliberal  labor policies, which have endorsed third-party contingent workforces freeing companies from the legal responsibilities of employment. Today, US companies demand access to flexible workforces, so to better compete in the global economy. Companies have discovered that agencies in immigrant communities supply inexpensive labor pools of workers who work hard. Factories are hungry for such work pools, and if they cannot access them here in the US, they might search for them in other countries. The workers, unfortunately, are left looking to the factory as their lord. “Don’t leave us,” they say. “We will work for less.”


David Van Arsdale is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Onondaga Community College. He can be contacted at