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In Pizza Kitchens And On Assembly Lines, Temp Workers Face Abuse


More than 50 years after "Harvest Of Shame" aired, a new kind of migrant worker still toils in America. That's according to Michael Grabell, an investigative reporter with He says that temporary workers - according to U.S. labor department figures - are one of one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. economy. And the nature of their work makes it ripe for abuse. Michael Grabell joins us from New York. Thanks very much for being with us.

MICHAEL GRABELL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And who are these 2.8 million people we're talking about who are temporary workers?

GRABELL: These are people who get jobs through temporary staffing firms. And a large portion of them - almost half - work for factories and warehouses for some of the biggest name brands in the country.

SIMON: And they do what?

GRABELL: They make our frozen pizzas. They cut up our vegetables for salads or fast food restaurants. So, many of the products that you might go buy, that you might eat, have been touched by a temp worker at some point in the supply chain.

SIMON: Do they get paid minimum wage?

GRABELL: Yes they do, and oftentimes they also face fees that reduce their pay below minimum wage. One place that we went, the workers would have to pay to apply for the job. They'll pay $40 a week for the ride, but if they don't pay that $40 a week, they don't get the job, essentially. So they're - in some ways they're paying for work.

SIMON: Some of this work also sounds dangerous.

GRABELL: Yeah, one thing we saw is that temp workers often get assigned to some of the most dangerous jobs. There's repeated cases of temp workers dying when they're assigned to clean the inside of chemical tanks, but aren't given the proper equipment or training. They're sent to go clean or work with an industrial machine that they don't know how to use. And we've seen workers get crushed or put into these machines. And there have been a number of cases where temps will go out for a job in 90 degree heat, not given enough water breaks, not acclimated to it, and they'll past out and die.

SIMON: What happens when they get sick?

GRABELL: Well when they get sick - if they have to take a sick day it's not covered. They just don't get paid for that day. Most temps do not get health insurance.

SIMON: We're talking about 2.8 million people. Has the rise of temporary workers figured into, at least, the statistical improvement of the U.S. economy for some people?

GRABELL: It has. Overall, about one seventh of the total job growth has been in the temp sector. The temp sector is growing nine times faster than the overall private sector as a whole. And the 2.9 million workers represents a record number, both in the number of temp workers and in the percentage of the economy that they make up.

SIMON: You know in "Harvest Of Shame," Edward R. Murrow very famously said, the people we're showing you in this documentary have picked your Thanksgiving bounty with their bare hands, and this is how they live. What should we look at in our everyday lives that might remind us of how we're dependent on temp workers to get by?

GRABELL: It's very similar in how the goods change by the season. If you look at Valentine's Day, they pack our chocolates. If you look at Memorial Day, the barbecue grills are packed by temp workers. At Christmas, all the clothing and toys and gifts we get - the same things we saw in "Harvest Of Shame," how workers get hired, how much they're paid, how they're transported to work is exactly the same thing that's happening here. The only difference is now that instead of picking things we're packing things.

SIMON: Michael Grabell of ProPublica. He is the author of a series of articles that look into a modern-day "Harvest Of Shame." Thanks so much for being with us.

GRABELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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