I Came Here to Work

Invisible struggles.

The story that Snom Sen tells about his only surviving brother begins on a dark Cambodian road in between one village and another. Snom’s brother, a local politician, is asleep in the passenger seat. The other man in the car is a long-time friend who offered to drive Snom’s brother to his unexpected appointment.

When Snom’s brother wakes up, he does not know where he is; the car has come to a stop in the middle of an empty field. The driver turns to him with a gun in his hand.

“I have to kill you,” he says.

Snom’s brother reacts quickly, and soon he and his friend are wrestling. Snom’s brother tears the gun away from the driver and pulls the trigger. He leaves his friend’s body in the field and drives home.

Snom laughs when he recalls the episode. “That is why I told my brother to get out of politics,” he says. “That is why I left Cambodia, and came here. To work.”

1997 was a bad year for the factory, although it didn’t start that way. Until September, production was up. After a long stretch of running at a deficit, the factory, which processed and packaged chicken, was finally turning a profit.

In spite of the fact that the local community seemed unwilling or unable to produce a workforce, immigrant workers kept the line moving with an enthusiasm that often surprised the management. The plant supervisor loved to recall the morning a carload of workers broke down on the highway five miles away from the plant. Rather than call out of work, the foreign workers left their car on the side of the road, hitchhiking and running the rest of the way to the plant.

They clocked in not a minute late.

This was the trend with the plant’s employees — they ran to and from their lunch break, they didn’t ask for days off, and they didn’t object to working long hours when the production schedule demanded it. In exchange, they were rewarded with stable wages that sustained not only themselves but also their families in Mexico, Guatemala, Cambodia. The American Dream, or some derivative of it, was coming of age in rural Maryland.

The INS raid that ended this good fortune did not come without warning. In the mid-1990s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began a campaign known as Integrated Interior Enforcement, in which the INS consorted with local authorities to arrest and deport illegal immigrants working in America’s interior.

Not long after the policy was tested on the streets of Los Angeles, it was brought to bear in the heartland. Maryland’s extensive poultry industry was not overlooked. All along the Eastern Shore, vans full of workers going to or returning from work were stopped and searched. Fines were levied upon recalcitrant employers. And factories were raided.

The plant supervisor, aware of the enclosing net, tried to win favor with the INS by being one of the first employers in the area to take advantage of a new system in which a worker’s status could be verified via a link to a central computer.

This was not enough to prevent the raid that came on Sept. 9. When the INS left that afternoon, they took 40 undocumented Mexican and Guatemalan workers with them. The factory was fined $14,000 for its use of underage labor. Production was halved. The plant’s managers, who had been considering adding an extra shift to keep up with a burgeoning production schedule, were suddenly struggling to keep the line moving.

Just as the factory was beginning to fill in the empty spaces left by the raid, a worker named Steven Leon Newbill was found bleeding to death in the factory doorway. He had been stabbed six times with a Barlow folding pocket knife.

His assailant and coworker, a man known as “Genuine” Sanchez, was later found on the roof of the factory, trying to hide his bloodstained weapon. Suddenly, the isolated and largely ignored factory, located three miles outside of town among fields of corn and soy, was being described in the local papers as a place of unchecked exploitation and violence.

Five years later, while I am working in an office connected to the factory nursing station, an event of far greater import occurs at the plant, and is completely ignored by the local press: Jesus Christ is seen walking among the workers on the factory floor.

The line worker who spotted the Nazarene comes spilling into the nursing station, speaking rapidly in Spanish, her normally brown skin a shade of off-white. As I wait for Miguel, the factory’s translator, to come in, I try to ascertain the nature of the woman’s affliction.

Diabetico? I ask. Neccisitas sucre? Coka?

The woman just looks up at me with wide brown eyes. Miguel enters, and a short conversation ensues. Miguel explains with a bemused smile: “She says that she has fainted because she has seen Jesus.” A round of questions follows from my older coworkers — Has the woman been getting enough sleep? Has she fainted from heat exhaustion? Is she anemic?

Miguel barely hesitates as he translates these unwieldy phrases. In spite of his gentle questioning, the woman is adamant — she has seen her Savior, and, worst of all, she believes that Jesus is unhappy with her because of the sins she has committed. Without contradicting her, Miguel suggests she take a break from the floor, which is heavy with the smell of eviscerated chicken and the weight of the summer heat.

After finishing her shift that afternoon, the woman does not return to the factory. Miguel tells me later that she is dividing her time between home and church, fasting, waiting for atonement. Cleaning up the nursing station, Miguel laughs as I speculate out loud about how Jesus must have appeared on the factory floor.

In accordance with the plant’s regulations, he would have been wearing a long coat and hair net; virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the workers, he would walk down the line, laughing with the workers, touching them softly on the shoulder, telling them a joke in Spanish or Vietnamese.

Amid the heat and noise of the floor, it seems like something to be believed. Miguel dismisses my speculations with a shake of his head, as he does when I tease him about his car or brag about the recent American victory over the Mexicans at the World Cup tournament.

Not much older than myself, Miguel grew up in Mexico, and is proud of where he is from; the vanity plate on his spotless Mitsubishi Eclipse reads CHIAPAS. He sometimes talks about his early exposure to the Zapatistas, who from a child’s perspective were walking monuments, mysterious and exciting and masculine with guns in their hands and their faces obscured by bandannas. He seems always to be smiling, and it makes me feel as if we share a secret. The secret goes something like this: We are young. We are bigger than this place.

Over time, the postings on the factory bulletin board become more and more exacting, almost wrathful: “Production requires us to speed up the line,” “Production requires us to work a minimum of 50 hours this week,” “Production demands that we can no longer pay overtime on a daily basis,” or that we must work on the Fourth of July, or that we only get five working days a year for vacation.

Those of us that work in the nursing station begin to see the effect that the increasingly demanding schedule has on the workers. As the conveyor belt carrying the chicken is sped up to meet the needs of production, more and more workers come into the nursing station holding up a hand with a sliced thumb that is just beginning to bleed.

De-boning chicken, the main job on the line, is done with a knife. The knife’s long black handle and short, curved blade are designed for safety and efficiency. As the production schedule becomes heavier, however, the knives seem to be more efficient, and less safe.

Eventually we are dressing and wrapping five or six thumbs a shift. Some cuts are shallow, and require little more than a Band-Aid. Other cuts probably should be stitched, but won’t be. Regardless of the depth of the cut, after it is cleaned and bandaged, the workers return immediately to their place on the line.

I learn that scarred thumbs are not the only penalty imposed by an unyielding production schedule. The line workers are monitored by floor supervisors, who sort through the meat to inspect for any bone fragments that have been left behind. If any bones are found, a worker’s wages are docked. Many workers are fined $50 or $60 a week, reducing their hourly pay to something approaching minimum wage. As the line is made to go faster and faster, wages become smaller and smaller.

One morning, I am dressing someone’s thumb and listening to a commotion in the hallway outside the nursing station. One of the Spanish-speaking workers is pleading with a floor supervisor, asking her not to dock his wages for the week.

His English is minimal. At first he just keeps repeating “I will do better, I will do better,” and then, “I want to cry, I want to cry.”

The supervisor is unmoved. The man in the nursing station seems embarrassed by his coworker’s desperation. He shrugs with the experience of a veteran — or, more accurately, with the wisdom of a theologian. He understands Production. He knows that it can not be persuaded or argued against, but only assuaged, periodically, with freely given sacrifices of blood or money.

Soon after the new factory electrician is hired, it becomes obvious that he is not like the rest of us. He takes long smoke breaks, four or five of them a day. He leaves the plant to get lunch, and comes back with Styrofoam containers of fried chicken and cole slaw that he eats outside.

If the plant manager curses at him, he curses back. He often stops by the nursing station to have long conversations about the local farm-league baseball team or something he has heard on talk radio. He has spent most of his life in factories, but he walks around like a senator. Slowly, he changes the way we think about work.

One afternoon, the electrician tells me that we could have won the Vietnam War if we had organized our troops into one long line across the jungle and marched north until there was no more jungle left. He talks about the war often, wears shirts that say “Front Toward Enemy.”

Every year, he says, he brings a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial from D.C. to the parking lot of a local high school. During the day, he works with students, teaching the kids about walking through a rice paddy and pointing a gun at another human being. He points out the names of his friends on the wall.

He enjoys it, but he says that it is long after the students have gone home that something real begins to happen. At two or three in the morning, local veterans appear at the wall, always alone.

They walk up and down it; they touch it. They are silent, or they cry, or they swear and hit their hands against the wall.

Every night, the electrician is there for them; he knew they would come. He sits down with them, and they talk.

It is an image to hold on to: old soldiers coming out of the night onto an empty high school parking lot. I ask the electrician if he ever talks to any of the Vietnamese line workers, who are old enough the have been in Vietnam during the war. He never answers me.

It doesn’t surprise me to learn that no motives were ever decided upon in the murder of Steven Leon Newbill. When I first start to ask around about the stabbing, I am met with silence, or a confused look, or a shrug. More often than not, I am told a story that differs in part or in whole from a story someone else has told me.

One worker is certain the reason was drug-related. The remote location of the factory has long made it a good spot for drug trafficking, and this person remembers that, in the days before the fatal fight, stories had been circulating that Steve had failed to pay for marijuana that Genuine had given him on good faith.

One of the cleaning women, a cousin of Steve’s, swears that the real issue was a woman. Steve had a reputation around the plant of being something of a ladies’ man; word had it that he had gotten a little too intimate with Genuine’s girlfriend. Other workers have other stories.

There are even endless variations on the theme of the actual murder. One version goes like this: Genuine shows up in the factory parking lot, even though he isn’t scheduled to work. He demands to see Steve. Steve is pulled from the line, and meets Genuine in the front hall.

Genuine is enraged. “Why did you set me up?” he asks Steve, and then begins to stab him blindly. Steve tries to fight back, but soon collapses. Genuine stands over his body, spits on him, curses, wishes him dead, and walks away.

In another version, Steve is the antagonist. He confronts Genuine in the hallway. Words are exchanged, and Steve begins to throw punches into Genuine’s stomach and face. Cornered, Genuine produces a knife, seemingly out of nowhere, and stabs Steve in his leg. When this doesn’t work, he stabs him again in the leg, and in the chest. The fatal stab to the neck is an accident, a last resort.

In the local papers, Genuine defended himself by saying “I just wanted to get him off me because he was hurting me,” and then, in the next breath, “I came here to work.” He was later sentenced to 10 years for involuntary manslaughter.

I often think about Steve and Genuine as I walk the floor, never knowing what the workers think about me, or what they know about me, or what they think they know about me.

Rumors, drugs, jokes: eviscerated chicken isn’t the only thing passed down the line. I learn that it’s hard to keep secrets on a factory floor. Without talk, without information traveling down the line like a child’s whispered game, changing languages as it goes, the work’s monotony becomes palpable.

On the line, simple flirtation can become something more. Suspicions can become threats. Words, stripped of their syntax as a chicken is stripped of its bones, become hollow, malleable. Steven Leon Newbill was the only recorded fatality in the plant’s history. His death, it is recorded, was unrelated to his work.

Some days seem never to end. Outside of the factory, it rains. From the factory windows, we watch as carnival tents are set up, banking against the horizon like the other storm clouds.

We feel resentment directed vaguely toward a people that will be gone when the weekend is over, while we remain. The sameness of our work is broken up only by unexpected events — the bone auger is down; an order of chickens has come in with their heads still attached; the plant manager has driven away another forklift operator with his yelling and insults.

Sometimes something bigger happens. One morning, Esther Martin is brought in, screaming, to the nursing station. She has slipped on the foamy sanitizing liquid sprayed on the floor to prevent workers from transmitting germs to or from the eviscerated chicken. Her lower back hit the edge of a stainless steel table as she fell.

She is shaking, turned up against the wall in an awkward twisted position. Her glasses, before I take them off, are askew, the frames bent. An ambulance is called and arrives 10 minutes later. The EMT crew gingerly loads her onto a stretcher and takes her to the hospital. It continues to rain, and the factory shows its weaknesses; there are leaks above the stairs and in the front office.

But then the rains end, and even though we curse the heat, we love the sunshine. We look at Isabel Alvarez, who brings life into the factory every time she walks in the door. She is full with her pregnancy. She shines with it even when the plant is hot and her feet are swollen. When she is in the nursing station, women come by to offer advice, ask questions, give blessings. The men stand at a distance, outsiders, imagining a child who will grow up with the rhythm of the factory floor in its bones.

We organize a baby shower. The line workers bring brightly wrapped gifts or cards full of money, which we hide in a closet. On the chosen day, Isabel’s mother comes in with cans of cold soda for all of the workers. We stand around the cafeteria, forgetting where we are, smiling at each other with mouths full of cake.

Five years earlier, Isabel was there when the same cafeteria was full of foreign workers rounded up by the INS. Like many of the workers, she has described it to me as one of the most memorable experiences of her life. The agents surrounded the factory without warning, cutting off the exits and entrances. The line was shut down.

Workers were rounded up with dogs; many of them were restrained at their wrists or ankles. In the cafeteria, there was shouting, pleading, confusion. Agents were separating anyone without proper paperwork and loading them into a van.

Isabel, who spoke fluent English, was trying to console the workers and deal with the INS agents at the same time. When one of the agents asked for her paperwork, she discovered to her horror that her card was not in her purse.

She convinced one of the agents to escort her to her truck, where she found her card in the back seat. As she was walking back to the factory, she saw two of her friends being led into a van. Five years later, she still has not heard from them.

I think of the place inside Isabel, where the baby is growing. I imagine it smells like rich, sunlit soil that a field of corn can grow out of. During the baby shower, as she opens her presents, I can’t help it — I think of our afternoon as a kind of victory.

The skies remain clear. We walk outside to eat lunch with the electrician. One morning, the plant’s power shuts down; an osprey, returning to its nest atop a telephone pole, has blown a transformer. After waiting around in the dark for 15 minutes, we wander outside. Some of us bring our lunches and sit in the shady grass at the edge of the parking lot.

Miguel pulls his car up, rolls down the window, and turns on his stereo. The lively Latin rhythms draw the Spanish-speaking workers. There is shouting, dancing. Men are leaning against their cars, smoking cigarettes.

Women are standing in groups, talking and pulling their hair out from underneath their hairnets. The plant manager is pacing outside the loading dock, cursing into his cell phone. There are a dozen different languages being spoken, and, through it all, laughter. In the distance, over the cornfield, the osprey has begun to rebuild its nest on the next telephone pole.

I am told that three workers escaped the INS raid that afternoon in ’97 by hiding in different parts of the factory. One of them was wedged between two seven-foot pallets of frozen diced chicken. Another buried himself beneath a pile of trash. A third man hid beneath one of the two giant cookers used to heat the chicken; he was later treated in the nursing station for second-degree burns on his arms and chest.

One morning, I bend over to look beneath the cookers. It is a damp space, with near-boiling water dripping from pipes and gathering in puddles on the floor.

By the time that I arrive at the factory, these three men have long since left in search of a better job, with better pay and, perhaps, a greater degree of anonymity — a place where they can hide their status, and with it their past, the story of where they came from.

In place of these three men, I begin to imagine people that I know hiding in those cramped corners, freezing or burning or smelling of rotten chicken. The image doesn’t fade.

Leaving the factory, I know this: if I tell the story but forget the faces, then it becomes as old and tired as the industrial age itself. The factory tells us that we are replaceable, that our work is valuable only because it is cheap; that if we are not careful, we will begin to mistrust or kill one another, or our friends will disappear, or we ourselves will be loaded into a windowless van.

We can cut our fingers, we can offer up blood and wages, but in the end this only proves our humanity; in turn, the factory chases our identity into smaller and smaller spaces. In a story without faces, the factory wins.

But otherwise, it fails.

Isabel will have her baby. Snom will return to Cambodia to be with his brother. The electrician will offer consolation to another haunted soldier. And thanks to us, the line will keep on moving.

Article © 2002 by Dennis Wilson