RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's take a closer look at people working for much less than $15 an hour. For one week this fall, writer Gabriel Thompson did temp work in a busy warehouse in Southern California's Inland Empire region, which he describes as the belly of the online shopping beast. The warehouse where he packed merchandise for 9 bucks an hour is owned by Ingram Micro, the world's largest technology distributor.
Thompson is a former community organizer, and has previously written about his experiences doing farm labor. He wrote about this experience in the current issue of The Nation magazine, and talked with our own David Greene.
GABRIEL THOMPSON: In this warehouse, and in most of the warehouses, your productivity is really tracked. And so while the warehouse, to be fair, stress safety, the other thing they stressed was that they are going to be pushing us to work faster and faster. And those two orders weren't always completely compatible.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
THOMPSON: So there was one instance when we were packing iPads, and you're doing the work very quickly. My fingers would frequently bleed just from sort of rubbed raw from the cardboard that we were unfolding. Suddenly, this huge boom occurs and everyone stops, and we look over. And a forklift that had been carrying a pallet full of very heavy boxes, that box had toppled over. And, you know, thankfully, no one was underneath it.
GREENE: Can you just paint a picture for me of a day on the floor of this warehouse? What are you doing? What's happening around you?
THOMPSON: So you walk in, and you're immediately seeing cherry pickers and forklift drivers rushing back and forth, carrying huge boxes. You've got these shelves that go 30 or 40 feet up, stacked with goods. So, whatever you could imagine. And in the packing, when I was working on mostly Wal-Mart merchandise, you have these conveyor belts, and the boxes are coming at you. And they just keep coming and coming, unless the machine got jammed, and that would be your chance to sort of flex your fingers and move your legs and get some blood circulating again.
GREENE: The workers around you, did you get the sense that they were unhappy with the work environment, felt like they were pushed to work faster than they should be? I mean, what was their state of emotion, would you say?
THOMPSON: More than working too fast, I think it was a clear understanding that they were going to be discarded after the holiday season. But, on the other hand, they showed up, and I think that speaks to the fact that there are few options, and sometimes the less-bad of all these options is to do temp work at warehouses.
GREENE: You must be in an interesting position doing something like this, because you're doing this to write about it, compared to the people around you, who might find it monotonous, but also this is a job that they have to have.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I was extremely privileged. One morning, a lady who I worked next to, I saw her rubbing her feet. And I was, like, oh, what's wrong with your feet? And she said, well, she doesn't have a car - a number of the workers didn't have cars. And we had been let out unexpectedly early, which happens all the time. You never know what your shift's going to be like. And her ride was scheduled to pick her up in four hours. So, instead, she walked the eight miles home to her house after putting in a shift.
GREENE: You talked about that you wished that a more stable environment could be provided for many of these workers. But I wonder if is there not a reality that if this company provided better pay, more of a permanent job, that it would just be unrealistic for them to stay. They might, you know, be better off moving the warehouse to, you know, across the border.
THOMPSON: Well, the reality of what's happened in the Inland Empire is you've got more than 40 percent of U.S. imports coming through Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. There is 400 million square feet of warehouses in the Inland Empire, and it's the perfect location for that work, because they get shipped out from the ports there, and then from there, they have this whole set of railways and highways that get them out to the rest of the country very quickly. It's hard to imagine all of that moving somewhere else.
GREENE: I wonder if you do online shopping, ordering items that might be coming through a warehouse like this where you worked.
THOMPSON: Oh, of course. Before going here, my thought process in getting those boxes was, oh, great, what I wanted. And I think after doing this, I'll reflect a little bit on what I found there and the workers there.
GREENE: Gabriel Thompson, thanks so much for talking to us about this.
THOMPSON: Oh, it's been a pleasure. Thank you.
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MONTAGNE: That's our David Greene. And we asked Ingram Micro for a response to Thompson's article about working conditions in one of its warehouses. The company told us that it rigorously follows strict safety standards, offers competitive wages and employs several hundred full-time workers at the warehouse, as well as part-time and seasonal workers from time to time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.