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Monday, December 24, 2007

The Ten Worst Jobs in America

By Liza Featherstone

For a rich country, the United States has a lot of abysmal jobs, so any list of this kind will necessarily omit some true horrors. Still, there's no doubt these are 10 of the very worst (in no particular order).

Poultry Processor
These folks quit their jobs five times as often as other workers, and it's not hard to see why. This job boasts an impressive "ick" factor -- you can imagine how gross these plants smell. The workers -- two-thirds of whom are black women -- are surrounded all day by gizzards and offal. The pay is lower than any other job in the manufacturing industry, except apparel. It would be tough to decide which was the worst task in a poultry plant -- would you rather be crapped on and scratched by live birds; slaughter and behead them; or pull their guts out? The work is repetitive, with relentless pressure for profit-maximizing efficiency. Bathroom breaks are discouraged and often punished. Because of the brutal pace and casual safety training (portrayed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal investigation of the industry) one in four poultry workers are injured or made ill by their jobs. Cuts from the equipment -- knives and scissors -- are common, as is carpal tunnel syndrome. Many poultry plant workers live in trailers on the premises, paying their rent through pay deductions. Alarmingly, this has been one of the fastest growing factory jobs in recent years.

Sewing machine operator
There's no offal on the factory floor, but the upsides to this job end there. Garment workers' wages are even lower than those of poultry workers. They also face a constant threat of unemployment; because of unregulated overseas competition, apparel is expected to lose 245,000 jobs by 2012, probably more than any other industry. Sewing areas are the noisiest parts of the factory, and operators must sit for long periods leaning over machines and work under intense time pressure; repetitive stress injury is common. Their average wage is about $7.72 an hour; of course, in illegal "underground" shops, even lower -- or unpaid -- wages are common. Only 8 percent of U.S. garment workers are covered by a union contract; even those who are union members have found it almost impossible to bargain for better wages and conditions in recent years, because of global economic pressures. Most people doing this job are women, and in large cities like New York and Los Angeles, most are immigrants. There are about 140,000 sewing machine operators in the U.S. garment industry today.

Farm Laborer
Waking up early and planting things -- it sounds like the bucolic, Jeffersonian dream, but more often than not, it's a nightmare. Farm workers are among the poorest in the United States; not only are their wages low, they must also endure the instability of seasonal work, and usually receive no benefits. They're excluded from many of the legal rights and protections other workers enjoy: farm employers are not obligated to pay overtime, and many don't even have to pay minimum wage. Some small farmers are even exempt from many occupational health and safety laws, and in any case, throughout the industry, enforcement of such laws is weak. Hundreds of farm workers are killed on the job every year, and tens of thousands injured. They must work around toxic pesticides, with horrifying long-term effects on their health: poisoning, cancer, and, when pregnant women are exposed, birth defects. In a given week, around 793,000 people rely on hired farm work as their primary source of income.

Mississippi prison inmate/forced laborer
Prison labor isn't always an atrocity; when it's voluntary, and paid, many inmates welcome it. They have, after all, little else to do, and may wish to get some job skills, work experience and save some money, either for their families or their release. Prisoners in the state of Mississippi, however, receive no wages or benefits. Their work conditions are hellish: they are often forced into outdoor agricultural labor in heat exceeding 100 degrees, and made to work far longer than a 40-hour week. Most people doing this job are black, and verbal abuse from white supervisors, including racial epithets, is common.

Nanny on a temporary visa
Over the past decade, tens of thousands of women have come to the United States on temporary visas to work as live-in maids and nannies. Usually, they work for foreign diplomats, businesspeople or officials of international organizations. What these women endure sounds like something we expect to hear in accounts of human slavery in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes bosses lie to the women about the terms of their employment and imprison them in their homes, forbidding them to speak to anyone outside the family. These real-life Dickensian sickos could legally be prosecuted under federal human trafficking laws (and it sure would be nice to see them out in the Mississippi sun wearing stripes), but as Debbie Nathan recently reported in The Nation, enforcement agencies and many advocates are slow to act when the cases don't involve prostitution or other lurid sex allegations. Whether they are technically "trafficking" victims or not, workers on these visas are often reluctant to report abuse because if they leave their jobs, they can be deported. Human Rights Watch reports that these workers' wages average about $2.14 an hour, their workday lasts about 14 hours, and they are rarely allowed to leave the employer's home without permission.

Laundry worker
Commercial laundries are hot, steamy and noisy, and workers are on their feet almost all day. Fumes -- and in hospital laundries, blood and urine -- pose dire health hazards. The average wage is $8.74 an hour. Some laundry companies, such as Cintas, also harass and intimidate workers of precarious immigration status, to discourage them from joining unions. But the amazing thing is, many laundry workers are organizing anyway -- even going on strike to press for better treatment. So perhaps this job won't be on this list forever. There are now over 200,000 laundry and dry cleaning workers in the United States.

This dirty, difficult job, which has a higher turnover rate than most other construction jobs, involves working outdoors all year round. Cold weather is bad enough, but roofs get scorching hot in summer, and burns are common. It's also easy to slip and fall off a roof, ladder or scaffolding. There are at least 166,000 roofers in the United States. Pay is decent for those who are union members, are working on the books, or have significant roofing experience, but those in the bottom 10 percent of the industry make less than $9.15 an hour. And if they are immigrants, it's not unusual for employers -- usually contractors or private individuals -- not to pay them at all.

Recycling plant worker (materials recovery)
People are supposed to separate their garbage: recyclables in one bin and the other, usually far more gruesome, items in another. A lot of people can't seem to grasp this, hence the need for the Materials Recovery Facility, in which salvageable items are retrieved from unsorted garbage. Sorting through other people's trash to retrieve bottles and cans is such a nasty job that it should be handsomely paid. But it isn't -- for just above minimum wage, these workers sift through dirty diapers, dead animals, used tampons and condoms, hypodermic needles and rotting meat. Many newcomers to the job vomit from the stench.

Street Prostitute
Sex work takes many forms, many of which can be safely and profitably negotiated by consenting adults. But streetwalkers have little control over their work conditions. They are frequently cheated out of pay, raped and sometimes even murdered on the job. (Most street prostitutes report having been assaulted by a client at least once, according to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.) They must also work under constant threat of arrest and police harassment; serving time in jail is an integral part of the job, while paying fines is an expected business expense. While the hourly pay isn't bad, it seems low considering all the indignities involved; a blow job is about $20-$50, intercourse $50-$100. Still, this profession has one advantage: demand remains constant.

U.S. soldier, active duty in Iraq
It's not geographically "in America," but as American citizens we are the employers of these unlucky folks. Just like any other workers on this list, the 148,000 men and women fighting in Iraq take pride in their jobs and deserve our respect. But it is a wrong-headed war, as the majority of the American public agrees, and horrifyingly dangerous work. Not provided with the basic tools to protect themselves, many have to pay for their own body armor. Since the war's inception, 1,882 American soldiers have died on the job. Many more - at least 14,120 -- have been severely wounded: Army hospitals keep filling up with those who have lost limbs and even parts of their faces. Even those who return home physically healthy may be deeply psychologically traumatized. And, larger issues aside, it can get as hot as 120 degrees over there! Soldiers have benefits that other workers lack: access to affordable childcare on U.S. military bases, for example. But they are dismally underpaid: many low-ranking soldiers serving in Iraq make, per hour, less than retail workers.

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