[Like Victoria Scavo earlier this month, Sarah Satkowski is a graduating senior at King’s College, with whose work I got connected by my friend and Guest Poster Robin Field. I’m so excited to share the work of another awesome young scholar!]
Unethical Work Standards for Undocumented Immigrants Today as Represented in T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain
by Sarah Satkowski, King’s College ’21
It is hard to face the harsh realities that exist within one’s own country. News and media sources cover a lot of issues occurring at the border and problems immigrants face when coming over to the United States. We rarely see the struggles that immigrants, specifically undocumented immigrants, face when they are trying to build a life within the United States. One issue not often talked about is the terrible working conditions these immigrants sometimes find themselves in. No one should be subjected to unethical, unsanitary, and unsafe treatment for simply trying to improve one’s livelihood and the livelihood of one’s family. T. C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain demonstrates, through the character of América, the harsh realities that still exist in today’s society about the unfair and unethical treatment within the workplace for undocumented immigrants.
The Tortilla Curtain follows immigrants Cándido and América on their journey to make a good life for themselves in the United States. They face obstacles such as housing, healthcare, personal safety, and hunger. Most, if not all, of their struggles come from the difficulty of not being able to find steady work. When they did find temporary work, they were treated and paid unfairly. Shockingly, this situation occurs across the country today and affects millions of immigrants. They are put into dangerous working conditions without any means to defend themselves or create a change because of their undocumented status and fear of deportation. Undocumented immigrants are statistically paid less, put at higher risk, and work more hours when compared to a documented citizen (Moyce and Schenker 352). Three dangers for immigrants in the workplace that we see represented through América in The Tortilla Curtain are little to no safety standards, unrealistic and unfair demands, and sexual abuse.
América obtains work cleaning statues for an unscrupulous man named Jim Shirley. On her first day of work, she is only given yellow gloves to use while cleaning with strong chemicals. The second day she works, the man neglects to give her any gloves and she still does not receive any other protective gear like a face covering or glasses to protect her from the fumes. América suffers throughout the day with her eyes watering, her throat hurting, and her hands beginning to deteriorate from the chemicals. Boyle describes her hands: “the skin had begun to crack and peel and that all the color had gone out of the flesh…These weren’t her hands—they were the hands of a corpse” (131). Not only were these conditions despicable for the average person, but América was also pregnant and so these conditions were even more harmful to herself and her unborn baby. In the United States today, regulations should be followed to ensure the safety of workers, but often these regulations are ignored in the employment of undocumented immigrants. If they are given safety equipment, the immigrants have been known to not wear it because it does not fit them, or they feel they cannot effectively perform their work with it. The language barrier that is often present between immigrants and employers also prevents them from understanding and receiving proper safety training (Moyce and Schenker 355). Associated with these dangerous working conditions are the unfair and unrealistic demands expected of these immigrants.
At the same cleaning job, América’s working conditions are undesirable as she has to work under demands that are extremely unethical. To start, this work is not guaranteed and so each day she does not know if she will even receive pay. When she does work, she is cheated out of fair pay and is only paid for six hours out of the eight-hour day she worked, when she was only supposed to work six hours in the first place. Throughout this eight-hour day, she is offered no breaks for lunch or even to use the bathroom. Boyle states: “she was tired and hungry and she had to pee, but at the same time she wanted to stay here forever in the big clean open room earning four dollars and sixteen cents for every hour” (94). Not only was she performing physically exhausting work in terrible conditions, but she was also being paid unfairly for the work she was doing by a wealthy American who could afford to pay her a fair wage. When immigrants are employed, there is usually no employment contract and so there is a lot of uncertainty for how long they will have work and if they will face any harm while working. Immigrant workers have reported that employers care about speed over safety, so they do not have to pay them as much and as a result, many workers are injured. They also are pressured to feel as though they cannot take breaks, not even to use the bathroom, without being shamed (Moyce and Schenker 355). Workers without documentation often have no way of seeking help for their working conditions and often face abuse.
Along with the abuse América experiences because of not having proper safety equipment, she also faces sexual abuse with no means to protect herself or prosecute her abuser. When Jim Shirley drove her back to the labor exchange where he hired her, he was alone with her in the car and sexually assaulted her in the front seat. Immigrants working within the United States often face “physical, mental, and sexual abuse” (Moyce and Schenker 355). Women especially are often harassed and workers in general are neglected because of the bad safety protocols. This abuse often leads to bad mental health results such as depression for many of these workers. There is a very low prosecution rate in defense of immigrant workers, which leads to more abuse occurring (Moyce and Schenker 355).
Immigrants today face many more problems than the average American is aware of. T. C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain shows the harsh realities still existing in today’s society within the workplace for undocumented immigrants. This novel, while published in the 1995, remains relevant today. The danger and unsafe conditions undocumented immigrants face should raise alarm bells and more should be done to protect them. Many of these immigrants are searching for a better life and simply want to do better for themselves and their families. They are constantly put into harm’s way and have obstacles thrown at them that they are unable to escape because of their undocumented status.
Boyle, T. C. The Tortilla Curtain. Penguin, 1995.
Moyce, Sally C., and Marc Schenker. “Migrant Workers and Their Occupational Health and
Safety.” Annual Review of Public Health, 2018, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/
[Memorial Day series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?]