The Dark Side of the Land of the Free

The Jungle - Kathleen DeGrave, Earl Lee, Upton Sinclair

Well this is the last official day of my amazing holiday and I am sitting at the bar in the Regal Airport Hotel in Hong Kong (at around 1:00 am in the morning). I guess my sleep patterns have been mucked up and I have now resorted to buying my beers by VISA since I really don't want to withdrawal any more money (since I leave Hong Kong at 7:00 am in the morning, which means that I have to be up around 4:30 am, which is okay because I have already had a sleep once I arrived here, but then I have to go back to work on Thursday, which is going to seriously mush my brains, though I hope I won't get thrown straight onto the phones).


Anyway, enough of where I am and onto the Jungle. I had heard about this book from my American History lecturer, and at later times when I was going through the phase of reading anti-corporate, anti-George Bush books. This is sort of one of those books even though it was written over one hundred years ago and is about the meat packing industry in Chicago. However, it is more than that because it is actually about the plight of the immigrant worker who comes to America to experience the land of wealth but is never able to secure that wealth. Mind you, when the book was published it was banned (so much for freedom of speech), and had to be published in a censored form (as I said, so much for the Bill of Rights). They have since released the uncensored version, and that is the version that I managed to get my hands on (at least there is one thing that Amazon does right).


The one thing that stands out to me about the book is the concept of what they call the squeeze. The protagonist of this book comes to America from Lithuania to find a better life, and he brings his family with him. However the only job he can get is in the meat packing industry, and the descriptions of that industry are truly horrifying. No such thing as occupational health and safety, and no such thing as a unionised workplace. Mind you they since managed to clean up their act, however if you read some of the more modern literature (such as Fast Food Nation) you will discover that while there has been some change, it isn't much. In fact the modern meatpacker is more like a factory worker and the meat is processed. There are also some serious concerns about the quality of the meat (and the cows) that go through these factories.


When our hero gets his job it is probably the highlight of the book, and pretty much everything goes down hill from there. He gets a job and he buys a house, however we discover that hanging onto that job can be quite precarious, and because he is working class (and an immigrant) any rights that he may appear to have are tenuous. In fact it appears that losing this job can be easier than getting it, and if you lose it, the chances of you being able to get another job are slim. After he loses his job (he suffers an injury, and in those days there was no workcover, but then even here in Australia workcover only applies to legitimate workers, and there are many occupations here where immigrants are paid cash under the table, which means no workcover) he also loses his family and finds himself on the streets of Chicago.


This reminds me of a scene that I saw in London, and you do see a bit of it in London (as well as many of the other cities I have been to, including Hong Kong – you spend enough time in a city and you end up seeing under its glitz and glamour and begin to see the harsh reality). As I was walking through Leicester Square I walked past a cinema and there was some guy wrapped up in a sleeping bag against the wall. Another guy was shaking him and prodding him, and after about five minutes of no response, ended up making a phone call. While I am not privy to the facts, I can say that London was incredibly cold when I was there, and there are many people who have to brave the cold because they do not have a warm room to go to. I would not be surprised that this guy died of the cold overnight.


Also, a couple of days later I was having a beer in a London Pub (and gee those pubs can get packed, especially on the Easter Long Weekend) and there was a guy telling the bartender about how he used to live on the streets but now has a house. It was funny because he was saying that he finds it difficult to get to sleep in this new environment because he is used to the cars and the people going past. In fact he has to leave his window open to get to sleep. It is also a new experience that he does not have to lug all of his possessions around with him. It sought of makes me think about the plight of our condition, and the fortune that many of us have who are able to travel the world, and even live in a nice warm house with food in our cupboard and a regular paycheck (no matter how small it is, though I would still fight to see people paid a decent amount of money – as they say, a living wage).