🌾 Machines in the field. 🤖

Finding autonomy and dignity in higher efficiency.

This is part three in a series about my experience harvesting cilantro with migrant workers. If you’re just joining us for the conversation, you can find the previous pieces here:

🌱 What makes a true adventure? 👨‍🌾

🥵 Learning what real work is. 🧎‍♂️

When you buy a bunch of cilantro you get exactly two things: cilantro and a twist tie. The elegance of this minimalist packaging belies all of the complexity involved in getting that cilantro to your local grocery store. There are numerous tools used in the harvesting process: a small scythe, sharpener, rubber boots, rubber overalls, knee pads, bundles of twist ties, a rubber band to attach the twist ties to your thigh, latex gloves, hair net, boxes lined with paraffin wax, stickers and sticker guns, and a grease pen — just to name the things the field workers directly use for harvesting and packing the cilantro.

In addition to the tools, the field workers follow a very specific process while harvesting cilantro:

Grab ten boxes and space them along your row. Bend over a foot of cilantro. Slice with single stroke. Bundle and vigorously shake the cilantro. Tie bundle with twist tie. Place bundles in piles of ten. Once there are six piles, assemble a box and place sixty bunches of cilantro in the box in rows of ten in alternating directions. Repeat all day long.

And those are only the tools and processes involved directly in the picking and packing of cilantro. It doesn’t touch on the planting, irrigating, monitoring, storing, or distributing of the cilantro.

There’s a whole lot that goes into getting that cilantro to your local grocery store!

It also means that there are a whole lot of wrong ways to pick cilantro. And I was really good at picking it the wrong way. Not that my bundles of cilantro were inferior to everyone else’s. I just wasn’t creating as many bundles each minute as everyone else.

As someone who is wired for efficiency and prides himself in efficiency and constantly thinks about efficiency, picking cilantro was a humbling experience. I was constantly being corrected and my technique being adjusted. If you pride yourself in being efficient, there aren’t many things that’ll humble you more than being the inefficient one in a group.

I even got critiqued on the way I was wearing my knee pads. It turns out there’s a right way and a wrong way to wear knee pads. When you’re kneeling all day, you only want to use the strap that goes below the knee — not the one that goes above the knee. The one above the knee starts to pinch you eventually, which causes quite a bit of pain when you’re kneeling for over eight hours a day.

Efficiency is really the name of the game here. Without efficiency, you don’t get your 59¢ cilantro. Every tool is there for the reason of speeding you up. I never would have thought to rubber band the twist ties to my thigh, but that way they were always right where I needed them. When I first started I was putting the bundled cilantro directly into the box, but I kept losing track of how many were in the box. By forming piles of ten, I could quickly collect six piles and get sixty bunches of cilantro in each box.

My speed and efficiency gradually increased as I adjusted my technique after each critique. By the end of my time in the fields I was doing 5 boxes per hour. That’s 300 bunches of cilantro per hour: 12 seconds for each bunch.

The expectation was 9 boxes per hour. That’s 540 bunches of cilantro per hour: less than 7 seconds per bunch. And most of the migrant workers were exceeding that expectation. There wasn’t a single wasted movement or idle moment. They seamlessly transitioned between each of the steps in the process and repeated the process thousands of times throughout the day without a moment’s hesitation. They looked like machines when you watched them. That was the point: to be as efficient as possible, and what’s more efficient than a machine?

It was impressive to watch. At times I was mesmerized by their machine-like efficiency, mechanical motions, and steady pace. Despite my best efforts, I was less than half as efficient as them. And they kept it up the entire workday. They ran when they were grabbing their next batch of boxes. When it was time for a break or lunch they stopped work begrudgingly; when it was the end of the day the foreman had to force them to stop working.

In my experience, people begin begrudging their work when they’re worked that hard from sun up to sun down every day. Why work that much harder when it doesn’t benefit you any? But I didn’t see any grumbling or complaints despite the expectation of machine-like efficiency throughout the day six days a week. No one worked the bare minimum number of boxes (other than me, due to my serious lack of skill).

As far as I can tell, these migrant workers don’t have much chance of promotion or advancement, so I don’t think that’s the explanation for their constant hard work and exceeding of the minimum expectations.

I believe the key is that they are paid per box. There was a clear, immediate, and direct benefit to them for each box they produced. They weren’t just benefiting their employer when they worked harder and more efficiently — they were benefiting themselves.

Because the workers were benefiting from their efficiency, there was something humanizing about that drive for efficiency. But there are certainly ways that efficiency can be incredibly dehumanizing.

When I was practicing law, I worked on a case in which a farmer hired an efficiency consultant to advise on how to make the field workers on the farm more efficient. One of the things the consultant did was stand outside the restrooms with a stopwatch to time how long workers were in the bathroom. Needless to say, the workers weren’t happy with that arrangement. The goal was efficiency, but it wasn’t done in a particularly humanizing way.

I’m confident that the field workers would have produced fewer boxes of cilantro each hour if they had been paid a flat hourly rate. And I don’t think that takes away from their work ethic. It speaks to the power of aligning incentives. And I think something even more profound was going on. By being paid per box, the field workers were able to reap a portion of the fruits of their labor. In that alignment of incentives, the field workers regained a portion of their autonomy — one of the biggest keys to job satisfaction. Instead of trading their time and effort for a wage, they were partnering with their employer to reap the rewards of their hard work.

That isn’t to say that this model is perfect. I’m troubled by the fact that such hard work earns relatively low pay with little chance of advancement. But I do know that this model is a whole lot better than one in which workers are paid a flat rate and treated as machines that the employer tries to ring as much efficiency from as possible.

Next time I’m going to spend some more time think about work and dignity.

In moderation, Matthew