Paying With Their Health

Unwilling or unable to complain about working conditions, immigrants routinely suffer chronic problems brought about by pesticide use, harsh weather and the lack of proper equipment. Using primary sources, students will learn more about these conditions—from the past and the present.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Discern similarities and differences using multiple texts, including Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle
  • Compare the conditions of immigrant laborers in the food production industry during two points in time
  • Draft an outline for a novel based on current workplace environments described in the report
  • Dramatize first-hand accounts of the work lives of undocumented immigrants
  • Evaluate web information on the issue
Essential Questions
  • What are the circumstances under which immigrant laborers work?
  • What are the health effects on immigrant farmworkers in those circumstances?
  • What is the history of the treatment of these workers in the food production industry? How has it changed?
  • What is the government doing about the issue?


Early this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed 150 immigrant women from Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin American nations. All of them thought they had realized their dreams—to make it to the United States, where they could find work and support their families. They landed jobs in fields and factories where food is harvested and processed before appearing on American dinner tables. But they also found themselves exploited in the workplace, making poverty-level wages and suffering grim conditions and humiliating situations that were impossible to report because of their undocumented status. Their stories are featured in the SPLC report, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry

Undocumented immigrant workers are a huge part of the American food production industry. Many of the jobs involve health risks. Unwilling or unable to complain about working conditions, the immigrants routinely suffer chronic problems brought about by pesticide use, harsh weather and the lack of proper equipment. Using primary sources, students will learn more about these conditions—from the past and the present. 

This is the fifth of seven lessons from the teacher's guide by Teaching Tolerance, also available as a PDF.



herbicidehuhr-buh-syde ] (noun) a chemical used to kill unwanted plants, such as weeds 

pesticidepeh-stuh-syde ] (noun) a chemical used to kill pests, such as rodents or insects

neurological [ nuhr-uh-law-jih-kuhl ] (adjective) relating to the body’s nervous system

repetitive motion injury [ ruh-peh-tih-tihv moh-shun ihn-jur-ee ] (noun) an injury to a part of the body caused by performing the same motion over and over again

toxictahk-sick ] (adjective) having a chemical nature that is harmful to health or lethal in certain quantities


A Modern ‘Jungle’

1. Although it’s a novel, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is based upon his investigation of working conditions in American slaughterhouses and meatpacking facilities. Those food production factories depended on the labor of immigrant workers who faced dangerous and even life-threatening conditions each day they went to work. Sinclair’s novel was published in 1906. Reading 1 includes an excerpt from Chapter 9 of the novel. Divide your class into two groups, with one group reading the excerpt. As you read, make one list of phrases that describes the environment of the facility and another that describes its hazards.

2. If you are in the other group, review Readings 2 (Chicken—‘Racing With the Machines’) and 3 (Isabel). (Note: Each student should have a copy of both readings.) Like the first group, make a list of phrases in each reading that describes the workers’ environments and another that describes the health hazards they face.

3. Meet again as a class, with each group sharing its work. Discuss: How alike are your lists? How do the working environments described in the readings compare? How are the real or potential injuries similar or different? What conclusions can you draw from the comparison of these two historical periods of immigrant labor? 

4. Upton Sinclair used his short-term experience in a cattle slaughterhouse as the basis for his novel, entertaining readers even as he educated them about the conditions there. Individually, choose either Reading 2 or Reading 3 as a potential basis for a novel or film. Then, write an outline that you think would interest a publisher or producer in your story. For instance, what do you imagine is the background story of Isabel and her husband? Where did they come from before migrating to New York? What circumstances brought them there? What are their joys and hardships? How does their status as undocumented immigrants affect their everyday life? How do the hazards and long hours of their working environment affect their individual health? Share your outline as an oral “pitch” to classmates. Would they read the book or watch the film?


In Their Own Words

1. Although Readings 2 and 3 are short, they both include first-hand descriptions of the physical and emotional challenges undocumented immigrants endure every day in the food production industry. In pairs, choose one of the readings. One of you should take the role of the immigrant worker (either Isabel or Rosa). The other should take the role of a physician. 

2. As “Isabel” or “Rosa,” describe to the “physician” the physical and emotional issues that are the result of your work environment. In character, act out each of the ailments from which you suffer. If you are the “physician,” write down her list of complaints as part of her medical report. What actions would you recommend? (Note: The “physician” might recommend surgery or physical therapy for Isabel’s hands, pain relievers for both Isabel and Rosa, or even quitting or changing their jobs.) 

3. Staying in character, now discuss which of the physician’s recommendations are realistic. What are the obstacles? What might be the penalties of taking the recommendations? Along with other pairs of students, share your conversation with the class. What conclusions can you draw about the options that immigrant workers have to improve their situations?


Past to the Present

1. Public reaction to Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, led to the passage of the 1906 Meat Inspection Act and the same year’s Pure Food and Drug Act. In pairs or small groups, research these two pieces of legislation. What current government agency did the Pure Food and Drug Act eventually establish? 

2. Unfortunately, those changes did little to protect the health and lives of immigrant farmworkers. As part of its report, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry, the Southern Poverty Law Center has also issued recommendations for changes within several government agencies. You can read its recommendations on page 54 of this report. What do these recommendations point out as continuing problems for these workers?

3. Within your group, choose one recommendation that most interests you or might most directly apply in your community or state. Using an online search engine, create a list of websites that would provide a bank of information for further researching the topic. As you create the list, evaluate the sites as credible sources of information. As an extension activity, continue to research the topic and communicate what you’ve learned in a school newspaper editorial, create a classroom wiki set up to add new information on undocumented immigrants or make an oral presentation.