Essay Writing Samples

Labor Exploitation of Employees in “The Jungle”

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is one of the most famous examples of investigative journalism working in favor of the public. Sinclair’s report is a fascinating journey into the exploitation of low-wage labor in America’s capitalist economy. The following sample essay examines some of the impacts Sinclair’s novel has had upon workplace relations and how much more reform is needed and is only one of the many services provided by Ultius.

Despite its successes in promoting global trade and allowing for individuals to move between social classes, capitalism has also received criticism over the years, with the chief criticism usually being that the system relies upon the exploitation of low-wage employees in order work effectively. As a result, many employees feel alienated while working within a capitalist system, as evidenced throughout Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. The protagonist of the story, Jurgis Rudkus, faces many hardships after immigrating to America, ultimately showing how the system of capitalism does not benefit all parties involved. Although social conditions have improved since the era when The Jungle takes place, workers today still face many of the same hardships and experience the same feelings of alienation.

Harsh realizations of labor exploitation in “The Jungle”

Squalor

One of the first instances of hardship Jurgis faces in the novel is when he comes to the realization that a low paying job will only afford he and his family substandard housing. After the Lithuanian arrives in Chicago, his first day involves being arrested and eventually taken to the stockyards. From there, he stares out of the window to examine his new home, which is described as,

“one uninterrupted row of wretched little two-story frame buildings” with, “the same endless vista of ugly and dirty little wooden buildings.” [1]

Sinclair’s novel is particularly important as it was one of the first to reveal the rampant and rising issue of poverty in the purported “Land of Opportunity.”

Pollution and filth

As they are traveling to the city via train they notice how, the closer they get to the city, the more polluted the atmosphere becomes. Jurgis, while peering from the train window, notices

“the perplexing changes in the atmosphere” and how, “it grew darker all the time, and upon the earth the grass seemed to grow less green.” [2]

Some of his final impressions while arriving in Chicago include thickening smoke and a strange, pungent odor so strong that one could taste it. [3] A final sentence in the passage portrays Jurgis contemplating whether emigrating from Lithuania was a good idea after all. Upon realizing that the source of the odor and pollution is his final destination, the group realizes:

“Now, sitting in the trolley car, they realized that they were on their way to the home of it – that they had travelled all the way from Lithuania to it.” [4]

His family’s arrival into the city displays how low-class workers feel alienated due to the fact that they are forced to live in polluted, and sometimes dangerous, conditions.

Workplace realities

In addition to being subjected to substandard housing and environmental conditions, Jurgis is also faced with dangerous working conditions. He witnesses many atrocities during his first few days on the job. Upon taking a tour of the factory, Jurgis views a number of unsanitary practices. In particular, he feels sympathy when seeing how ruthlessly the hogs are slaughtered, as

“one by one they hooked up the hogs, and one by one with a swift stroke they slit their throats.” [5]

However, the most appalling aspect of his tour is not the businesslike manner in which the hogs are slaughtered, but the apathetic manner in which the carcasses are inspected. Many of them are not inspected at all, and are instead taken to

“secret-rooms where the spoiled meats went to be doctored.” [6]

Although Jurgis is saddened by the working conditions, with the narrator describing it as

“something to be seen and never forgotten,” [7]

he nonetheless goes home happy because he earned a little more than a dollar and a half for an entire day’s work. [8]

Deflated elation

He quickly realizes that the low wages he receives will not be enough to cover the family’s expenses. His family’s experience shows how low-wage workers feel alienated from society because they are often forced to deal with unscrupulous landlords. When discussing the purchase of a home, the family thinks that their payments will be affordable and fair, but Grandmother Majauszkiene informs them that there is also considerable interest to be paid each month as well. The Rudkus family does not even know the definition of interest at the time, believing they will only be paying twelve dollars per month, until Grandmother Majauskiene laughs at them and views their lease, before claiming that landlords,

“trick you and eat you alive.” [9]

After reviewing the lease, there is silence in the room, as the family quickly realizes the house payment will be much more than they initially anticipated.

Increasing hazards

Workplace accidents are also common throughout the novel, as low-wage employees are often subjected to dangerous conditions while working for only pennies per hour. Jurgis himself suffers an injury in the form of a sprained ankle. During what is described as a melee, Jurgis jumps out of the way and falls into his trap, spraining his ankle in what is only a slight injury at first. However, he continues working for the rest of the day and further aggravates the injury to the point that it is

“swollen out nearly double its size, and he could not get his foot into his shoe by morning.” [10]

The company he is working for at the time refuses to accept responsibility for his injury and does not provide unemployment benefits while he is forced to miss several months of work.

Preying upon the weak

Arguably the most egregious situation to occur in the novel is when Jurgis’s wife, Ona, is raped by her boss. Ona’s boss, Connor, lures her to Miss Henderson’s house, where he then threatens to fire her if she does not have sex with him. He also informs her that he knows Jurgis’s boss, and will also have him terminated if she does not consent. [11] Fearing that her family will starve if she does not agree, she concedes and shows once again how poverty can force some members of society to enjoy fewer rights than others.

Inadequate care

Lastly, the novel shows how employees in a capitalist system are usually provided with inadequate, if any, healthcare. Nowhere is this more evident in The Jungle than when Ona is giving birth to her child – ultimately resulting in her death. After Jurgis is released from prison, he finds out his wife has gone into premature labor. Jurgis pulls together a dollar and a quarter to hire Madame Haupt to oversee the labor, at which point she informs him that she wants twenty-five dollars, which Jurgis cannot afford. [12] She eventually concedes after Jurgis begs, taking her time arrive at the residence, complaining throughout the process. She arrives too late and Ona has already passed away, to which Madame Haupt shows no remorse by claiming:

“You pays me dot money yust de same! It is not my fault dat you send for me so late I can’t help you vife.” [13]

Her attitude shows how money is the most important factor in life, and those without it are not privy to the same privileges in life as the wealthy.

Continuing issues and themes of “The Jungle”

Although working conditions have largely improved since the publication of The Jungle, employees are still faced with many of the same hardships. For example, workers are still faced with harsh working conditions in many careers. The effects of long term exposure to working night shifts is constantly being conducted. In a New York Times article, a 51-year-old healthcare worker describes how she can barely sleep due to the fact that she works long night shifts. In a question sent to the NYT editorial staff, the woman explains:

“I’ve worked nights for about four years now. My problem is that I have not been able to sleep well during the day; I do not get more than two hours’ worth of sleep.” [14]

Long hours at unconventional times can cause workers to lose sleep and feel alienated from others because they are sleeping during the day when most others are awake.

Corporations propagating problems

An example of how low-wage employees still struggle and feel alienated from society involves a sample budget McDonald’s recently created for its employees. The corporation was derided after it was released to the public due to the fact that many believed they deflated many of the expenses.

  • McDonald’s expects their employees to pay twenty dollars per month for health insurance.
  • This is unrealistic considering McDonald’s does not offer its hourly employees benefits and a health insurance plan for twenty dollars per month simply does not exist.
  • McDonald’s also states that an employee should have to have two jobs in order to simply get by, and does not allocate any money for the purchase of food.

Media attempts to aid labor exploitations

A Forbes article discusses how minimum wage is not enough to keep a single parent from living below the poverty line, and that the chart could actually be a catalyst for calls to raise the federal minimum wage. [15] Currently legislation in California is setting an example of the need to increase minimum wage. Ultimately, both the New York Times and Forbes articles show that employees are still faced with long, tiresome hours while working for wages that are oftentimes below the federal poverty line, causing alienation and dissatisfaction with the capitalist system that is in place.

Conclusion

Upton Sinclair details how a system that is designed to provide all employees with an opportunity to accumulate wealth can actually disenfranchise many members of society. While some work their way to the highest classes of society, the sad fact is that most members of society who are born poor will die poor. Capitalism is ultimately dependent upon some employees working for low wages. After all, that is one of the key contributing factors in how goods are sold for a low price. This central tenet to capitalism can not only causes a sense of alienation for low-wage employees, but it can also condemn them to a life of poverty and hardship.

Bibliography

Forbes. “Will the McDonald’s Employee Budget Help Get the Minimum Wage Raised?”  Accessed November 13, 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/laurashin/2013/07/18/will- the-mcdonalds-employee-budget-help-get-the-minimum-wage-raised/

New York Times. “Working Nights, Sleeping Poorly.” Accessed November 13, 2013.  http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/13/when-work-hours-disrupt-sleep/?_r=0.

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988

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