3 Jul 2021

Jessica Bruder: the real story behind Nomadland

From Saturday Morning, 9:30 am on 3 July 2021

In a remarkable feat of long-form journalism Jessica Bruder travelled thousands of kilometres across the United States, documenting the growing subculture of 'wheel estate' and gig labour; she talked to Kim Hill. 

No caption

Journalist Jessica Bruder with her van 'Van Halen'.  Photo: Provided

In 2013, Jessica Bruder moved into a campervan named Van Halen and hit the road to document the growing subculture of working-class Americans who have given up traditional housing to move into 'wheel estate' - many due to economic or personal hardship. 

The project spanned three years and saw Bruder travel from coast to coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border, along the way meeting some incredible characters. 

The resulting book Nomadland: Surviving America in the twenty-first century was released in 2017 to critical acclaim, and was the inspiration for the triple-Oscar winning movie directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances McDormand.  

The book is arguably better, more informative and gripping. It asks the question: How is it that, in one of the world's most affluent countries, so many people cannot afford to retire and are one broken axle away from homelessness?

No caption

Photo: Supplied

A large chunk of Bruder's story, touched on in the film, is the gig labour undertaken by these nomads, who take up short posts with places like the massive Amazon warehouses dotted about the country. 

Described by Bruder as 'plug and play labour', this working model is symptomatic of wider ills within the American economic system.

Bruder told RNZ there's no easy way to tell how many people are living in cars, vans and mobile homes in the US. 

"Everybody needs to have a fake address to receive everything from a driver's license to insurance. There's no formal census of it. 

"Estimates super-conservatively were tens of thousands. I would say hundreds of thousands, but it just depends which [group you define it as] ... and I think the numbers have probably gone up since I wrote the book.

"We just have a really big problem in this country, in that wages have been flat - we're stuck at a $7.25 federal minimum wage - and the cost of shelter keeps going up, and it's an untenable situation."

Bruder says data now shows there are few places in the US left where a full-time minimum wage worker can afford a one-bedroom apartment at a fair market rent. 

"It's sad because it's really changed over time in the US," she says.

"If you went back to even the mid-60s somebody who was working full-time at the minimum wage could support an entire family. 

"Now we have two-income families where people are working multiple jobs each and they can barely make it. It's not right."

What she experienced living on the road was a group that is a "geriatric migrant labour unit". She points to Amazon's CamperForce programme, as an example.  

"In 2008 this programme began. Amazon's warehouses used to all be in pretty far-flung locations in a gambit to avoid sales tax and keep a competitive advantage. They were often in locations where they couldn't get enough bodies on the floor, particularly in peak season.

"I think that loophole has since been closed ... but in the very beginning Amazon's strategy was to not locate its warehouses where its biggest customer bases were, because then it wouldn't have to charge sales tax, and that would be an advantage. 

"Now that the focus is on last mile delivery it's changed a bit, speed has become the name of the game. But yeah, Amazon is notorious for finding any way around taxes that it can, as is [Amazon's chief executive] Jeff Bezos."  

The CamperForce programme organised migrant workers at 'fulfillment centres', a term Bruder refers to as Orwellian: "They are not where you go to fulfill your dreams, I can tell you that."

"The kind of work that I saw people doing - some even in their 70s, and I heard about people in their early 80s - these were jobs that would have been challenging on younger and more able-bodied workers.

"I knew a gentleman in his 70s who was walking about 15 miles a day on concrete, and as we know they have very limited break time, they have productivity quotas. 

"This particular workforce was an employers' dream come true, because they're essentially plug-and- play labour; they show up with their housing, they plug in to their hook-ups to get water and electricity, they're there for as long as they're needed and then they depart. And the company really bears very little responsibility to them." 

Bruder herself signed up to work in a warehouse near Fort Worth, Texas.

"I was one of only two people in my contingent who didn't have grey hair ... we were in a newer warehouse, which meant that instead of doing endless miles of walking through these pods, there was a lot of squatting, stooping and lifting, as these robots brought shelves of merchandise to each person's station ... but it's not [funny] because we're talking about [wear] on people's bodies. 

"I was on the night shift, and it paid maybe a buck an hour more, and people were seeking it out because of that. One gentleman had spent most of his life working in copper mines, and for him all that stooping and squatting is probably worse than all that walking would have been. It was a challenge."

The housing market crash, from 2007, played an intrinsic part in growing the phenomena.

"Many people I met on the road were on the road for reasons that did go right back to the housing crisis," Bruder says. 

"I generally think any of these things are going to be [the result of] a combination of factors. I don't think Amazon would ever say 'we capitalised on a housing crisis'.

"So, for whatever reason, the timing that Amazon discovered this workforce was really right after the housing crash, so whether it was by accident or design it definitely benefited the company.

"If we had a better social safety net these people wouldn't be on the road to begin with - some of them might, but many of them not." 

"I think we live in a winner-take-all economy right now. And not only do companies like Amazon profit off that, but they push for it and they're part of it. 

"Amazon is a monopoly that does not want to be regulated. In the US all of our anti-trust legislation that was used back in the days of giant steel and oil monopolies has fallen by the wayside in this age of digital and [other] different and digital monopolies.

"And I know the Biden administration has at least paid lip service to this, we now have Lina Kahn, who is an anti-monopoly scholar at the Federal Trade Commission.

"So, I hope things get better, but right now everybody knows that Amazon has pretty much been able to dictate its own terms when it comes to labour regulation, and a lot of people are hoping to see a change."

Nomadland sets out details about how Amazon gets federal tax credits for hiring certain categories of people, including the ageing recipients of supplemental security income, and people who are using food stamps. 

But Bruder says those workers are "gone very quickly, too. I don't think that credit was intended for people who're going to be working for three months tops. It's quite beneficial for the company."
A recent New York Times investigation into life inside the Amazon warehouses detailed Jeff Bezos' belief that an entrenched blue-collar workforce represents a march to mediocrity, and the more employee turn-over you have the keener workers are.

"We've always seen the effect of that on the floor at Amazon warehouses - the churn is incredible, the turn-over is incredible," Bruder says. 

"It's been quite obvious for a long time time that Amazon is happy to have attrition, they've been buying workers out. They love to tell everybody that it's a job, not a career. And to read in that Jodie Kantor New York Times story that ... it was actually part of Jeff Bezos' vision - it's really considered a feature, rather than a bug. 

"It's a very deeply anti-humanistic view. It's always struck me as this interesting paradox about Amazon, where there's paying lip service to the customer ... but workers are consumers, and workers are family members. You can't really just take out one piece of human behaviour and say you're going to serve that type of person, and that somehow consumers means something but workers don't. It's a very self-serving attitude."  

Bruder says Amazon's market dominance in the US makes it difficult to reliably find other consumer options without buying from them. She says some items are now difficult to find outside Amazon, and at times she's felt she had no option.

"Part of the problem with Amazon is it squeezed a lot of other merchants out... and market pressure is brought to bear by Amazon. So the problem is the market gets smaller and smaller, there become fewer and fewer opportunities. 

"I try not to shop Amazon... and I urge people to make every decision in a conscious way. I don't think  you have to be a full boycotter or there's nothing you can do. I think right now the [political] left sometimes gets into a bit of a circular firing squad where if you're not completely pure you're worthless."

As Bruder says in her book, the situation is immensely complicated, politically and socially. And she stresses that the nomads she interviewed were neither powerless victims nor carefree adventurers, the truth is much more nuanced.