FIRST DAY OF PAY
A week had passed since the first day of work in the bag factory. Friday arrived and an air of happiness, of expectation, could be seen on everyone’s face. The female workers who had spent all week doing nothing but bending over their machines to work or over the assembly line table now had relaxed faces and even showed the shadow of a smile. I didn’t know what to expect, with my fingers still bandaged, swollen and cut from the first day of work. The day after I worked with the steel hooks for the bag handles, they assigned me to another job.
I had to attach two pieces of leather together, which formed the base of the bag. These were then given to the women who worked the machines to sew them. Because it was difficult to work with the metal hooks, this job was given only once a week to the same person. The other days, you would alternate between jobs that were lighter but equally as challenging. It was almost time to stop working when the head of the department, that relative that had found jobs for all the townspeople, arrived with a box full of envelopes. The women gathered all around him. He called the names written on the envelopes and distributed them. The envelopes held the week’s pay. I saw that not everybody smiled when they opened their envelopes. Others would look at the contents, and immediately close up the envelope and put it in their bag. Then little groups were formed and each woman would ask the others how much they had earned. From their discussions, I understood that the week’s pay would vary, even though the base wage was the same for everyone. They would discuss things that I still didn’t understand. Apparently, they would earn more or less depending on the jobs they performed and how many pieces they were able to put together. I opened my envelope and counted my money. There were $28 in it. It was the 1950’s and $28 for a week of work was a nice sum. I felt a sense of power, of independence. I had earned this money, it was my money. Well, not all of the money was mine; a good amount had to be used to pay the rent and board, then I had to help my father support the family that had remained behind and the rest was mine. To tell the truth, not much was left for me. In the envelope, there was also a piece of paper that explained the base pay. For me, one dollar an hour. Then, there was the money that was withheld and something else that I didn’t understand. I did some calculations, and I noticed that even taking out what was supposed to be withheld, I should have gotten more. I looked around a bit puzzled, but since I didn’t understand the system, I didn’t dare ask any questions; but I was confused.
A friend of mine came and asked me to show her my envelope. I forgot the suggestions of my aunts and uncles: “don’t show anybody your business”; I gave her my envelope. She had arrived before me and she knew how to interpret the writing on the small piece of paper included with my wages. I observed her carefully, anxious to see some sign of explanation on her face. She took me aside and said: “Look, they took out a certain percentage of your pay because you didn’t produce the minimum required amount.” Apparently, the factory established a minimum amount of production for each worker. If you didn’t reach that amount, your pay was reduced. But if you exceeded the amount, your pay was increased according to the quantity you produced. The minimum amount of production was extremely high and very few reached it, let alone the new arrivals. Only a few lucky workers were able to produce above the established amount and these people earned a “bonus”. To earn the bonus, you worked straight through without any breaks. The bonus was that extra amount that allowed you to buy some small thing, some small item that wasn’t a necessity; but even more, we could send some more money back to the family members that remained in our home country.
Therefore, because of the withholdings and the penalty for not having reached the established quota, my pay had been substantially reduced. But to us, the new arrivals, who didn’t know the language and who didn’t even have any experience, this was fine. In Italy, in our little village, we wouldn’t ever have even had the remotest possibility of working and earning money, even though we knew the language.
Delia Socci Skidmore