Hell Smells like Salmon

An article I wrote for my friend Sebastian’s Argentine magazine about the month I spent working in a salmon cannery in Alaska in the summer of 2012.


Many of us have had jobs that make for entertaining stories. We might work these jobs for a summer, a year, during college or high school and although we might not realize it at the time, we have the fortune of looking back on our miserable jobs and being thankful that we have moved on and can laugh about our lousy experiences. After we move on from these jobs, however, we might forget about the people who worked those miserable jobs right along side us; the individuals who might never be privileged enough to move on. We cannot forget about the individuals who continue to be dehumanized in their jobs today, and who may be treated as disposable workers for their entire lives. These are the people that don’t get to laugh about their time spent working dismal jobs. They are forced to continuously seek them in order to support their families, to help their children immigrate with the hopes of eventually being reunited or to simply get by.

In the summer of 2012 I worked at a salmon cannery in Alaska. The month I spent working there was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life. I learned the value of hard work but I also learned how it felt to be treated as a number, less than human, and what it is like to feel broken. Instead of an individual I became a disposable worker because a disposable worker is easier to oppress, mistreat and break down. I reflect on my time there more than almost anything else I have done, but mostly I think about the people that return each summer because they need to.

In late June 2012 my sister and two friends and I packed our bags with all the wool socks, sweatpants, sweaters and extra-strength Tylenol that we could fit and boarded an Alaska Airlines Boeing jet that Red Salmon Cannery had chartered. We stood out among the few hundred other workers consisting of primarily middle-aged American and Mexican men.

We arrived in King Salmon, Alaska in the middle of the night, excited and nervous for what was ahead. We were herded onto several school buses and driven to a town called Naknek where the Red Salmon Cannery resides. Naknek, Alaska, slightly larger than the city of King Salmon, with a population of 544 residents, is a city on the northeastern end of Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. To reach this remote area of Alaska one can only arrive by airplane or boat. This physical isolation did not help to subside my feelings of entrapment and hopelessness that would soon grow.

The first week at the cannery in Naknek was like adult summer camp. The salmon had not arrived yet so we spent our days without cellphone service or television, playing cards, eating three meals a day and unlimited donuts provided by the cannery and hitchhiking into the small town. Although we were growing bored and anxious to be making money, none of us were mentally or physically prepared for the salmon to arrive.

My sister and my two friends and I were fortunate to share a dormitory style room and also fortunate to have the same shift schedule so we could see each other awake. When the salmon came there were employees working around the clock. The machines, straight out of an Upton Sinclair novel and constructed in 1901, were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Assigned to shift C, we began work promptly at 10:30pm. On our first day, shivering as if we were scared, helpless animals we entered the colossal and freezing warehouse to discover what our jobs would be for the next few weeks or possibly several months. Before we entered the cannery floor we donned our fishing boots, hairnets, cloth gloves, plastic gloves, disposable earplugs and aprons. At first the stench of fish was overwhelming, but after about eight hours I became so accustomed to my new life that I never smelled the salmon again.

From loading the fillets of salmon onto the conveyor belt all the way to cooking the cans in the oven and storing them in hundreds of wooden pallets, there were workers specialized in each task involved in the canning process on several canning lines. It took about thirty seconds to master the responsibilities that my job entailed. Although I would never speak to them or learn anything about them because the deafening machinery made it impossible to communicate, I worked alongside half a dozen other employees weighing cans that the machine did not dump the correct amount of salmon into. With a pile of chopped salmon in front of us we spent 16 hours every day of the week making the same hand motion of grabbing a can from the left, weighing the can and, depending on the weight of the can, adding bits of salmon or removing pieces of salmon and then placing the same can back on the conveyor belt on the right, ready to pick up the next can in line without delay.

At 2pm our shift was finished and we had eight cherished hours to eat, shower the bits of salmon off our bodies, wash our clothes and sleep. I’m not sure if we could hear the machines from our room or if my ears were ringing from the unbearable volume in the warehouse for the entire month, but regardless it was difficult to fall asleep.

The long hours and menial task did not get easier as the time passed. With such little sleep each night it became a challenge just to stay standing and awake in order to work 16 hours each day of the week. And because I could not pass the time listening to music or talking with anyone, I depleted my own thoughts. In my mind I sang every song I knew by heart, recited each poem, each story, but I had never before had this much time alone in my own head. I simply ran out of things to think about, imagine or create in my mind. This combined with my own exhaustion and perhaps the ADD medication I started to take to stay awake, awoke a dark side of myself I had never known. I envisioned myself committing atrocious acts involving death and blood against the people who kept me there like a prisoner. The ones who I witnessed yell abusive and racist commands, who were ruthless in making us work and who pounded us into the ground and stepped on us like cockroaches until we could no longer think for ourselves or hardly at all. I pictured the retributive deaths of my superiors but in my mind I was fighting against everyone, even my coworkers who I had never spoken to.

I am embarrassed that my mind ever created these images. I have never been a violent person and never in my life had I fantasized about something so graphically and disturbingly violent. I felt imprisoned and I was becoming so terrified of my own mind. No authority at the cannery had any idea of when we might get to go home and if they did, they did not tell us, perhaps just to make us more miserable and broken. Each day rumors spread throughout the cannery at mealtimes in the cafeteria that a plane would be there the next day to save us and fly us home. Each day I could not help but be hopeful and ecstatic that the rumors might actually be true this time, but when a plane never came it became harder and harder to work because we never knew when we might get to leave and we could not count down the days.

Eventually I stopped eating most meals because the ADD medication I was taking to stay awake reduced my appetite. I felt like a zombie. I became unable to heat my own body and my identity and sense of time from working and sleeping such strange hours distorted. I started to worry that if I stayed there any longer I would never be able to recover from losing my mind. I decided I needed to leave immediately and my sister wanted to leave with me. After we informed the Human Resources employee of our intentions, we were told we had 30 minutes to vacate the premises or they would call the police even though we were in the middle of nowhere, Alaska with bears and completely surrounded by wilderness. That night after the King Salmon airport closed at 7pm, my sister and I ended up sleeping next-door to the only bank in town in the semi-outdoor ATM room. We curled up next to each other on the linoleum floor wearing all the clothing we had packed and lathered ourselves in bug spray to protect ourselves from the Jurassic era mosquitos. But we could not have been more grateful that night to have escaped from hell, despite the cold and the mosquitos and the fact that we broke our contracts and didn’t get paid for our almost 200 hours of work.

The injustice that I witnessed first hand at the cannery only added to my misery and brokenness. I felt utterly powerless. I was unable to speak up or interfere when I witnessed racism and maltreatment towards the people around me. People were not treated like people. We were disposable and there was no incentive to treat us with any respect. It was only profitable to work us as hard as possible and if we became ill with pneumonia, which was all too common, the company could send us home without pay and reap the benefits of our free manual labor.

I could not be more thankful that I was able to return from Alaska without a family, a mortgage or bills that depended on the money from my migrant labor. But I am an exception to the case of the majority of disposable workers. Most of the employees return to Naknek, Alaska year after year to make $1,000 a week for up to several months. Many of them only speak Spanish and only receive orders in louder English shouts. Many vomit and become ill but have to keep working so they don’t break their contracts. They aren’t seen as people and after a few 112-hour workweeks it’s difficult to even feel like or consider yourself a human.

Something has to be done to make jobs such as this one humane. People should not have to be exposed to this type of cruelty just to make ends meet. There must be more of an emphasis placed upon improving working conditions and respect for the just treatment of workers. Canneries are not the only industry where employees are abused and taken advantage of but if the conditions could be enhanced in this industry it might just catalyze the improvement in industries across the board.

You can see the February edition of the Argentine magazine and the article I wrote in its Spanish form here: http://issuu.com/clapmagazine/docs/clap_magazine_4

All the photos were taken by Marlena Dougherty.


2 thoughts on “Hell Smells like Salmon

  1. i worked in Naknek this summer 2014 and I am relieved that someone understands exactly what I was thinking too. I also felt like a number, unimportant, and disposable at anytime. I stayed the until the fourth plane came to take me. that day i was rejoicing to leave that place. The International workers unfortunately go back there because perhaps that’s the best they can get for their work, little do they know they are not treated with respect and dignity taken away all for needing substance to provide for their families and paying bills.

    • Whenever I retell the story, I feel more and more removed from actually being there. Could I really have survived that? Such a godawful place. Someone needs to do an expose on the way people are treated there. It makes you think about Fordism as well and how it is never beneficial to the employees and neither is capitalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s