Five months ago, when my producers Emily Rand, Rayner Ramirez, and I began discussing this investigation, I was unsure of what we would uncover. Emily is an experienced, award-winning investigative journalist, whereas my experiences as a reporter are rooted in bearing witness -- sharing with the world scenes and stories of people affected by forces beyond their control. I had done a few investigative pieces in West Africa when I was a foreign correspondent but a deep-dive investigation like this was a new and eye-opening experience for me.
When we began talking to laborers working at BMW in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Mercedes in Vance, Alabama (among others), we learned that many were coming from Central and Eastern Europe -- in many cases, Slovenia and Croatia. That prompted us to take the investigation abroad.
These laborers were leaving their families, loved ones and friends to live in cramped apartment complexes in the American South with five or six other men for months at a time, looking for a decent paycheck. That this is happening is nothing new -- people from other countries have been coming to America to earn a living since the country was founded. But what was surprising was that they weren't coming from Latin and Central America -- places Americans typically considered when they think about immigrant labor -- or an impoverished country.
Slovenia is a member of the European Union. GDP growth is over 2 percent. Its capital, Ljubljana, is a beautiful city with an imposing castle overlooking a meandering river lined with charming cafés. I had visited the country as a college student when it was still part of Yugoslavia and it seemed to me that it was even more impressive than I remembered it. But the country was hit hard by the global recession in 2009 and at 11 percent, unemployment is fairly high for such a small country.
They aren't starving there, but for many, making ends meet is a struggle. That's why they chose to take jobs at American auto companies for wages far below that of what an American would earn at working them. Working 13-hour days or more, six to seven days a week, without health insurance, without any paid time off. They told us they knew they were being exploited by their subcontractors and by extension, the automotive companies they were working for. But their feeling was, if this could make life better back home, they would risk it.
That's what made this story so compelling to report. It challenged my own assumptions about immigrant labor, the USA's visa process, the concept of "Made in America" by Americans, the idea that people living in a beautiful, seemingly thriving European capital would take such risks earn a decent wage.
I realized that investigations generally begin by simply pulling a thread. How it unravels and where the story takes you can be surprising even to those of us reporting on it. And, I think it makes it even more surprising to our viewers.