The other day I spoke with John Bowe about his new book, “Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.” I’d been appalled by the stories of slavery happening here in the States: immigrants forced to pick fruit in Florida, armed guards keeping welders in a factory in Tulsa, Okla. The workers in Bowe’s book aren’t merely pressured, mind you, but forced, under threat of violence.
But really, I was just pretending to care.
To claim otherwise would contradict the facts: I buy a new shirt now and then. A stereo every decade or so. Charcoal. A rug. Food. In 2007, I can’t say that I don’t know — those prices are just too low when you start calculating the time and labor behind them. But if you’re like me, you don’t calculate all that often. Sure, you boycott a particularly egregious company or two, but a lurking suspicion tells you they’ve all got dirty hands, and gradually your indignation wears away.
As it is, 12 to 27 million people are enslaved around the world today. Most are women and children. How many slaves are there in the United States? Impossible to say. The CIA has estimated that 50,000 women and children are brought to the country each year as sex slaves; many more are trapped doing agricultural, garment and domestic work. Bowe spoke with a few of them.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the anti-slavery movement’s first major victory, the abolition of the British slave trade. Two centuries later, Bowe offers a look at how little progress has been made. Taking us from Florida to Oklahoma to the island of Saipan, he provides astonishing, in-depth accounts of the forced labor behind the cheap goods consumed in this country and elsewhere. These are not obscure products — major corporations we’re all familiar with profit from modern slavery, he writes.
For a subject so deep in an American’s bones, slavery confuses us. The word conjures up clear, monstrous images of chains and auction blocks, plantations and the Middle Passage. But this is not the stuff of modern slavery. Not only do some of Bowe’s subjects technically receive a wage, many are even employed — indirectly, through sub-contractors — by the country’s most prominent companies. Surely this cannot be the same phenomenon we learned about in history class.
As Bowe illustrates, the logistics have changed — legal ownership has been replaced by domination and power — but the fundamental element remains: “A person not free to leave their job, held in place by violence or the threat of violence, to be exploited by someone else,” is how he defines it.
Since its abolition in the United States, slavery has lived on in a variety of disguises: tenant farming, chain gangs assembled through flimsy arrests, guest worker programs just a step away from forced servitude. Nowhere is slavery’s modern-day reconfiguration clearer than with bonded labor, an extremely common arrangement where immigrants come to a country to work, only to find themselves owing vast sums to those who help ferry them over, for housing and even for the job itself and the tools of their employment — a sack for the fruit they collect.
In cases like these, the workers’ employers are often in league with those who helped them immigrate, or perhaps they rent out the squalid quarters where the workers stay or charge exorbitant prices for minor services like check-cashing. Finding themselves in such debt, the workers are forced to stay on — at risk of violent retribution if they leave — and surrender their wages until their obligation is paid.
Bowe captures not just the misery of these situations, but also how often they happen right under our noses. Frequently these years-long scenes of exploitation, terror and violence play out within walking distance of those who could intervene — neighbors, a hotel or gas station attendant, even police. But language barriers, fear of reprisal against family members and ignorance of the law keep the slaves from seeking help.
In cases where authorities do step in, it can be a high bar to prove slavery. On paper, the arrangement can be made to look legitimate. Meanwhile fellow immigrants are often reluctant to testify, or to talk to a government official, fearing deportation. Bowe describes how even those willing to cooperate can be difficult to work with. Profoundly poor, they lack that which facilitates basic communication and organization in this country: a phone, a permanent address, a regular work schedule.
But convictions do occur, and Bowe says their mere possibility raised a central question for him as he researched the book: Why would an employer bother risking prison time, when legal work from immigrant labor is already so cheap?
Bowe says his attempts to find an answer brought him to a startling truth: It’s not about the money. Not entirely, anyway.
“The amount (of money) it would take to make these supply chains fairer is negligible,” he told me over the phone. “Fifty dollars a year from each household would ensure that 1-2 million of these exploited farmworkers got a minimum wage. In the garment world, a six percent increase in prices would end the worst abuses worldwide.”
And while even the smallest pricing advantage can make a huge difference between competitors like Target and Wal-Mart, Bowe sees no reason the retailers couldn’t make a pact to eliminate the worst offenses.
“If OPEC can make agreements, why can’t they?” Bowe asked.
Given how easy it would be to dislodge the most exploitative practices — and given that we don’t — Bowe believes a deeper force keeps them in place: power. Throughout the book he argues that the unconscious nature of power conspires to maintain the status quo, at least as much as simple economics do.
At the center of slavery, he has said, is a truth about “how free and powerful people respond to un-free and less powerful people.”
Indeed, interviews with the men and women involved in slavery cases reveal not just cold financial calculations, but a psychology of domination.
Sometimes, that psychology is as camouflaged and convoluted as the slavery itself. In his chapter on Tulsa, Bowe quotes a factory owner who insists he was just trying to help the 54 Indian welders he was convicted of defrauding and coercing.
For Bowe, perhaps the biggest shock in writing the book was coming to see his own complicity.
“It’s not me versus the evil corporations, or me versus the evil government. We’re all part of it,” he said.
Of course “it” can be maddeningly indirect — maybe slaves made your rug, or maybe they merely made some of the materials for the factory where the rug was made. But it’s precisely this sort of roundabout path that allows slavery to continue. As long as globalization pushes poor people to the margins, and keeps the relatively wealthy awash in low-priced goods and services, Bowe says, the problem will remain.
Slavery may go underreported, but we know by now that it exists. It’s a marvel of modern society that we can send a camera to Mars but not quite remember to keep the forced servitude of our fellow humans at the forefront. Can anything change that?
Here Bowe is canny. The lines he draws from slavery and poverty and globalization don’t end at abstract moral outrage. They go straight to our way of life. Ignoring slavery and the conditions that support it will ultimately unravel society, he believes.
It won’t happen with some dramatic tipping point, he said — “life will just start to suck.”
Bowe described a United States that doesn’t collapse so much as come to resemble the Philippines: “One percent of the population will own 75 percent of the wealth, and 93 percent will live in squalor.”
“You’ll have security everywhere, kidnappings will be common,” he suggested. “The very fabric of your life will change.”
At a basic, depressing level, the vast gulf between rich and poor, powerful and exploited, will ultimately strip simple human interactions of their humanity, he said:
“You hire a carpenter to work on your house, but instead of getting to know the guy, hanging out, discovering you have things in common — instead of that, you just think of him as a potential thief, and you have to hire extra security to protect yourself.”
The core of Bowe’s book isn’t just outrage over the instances of modern slavery he reveals — at its heart is an even deeper sadness over the squandered humanity they represent. In every story we see not just the horrible abuse, but the human beings inflicting and suffering it.
So what can be done? For starters, Bowe argues that more money should be available to the Department of Labor and other agencies responsible for — and perfectly capable of — upholding labor laws. As reports of slavery and exploitation have risen, funding for these offices has fallen. More broadly, Bowe imagines a kind of “global New Deal” — an international minimum wage, fairer trade regulations that would prevent agricultural subsidies from burying grain prices.
But Bowe isn’t a policy guy. Having spent years reporting on a profoundly intimate level, his approach tends toward the personal: “Do the weird thing and be generous,” he advised people who want to make a small difference. “Pay someone a living wage, even if nobody knows you’re doing it. Be kind to your fellow man.”
John Bowe will read from “Nobodies” at Book Passage at 7 p.m. Wednesday. 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. (415) 927-0960.
A number of anti-slavery organizations exist, for instance:
Free the Slaves www.freetheslaves.net
Polaris Project www.polarisproject.org
Not for Sale www.notforsalecampaign.org