Slavery Is Alive and Well in the U.S.


What do you call it when those who cross the Mexican-U.S. border get charged thousands of dollars for a ride to a job where their employer makes them pay rent for unspeakably bad living conditions and board for the food they can only buy at the company store and where that employer patrols with dogs, trucks and thugs so the workers can't leave?

John Bowe calls it slavery. And it's happening in the United States right now, he says. Bowe's newest book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy, makes the case using three specific cases and geographical areas to show just how much workers in the U.S. get undermined and hurt by these practices.

He's written about work before; he co-edited the book Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs. Besides co-writing the screenplay for the movie Basquiat, Bowe has won many journalism awards. But from a tip he got while writing Gig, he began to pursue this topic, and he's been working on it for over six years now.

"We never see what we do to other people," he says. In Nobodies, he pulls back that veil of secrecy and shows us just what we do in our quest for lower-priced goods. In the process, he and the book have gotten a flurry of interviews, reviews and even a moment with Jon Stewart. We interviewed him over the phone and email in a break on his book tour.

Suzi Steffen: Your book is getting a lot of attention. What was it like being on the Daily Show?

John Bowe: It's weird doing these things -- weird, powerful, exciting, frustrating. You don't say half the things you wanted to say. I felt like, "Oh damn it, I forgot to offer any solutions," I forgot to talk about why nonslavery people should care about this, for example.

But all anybody else cares about is your shirt and if you smiled. It says a lot about our political climate that it takes a comedian to address the issue of labor slavery. It was hard to have a serious discussion and talk, say, about the roots and implications of the problem, much less more solution-oriented stuff. But at the same time, I have enormous admiration for Jon Stewart for having me on the show. Slavery's not usually a great source of humor.

SS: You did have a nice shirt on. In the first part of the book, about the agricultural workers in Florida, you talk about the collision of your journalist New Yorker's irony with the earnest belief and idealism of activists. Did you change over the course of writing the book? Do you find yourself less ironic now?

JB: There really is a fundamental choice; you can't both believe and be ironic. It did make me get more earnest. Even if you don't care about politics, politics certainly cares about you. If you don't take part of your time to address the socioeconomic/political realities unfolding around you, it will come, and it will screw you over. There's no free pass. I have no patience for anybody who's whining about [politics] and not doing something about it. The more you read about history, the more you realize that's a luxury most people haven't been able to afford.

I've become much more clued in to the way irony is used by politically inclined people to salve their frustrations about political realities. Although I love humor like The Daily Show and The Onion, it's kind of sad that these have become the main conduits for so many people's political awareness. Unfortunately, sitting there, laughing (alone, by the millions) at people or things you know are bullshit or wrong isn't a replacement for voting, protesting, raising awareness, throwing rocks, defacing property or doing whatever real-life actions you find effective in achieving actual change in this world.

SS: What should average people do to find out more about the conditions under which their food was grown and to change those conditions?

JB: Read my book. (laughs) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers' website is certainly one place to go. And there's a tremendous book called The Fatal Harvest Reader: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, by Andrew Kimbrell.

But also, ask questions. Always. All of this stuff I'm talking about sounds so serious and intractable, and it's easy to say, "Aggh, corporations rule the world and everything sucks. I might as well go home and do some bong hits." But it begins with you asking questions: Where did this apple come from? Who picked it? Where's the field? Do you mind if I go drive by the field some day?

SS: Many groups have tried to raise national awareness of worker or immigrant struggles, but the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has definitely succeeded. How do you think they did that?

JB: One, they work nights and weekends. Two, they're not afraid to be unironic. Although they are capable of being very funny, they're also not afraid to stand up for what they believe in, to insist upon being heard, to be unliked and unwanted, to get into people's faces. It's a special ability to be an activist; you are not in business to be liked. You're in business to bug people until it's easier to change than to resist. I think they're heroes. They changed my idea of democracy. I realized through them, through watching them work, that democracy is an incredibly tedious, frustrating job sometimes, and it's tedious and frustrating in a very specific way: It involves listening to people whose concerns you don't understand or share. It's often boring, and it's maddening.

And what I learned over time by watching them and also thinking about globalization is that if you're not bored and made mad sometimes by people you don't understand, you're probably not dealing with enough people who are different from you; you're probably just living in a bubble, hearing your own view of the world reinforced again and again. To bring it on home to the point of my book, if you're watching some guy on TV talking about globalization and how great it is for the world and for the millions of Chinese who now make our stuff, you should ask yourself why we never see these people on TV, telling us in their own words what their world looks like. It's probably less cozy than Thomas Friedman's view of things. We used to buy stuff from relatively free Americans. They could vote, speak up, organize, etc. Now we buy everything from Chinese who who can't vote freely, listen to/read a free media or speak up in public. And we're calling it "free" trade. How do you feel about that?

SS: When I talked about the relationship of companies like Tropicana to the slavery of workers in Florida, one woman in my office immediately said, "Well, I'll never eat an orange again." That doesn't seem like quite the right approach. Everyone needs food and clothing. What are your thoughts on this conundrum?

JB: Well, there are different strategies, and you need to employ or deploy as many as you can. I've been getting my clothes through thrift stores for 25 years. It's nice to say shop at organic and family-owned enterprises, but that's very elitist because only a few people can afford to do that. It's one option, of course. And it's sort of hard to imagine taking on the entire economy at once. The Coalition of Immokalee Worker's Campaign for Fair Food, which they have mounted with a lot of student and church groups, is huge. They've gotten Taco Bell and McDonald's to agree to pass on an extra penny per pound for the tomato pickers in south Florida. It doesn't sound like much, but it nearly doubles the workers' wages, and it basically doesn't cost the company or the consumer anything, nothing noticeable anyway. The next target is Burger King.

And every email, every body at the protest, every bit of news coverage is hugely powerful: Corporations who have spent bazillions of dollars on branding don't want to be associated with slavery. Although we love to imagine they're all-powerful, they're actually very vulnerable on this front. So join the campaign, and if you happen to feel superuppity some day and have the time, call a company that makes some food you like, and ask, "Hey, can you guarantee me that there's no slavery involved in getting this thing into my mouth?" If the answer's not yes -- uh-oh!

SS: The same woman told me that some people simply like farmwork because they like being outside and working outside.

JB: She should talk to the people I talk to. In Florida, it's a hothouse. It's not farms; it's a factory, and the leaves are full of chemicals, the soil is a chemical swamp, the fruit is full of chemicals. There's so little that has anything to do with nature. It's hotter than hell. Does she know the average farmworker in the U.S. dies at 47 years old, quite often from pesticide poisoning, and earns about $7,500 a year?

SS: You said in an interview on, "I don't think it's right to blame corporations. I do think that it's right to commit absolute war on them ... to reign them in." Can you elaborate on how that should be done?

JB: Public awareness, raising public awareness of their worst business practices, harrassment of management, certainly technological warfare. Do everything possible to disrupt their business. And violence and the threat of violence. Obviously, the art is in wielding the threat of violence. I mean, I'm sorry to put it so crudely, but does your dog listen to impassioned, complicated explanations about why it should or shouldn't poop here or there?

No. and a corporation is at heart less intelligent than a decent black lab. It's a machine that exists to make money. It has people in it, and the people might be smart, but the core mission is not smart: It's just steady. And the only thing it responds to is the threat of being unsuccessful. So that could mean loss of sales ... or some other kind of loss.

It's very complicated, and for now, my weapon is my laptop, so don't get me wrong; changing campaign finance law so that corporations can't overpower citizens' say in government is critical and would help a lot to change our world. But I don't know if it's possible to stuff that genie back into the bottle.

SS: Let's talk about Wal-Mart's place in this world of economic exploitation and slavery.

JB: If we -- as citizens and as consumers -- were all as obsessed with living wages and decent treatment of workers worldwide as we are with low prices, it'd be a different world. Wal-Mart is just reflecting our desires and lack of imagination. I said in an interview the other day: "If you think you're getting something for nothing, you probably are." What I meant to say was, "If you think you're getting something for nothing, you probably are exploiting some worker in some foreign country. And in doing so, you're setting a new low standard of labor. And now your kids are gonna be competing with those workers. So congrats!" Anyway, again, I'm not big on blaming corporations. You have to take your fight to them, not wait for them to become "good people."

SS: Do you see American unions helping in this fight for ending slavery? What could they do, and why should they do it?

JB: Well, the unions have caught up and gotten much smarter in the last 10 years. At first they'd be thinking anti-immigrant, and now, it's better for them to focus on, "If you're in this country, and you're working, this is how much you're supposed to be paid," and enforce the labor laws.

But unions have gotten a bad name, and money and corporations have done a lot to give them a bad name. Perhaps it will be tough going for unions until the economic inequality in the U.S. and around the globe gets worse, but eventually it will get bad enough so unions will look like a good idea again. The reason I wrote my book was to help people choose between the imperfections and current uncoolness of unions -- and the endpoint of the current trend towards inequality. Would you rather be in a union? Or would you rather be unpaid entirely and treated far worse?

SS: The middle section of your book concerns the bizarre abuse of "training" programs, in this case for a group of welders from India. What other abuses have you heard about of this program, and how can the government or ordinary citizens help stop this abuse?

JB: Guest worker problems are bad, period. Go all the way back to the colonies and indentured servants from Germany, in which there was tons of abuse, up to the Bracero Program and the people brought to cut sugar cane. There's just always abuse. Guest worker programs don't work. I'm much more liberal than many people on the issue of admitting foreigners to become legal citizens of the U.S., but I'm probably much more conservative than most people I know about illegal immigration. Enforcement against employers who hire illegal citizens should be funded to the fullest possible levels. You can't have a fair or democratic society without the rule of law, and in my opinion, laws formed around the idea that we're all equal are wonderful. Don't have these halfway citizens. Having people around who have half rights leads to abuse.

SS: You mention that people have a hard time calling coerced work "slavery." Why is that?

JB: Because it hasn't happened to them. I had a hard time at first, I just didn't get what was the essence of slavery. It is a very complicated subject; thousands of people are earning their living writing about it. But really, it's as creative as any form of art. There are so many different tortures, punishments, rules; so many ways of convincing the slave this is the correct order of things. Someone else has control over you.

Some people said to me, "We're all slaves to consumer ideology," but you can't go throwing terms around. "Slavery" doesn't mean "suffering," or working at a job that's a bummer, or depressing or whatever. It means someone is hurting you or threatening to hurt you or your family, and they are forcing you to work, and you can't leave.

SS: What do you think about the role of religious people in helping end slavery and corporate abuse, as in the middle portion of your book?

JB: I think religion gets reported on very badly in this country, because most people who tend to be reporters tend to be part of urban elites and tend to be "liberals" who don't report on religion because religious people seem to be uncool or "other."

Also, it is a mistake to think of them as only being conservative. If some leaders among them stood up and said, "There's a lot more in the Bible about helping poor people than about bashing gay people," they would be a huge resource. I think there are a lot of religious people out there looking for leadership on this issue, very energetic people with a lot of enthusiasm. Ditto with environmental issues. I think that no American, no modern person anywhere, wants to return to a world with slavery. Religion is a good guide to help people realize they have the strength to fight against the trend, the societal pressure and ideology in the U.S. right now that work and achievement and material success are the primary purposes of life.

SS: Talk about the wounds this kind of perpetuation of slavery inflicts on our ideals of freedom and, potentially, our real freedom, not to mention our national psyche.

Well, I think it's just that no one can ever compete. It's as radical as anything gets. You could say it's a few hundred or a few thousand cases in a country of 300 million. It doesn't matter; you're still toast, just like it doesn't matter if you have only a few HIV-infected cells out of the millions in your body. There shouldn't be any confusion about it: Slavery is an element that once you introduce into a polity, it's instantaneously infectious.

If we keep allowing the trends that are creating a Hispanic underclass in the U.S., or a highly ossified rich vs. poor divide, we're going to have to look at a lot of people suffering for our freedom. And I don't know what we do about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and all that marvelous rhetoric about "freedom." Do we rewrite it? I think the average person would be happier if the average person were treated more fairly.

SS: In your conclusion, you write that the first legal approach to make the world a fairer place "would be the establishment of global labor and environmental standards." How do you see this coming about?

JB: Can I be blunt? Probably through a lot of very boring discussions and some bloodshed.

Everybody acts like [establishing standards] is so difficult and so impossible. But I don't see another way. Everybody talks about the race to the bottom. What I found in my book is that the bottom is slavery, and most people don't want to live in a world of slavery. So if those assumptions are true, I don't see another solution than to create the standards. Peg the standards to the standard of living in each country. If people cared enough, it would be doable.

SS: How should media folks be responding to your work and to the conditions of inequality we see all around us?

JB: There's a fable where the king hired people to go out and circulate among the people and find out what was going on -- that's how journalism in a free country should work. But instead we're blinded by Britney getting fat, and we don't hear anything about regular life -- and no one really cares about it. Journalism about the poor is always done in this boo-hoo way. You have to go out and write about poor people, yes, but you have to be really good at it to make people find it interesting. No one wants to be sorry for people.

So get off your ass and get off your desk and get out there. Forget about the internet. Forget about other media. Go out into the real world. Go to places you don't know, talk to people you don't understand, whom you fear. Ask them what the world looks like through their eyes. Start from there. Surprise yourself.

SS: Do you have any hope that Democrats can help put an end to some of the labor violations and outright slavery? Or do you think the change will come from the workers?

JB: If there's anything I want to stress, it's why people should fear this for themselves other than just "I feel sorry for the little people." Unfortunately, that doesn't really seem to motivate people. The good news is it doesn't take such a material or financial change, but it does take changing people's attitudes. For garment production, it would cost 6 percent more at the cash register for people to have garments made by people getting a living wage.

And the change will come from whoever feels like helping. Ultimately, slavery is very, very bad for business. People who aren't paid can't buy stuff. If the global total of wages being paid out each week shrinks and shrinks, then so does people's ability to consume stuff that makes the whole world economy tick. Businesspeople are just as likely as corporate-fueled Democrats, I would think, to make change. And hyperorganized religious people on the right could be just as effective as handwringing Democrats who can't even end a war most Americans oppose.

SS: I realize that this subject matter can get rather depressing, and that people reading this interview (or your book) might start to feel overwhelmed. What suggestions do you have for action on the part of those who can, and want to, read this interview?

JB: Take a deep breath and celebrate the fact that (a) the world hasn't ended, (b) you are alive, (c) the world might be dead one day, (d) you will be dead one day. You have nothing but possibility. And everything is just fine. So shut the fuck up and get busy. There is no reason to be alive except to do what you want. Sitting around feeling bad is a waste of time. There is a real thrill and a real power for standing up for what you believe in. Be cool. Be fashionable. Be ahead of the pack. Get busy. Globalization has already happened. Now it just needs to be made fair. If you're alive right now and you care about any of this stuff, then great: This is your job!

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