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'Slavery still exists in modern America'

August 07, 2008 01:42 IST

Born free...

...but everywhere in chains -- that summation of the human condition drives John Bowe's expose on slavery in the land of the free, finds Arthur J Pais

Award-winning journalist (Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs) and co-screenplay writer (Basquiat) John Bowe picked a controversial topic for his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labour and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, about how outsourcing, subcontracting, immigration fraud, and the relentless pursuit of 'everyday low prices' have created an opportunity for slavery to regain a toehold in America.

Basing his book on extensive travel, research, exclusive interviews, eyewitness accounts, and economic analysis, Bowe examines three workplaces where employees were literally or virtually enslaved. From rural Florida to Tulsa, Oklahoma where 54 Indian workers were made to live under slavish conditions, to the United States commonwealth of Saipan in the Western Pacific filled with workers slogging under most demeaning conditions, he documents coercive and forced labour situations which he says benefits us all, as consumers and stockholders, and increases the  profits of dozens of American food and clothing chains including Wal-Mart, Kroger, McDonald's, PepsiCo, Del Monte, Gap, Target, and JC Penney.

What is the underlying theme of your book?

Most Americans are shocked to discover that slavery still exists in the United States. Yet 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the government says 14,500 to 17,000 foreigners are 'trafficked' annually into the United States, threatened with violence, and forced to work against their will. Modern people unanimously agree that slavery is abhorrent. The book looks at the situation and asks how, then, can it be making a reappearance on American soil? The book is also about terrible working conditions not only in America but worldwide. It is also about organisations that challenge corporations and smaller companies on slavery and low wages. And it is about the increasing disparity created by globalisation.

'Slavery' is a loaded word – how do you define it?

Let me say what it is not. It is not about a mean boss, and it is not about low wages. These things are bad, and I write about them in my book. But modern day slavery is limiting a person's movement or totally stopping it. Modern slavery does not use chains. It uses coercion in the form of threats of deportation, beatings, harm to families back home, or even death. It is about undocumented workers from Mexico working in slavery conditions in Florida orange groves. It is about an Oklahoma owner of a steel-cutting plant who contracted with an Indian-born American to recruit Indian labourers, who were then overworked, underpaid, housed in squalor, and threatened with deportation if they resisted.

And it is also about the US Commonwealth of Saipan, which recruits foreign workers who are abused and exploited while working in sweatshops for US clothing manufacturers.

The book is also about empowerment, is it not?

It talks about labour advocacy groups that are fighting modern slavery. A reader can also get an opportunity to think about these organisations and help them.

How have you gone about promoting the book?

I have appeared at schools and universities, among many other places, to talk about this issue. But I think students are not the best people to work with.

Why is that?

Often their attention and concentration wanders. Today they may be engaged with Darfur; tomorrow it could be something else. I think the most effective way to deal with slavery and wage issues and working conditions is to work with the corporations.

Why is it more effective?

It takes time and a lot of pressure, a lot of patience to get them to come around. My book has some examples of how advocacy groups succeeded after a long struggle. Corporations spend millions to create a good image. They don't like a bad image, bad publicity. In some cases, when they stopped dealing with slave labour and inhuman working conditions, they went on to do more than the advocacy groups were asking them to. 

How did this book come about?

In the previous book we, my sister and I, interviewed hundreds of workers from top to bottom and presented their interviews, one at a time, all 125 of them and let them speak for themselves. While I was driving around doing that, I was in North Carolina where I met Latino labour activists. They hooked me up with undocumented workers, and they mentioned this case in Florida, a slavery case. And they introduced me to this group, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They are very central to my story of modern slavery. They were really programmed with the idea that became the book.

Tell us about the title, Nobodies

The book is about three cases of slavery in modern America, and the term nobodies came from the first one, which was a case in Florida involving Mexican farm workers who had been enslaved by their labour contractor, a guy called El Diablo. So I spent a lot of time with a group of labour advocates who had done a really good job uncovering and investigating the labour situation down there.

Some labour advocacy groups work in DC. But this group preferred to stay in the swamps of Florida and hang out with the workers and organise them. One of the organisers asked El Diablo, why do you this? He said, you know what, they can pass any law they want in Washington but no one is going to enforce it, no one is ever going to care about what happens to a bunch of your pelagatos. The term pelagatos means nobodies or losers. That is a pretty good name for the book.

Your first book Gig had excellent reviews. The Harvard Business Review called it 'an additive read.' How about this book?

[Laughs] They may not like this book that much. The mainstream press by and large ignored this book, but the business press was pretty into it. Religious and advocacy groups were also into it. The mainstream, self-identifying liberals quite really did not know what to do with the information in the book.

Why do the business people like it?

The business people like it because it is really good reporting. There are not many enterprises today that are sending out reporters to the field to do on-the-ground reporting. The business people are very interested to know what is going on, what is the reality out there. And they are very ideologically concerned.

What was the most surprising revelation when you were researching this book?

The group Coalition of Immokalee Workers showed me that slavery in modern America has a lot more to with attitude than economics. It has a lot more to do with rising inequality than anything else.

How does attitude create conditions of slavery?

I have been studying people's attitude while researching and writing this book for over seven years. People have made an art of justifying ill treatment of workers, even for modern slavery. You can treat people in the worst way, and convince yourself that you are doing so for their own good.

How do you place slavery in the context of globalisation?

We are living now in the United States and globally where we see this huge, unprecedented reorganisation of civilisation, as big as global warming, where the rich are getting richer and poor getting poorer. We cannot look at these slavery cases in any other light, any other context.

It is not just American companies doing it, is it? There are cases of smaller entrepreneurs and even individuals carrying out slave labour. In San Jose, a man named Lakireddy Bali Reddy was convicted of sexual trafficking involving teenage girls. In New York, an Indian couple was convicted of slave labour recently.

This was one of the big revelations to me in doing the book. When I started out, I was more of a liberal 101. I said corporations are bad, people are good. And I began to look at modern day slavery with a much more nuanced scary worldview - which is just the way human beings are designed, whether it is good people, bad people, rich people, poor people, anybody. They can all be part of modern day slavery. If you have a big imbalance of power, slavery is kind of the de facto arrangement that we seek, no argument.

In what way could this be a national burden?

Because we have reverted to a kind of tyrannical arrangement in which we don't know how to play well with others. And that goes for the poor Chinese peasant who has 30 cents in his pocket and who is exploiting the poorer Chinese peasant who has 10 cents in his pocket. And that refers to whether it is sexual power, money power or power of any other kind. We are just not naturally geared towards an equitable sharing of power. So when you look at all that stuff from the Enlightenment onwards, the French Constitution and the American Constitution, there were efforts at promulgating democratic arrangements – but not today.

In what way has your thinking changed while working on this book?

When I first started writing this book, I considered myself a liberal. I thought it was mean that people and corporations with power aren't nicer to people with less power. Now I laugh at that idea.


There are so many billions of poor people out there. They are not educated, but they are certainly not stupid, and I very much doubt if they can be lied to or angered indefinitely. I laugh at my own previous preconceived notions.

At the end of the book, you offer some advice.

I talk to anyone in this world today who feels compelled to go on TV and talk about freedom, or to tell us all about the glories of globalisation and free trade and democracy — any writer, any politician, any corporate advertising person invoking that stupid word freedom, over and over again. I ask them to do something.

I will let the book speak for itself. It's a lot more articulate than I am! My advice is: Go out into this newly globalised world you are profiting from, go visit the people being 'lifted out of poverty,' the workers who are making your products. Go live in their huts, eat their rice and plantains, squat on their floors and listen to their babies cry. Sniff some glue and play with them. Try to get justice from their police if someone hurts you. And then come back and let's talk about freedom.