Is Slavery in Our Future?

By David Swanson

John Bowe’s terrific new book called “Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy” takes the reader on a journey ending in the question I’ve placed above this essay.

Bowe makes three major stops along the way. The first is in Florida, where we learn in depth about the lives of immigrant farm workers held against their will and paid little or nothing for their work. By almost anyone’s definition, this is a story of slavery. Yet, Bowe’s fine-grained account makes clear that there are degrees of servitude, that there’s no clear broad area in which to draw the line between slavery and non-slavery, and that the long history of farm labor in the United States dating back to the slavery of the 19th century is what makes modern farm slavery possible and perhaps probable. When you deny farm workers the right to even a poverty-level minimum wage, or the right to organize, and when you make them dependent for all their purchases on – and in debt to – their employer, you build a culture that inches closer to slavery. And culture, not economics understood as a science or an invisible force, is the primary problem. Slavery is the result of attitudes, of power, of sadism. It is not required by the modern economy, but our failure to regulate that economy makes slavery possible. When we see other sectors of the economy shifting to day-laborers without rights or benefits, we can expect those sectors to start looking increasingly like agriculture in other ways too.

The second stop is in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a U.S. company is bringing skilled metal workers in from India on the pretext of training them, but actually forcing them to work for less than the minimum wage, and holding them there, not with chains but with confiscation of passports and the threat of deportation without payment for their labor or repayment of the money they were forced to invest to make the trip. Here Bowe’s analysis strips us of the pressing need to decide whether this is or is not slavery. And here Bowe begins to raise questions about the ethics of mistreating (by American standards) workers who would earn even less at home. In this case, these workers wanted to flee their place of employment / servitude but not the United States. And when they were finally liberated (through a court case that probably cost a lot less than the ongoing “liberation” of Iraqis), these workers remained in the country and found jobs at other companies paying much higher wages.

The third stop is Saipan in the Pacific Islands or Micronesia, a place formally known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands. The image I had of the Marianas going into this book was of an exploitative loophole engineered by Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff, a place where slave labor was used to produce goods marked “Made in the U.S.A.” I still think that’s accurate, but incomplete. Much of the abusive employment on Saipan that is or comes closest to being slavery is sex slavery. Working in a garment factory on Saipan is a horrible life, but one of the biggest complaints from workers is that they are not given enough overtime (of course if paid a decent hourly rate they wouldn’t want overtime), and one of their biggest fears is being deported back to (in most cases) China. A lot of women come to Saipan intent on working very hard for some years and then returning to China with the money. Gambling, prostitution, and crime sometimes interrupt the plan. Women who get pregnant are often coerced into having abortions. The working conditions are outrageous and unpredictable. But most of the workers do not want to leave their jobs.

What Bowe found most revealing about his years in Saipan was observing the ways in which the culture of the place affected western men. He found them, like the natives, learning to avoid work and live by exploitation. “Each year, they knew less and were in most cases less capable of competing back on the mainland. And each year, to compensate, they pronounced from bar stools with greater and greater vigor, ‘I am a man who knows things.’ And many of them actually did know things, but smart or dumb, the main thing they’d learned is that life is good when one finds oneself at the top of the sexual food chain. Suddenly it was okay that three-quarters of the population lived as second-class citizens and were frequently abused, even though this was supposedly the United States. Three or four blow jobs into Saipan, most white men’s reactions to the island seemed to evolve from “Gee, this is wrong” to “Well, it’s complicated.” Bowe compares this to how “Southerners must have sounded explaining plantation slavery to Yankees: “Oh I’m shuah it must all seem rathah strange, but you couldn’t possibly understand.”

Yet, we may end up having to understand, if we allow exploitation and slavery to spread. Bowe points out that the income gap between the rich and poor of the world has exploded since the historical moment when traditional slavery was largely eradicated. And in the past half century, we’ve moved billions of people from subsistence farming to the life of urban slums. We’re on a downward path that increases exploitation, and it is not hard to imagine slavery again becoming an openly accepted practice. (Just consider how unacceptable it was to mention an American empire 7 years ago.)

The solutions, Bowe believes, are available and will probably be global. A global minimum wage and workplace and environmental standards can increasingly be seen as advantageous to everyone, meaning not just the working people of wealthy countries, but the owners – the slave owners – as well. This does not mean that appealing to people’s own greed will solve anything. What Bowe recommends is that those who praise the existing global economy take the time to go and meet some of the people laboring in it. In his accounts of Florida and Tulsa, Bowe describes the efforts of people and organizations working effectively to educate and improve the world around them.

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