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In Wake of Postville Raids, Modern Slave Labor Author Shares Perspective
The recent federal immigration raids in Postville have thrust Iowa in the national limelight, but the underlying factors contributing to the labor issues that led to the raids are by no means anything new.
At least that’s what investigative journalist John Bowe was quick to point out during a reading of his new book, “Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy,” at the Prairie Lights Book store in Iowa City last week. “Over thousands and thousands of years, more people have been born as slaves or slave owners than have been born free,” Bowe told the standing-room audience.
Read exclusive Iowa Independent interview with John Bowe below the foldBowe, an award-winning journalist, exposes the outsourcing, corporate chicanery, immigration fraud and sleights of hand that allow forced labor to continue in the United States. The book focuses primarily on three cases in Florida, Oklahoma, and Saipan.
Using Bowe’s definition of “modern slave labor,” the Agriprocessors workers arrested and found guilty in Postville may have been the latest casualties in the illegal labor practices Bowe exposes in his book. “A definition cannot be some omnibus phrase that includes bad jobs, child labor, mean bosses, or low-wage jobs,” Bowe told the audience. “Rather, there’s an element of coercion or confinement, and even these can be a little bit slippery. Debt instruments are oftentimes used as part of the coercion process and are critical to most of the scams I come across. Workers are enslaved by debt and begin by owing money, and this debt is held over their head.”
Moreover, Bowe told the Iowa Independent in a phone interview before his reading that he has found the threat of deportation is another viable coercion tool that employers use as part of the enslavement process. “The threat of force or financial coercion is as effective as actual force,” Bowe said.
Whether Agriprocessors in Postville used coercive threats or any other means of enslaving its workers remains to be seen. No official charges have been filed against Agriprocessors. “In many cases, this is what makes it challenging for prosecutors to go after these guys, because they can point to the workers’ living places and argue there is no lock or chains on the doors or their living quarters,” Bowe said. “People tend to think of slavery in its traditional sense, back in the day when we enslaved Africans physically. Slavery has changed since then, and now mental threats are used as well.”
John Bowe takes time to field additional questions while signing books after his reading at Prairie Lights
Here are some highlights from the Iowa Independent’s phone interview with John Bowe:
Iowa Independent: What inspired you to write about modern slavery? Or how did you get involved in this subject?
Bowe: The short answer is money. But I inadvertently became involved with this issue while writing my book “Gig: Americans Talk about Their Jobs,” which addresses the labor movement and issues facing American workers. While writing an article for the New Yorker, I began looking in to the Florida case, which is in my book. In doing so, I realized this issue is bigger than I had initially imagined and how important it was to write a book.
Iowa Independent: Who are the “Nobodies,” and why did you choose this as part of your book’s title?
Bowe: It’s a quote from one of the Mexican guys in the book, who uses this Spanish word pelagatos, which is slang for “nobodies.” He works for the groups the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and when I asked him whey he was down in Florida trying to organize protests instead of up in Washington, D.C., filing lawsuits and taking on the corporations, his response was, “Look, why would those people care about a bunch of pelagatos like us? They can pass any law they want to but that doesn’t really change the condition in the fields.” So pelagatos became the catch-word for the people who are at the bottom end of the totem pole.
It’s a little bit ironic, because when you look at the real “Nobodies,” it’s the people who profit off these people, whether it’s the labor contractor, or some corporate big wig, the shareholders, or the consumer.
Iowa Independent: So in this ironic context, how are they the “Nobodies”?
Bowe: Because at this point, we are all making money off exploited labor, so anyone, in my opinion, who profits off exploited labor is a “nobody.”
Iowa Independent: Oftentimes we hear the talking point that we need these immigrants to do the jobs that nobody (pun?) else wants to do. What’s your take on this notion?
Bowe: Of course, the automatic answer to that is that Americans would want to take these jobs if they paid more, but I think that’s a little too rigid of an answer.
A hundred years ago, farming was an honorable profession, but somehow we’ve managed to turn it into something that’s only fit for foreigners. Did the job change? Or did the society change?
That’s one part of the answer. The other is that agriculture in particular has never wanted to pay retail for labor. This is the industry that brought you “Slavery 1.0.” This industry has always been bad, so what’s interesting is that a number of the other industries are copying agriculture’s labor model, contending they need undocumented workers for hotels, restaurants, construction, and other jobs.
Iowa Independent: Do you think if these industries were mandated by the government to pay a “living wage,” they would outsource these jobs?
Bowe: My response would be, go ahead; it’s a free market. See how many of your people want to move over there and live in these places. Or wait until you have to rely on their police for protection. And wait until you deal with their notions of quality control. The more you read about China’s quality control and the toxicity of the products they are exporting, the more you learn that you can low-ball for so long, before it comes back to haunt you in other ways.
Iowa Independent: Do you sense the pendulum is beginning to shift, in that consumers are beginning to demand changes?
Bowe: Yes, in fact I think it’s beginning to shift faster than I thought. If China’s labor standards become the model for global benchmarks, we are all doomed. And the same holds true for environmental standards.
Iowa Independent: Do you think politicians have turned a blind eye to the use of slave labor to protect their own economic interests and/or political aspirations?
Bowe: No doubt about it. There is a parade of laws passed in the past 15 years that are an assault on labor laws and organized labor. It’s all bought and paid for.
Iowa Independent: In the aftermath of the recent raids in Postville, neither Agriprocessors nor its corporate leadership has been held accountable for their role. Should they and other companies who employ undocumented workers be held responsible? And to what degree?
Bowe: Similar to what other states have passed, I know Iowa is considering crafting legislation that really goes after these companies that knowingly misclassify laborers, which is a good first step. Any fair approach to the immigration problem involves pissing everybody off equally. And by that I mean American citizens, undocumented workers, and employers. But it’s really unfair to employers that are playing by the rules to compete against other employers who are cheating.
It’s bad for everyone, and it’s bad for democracy. You don’t want to create a two-class society, wherein one group cannot vote. The model of democracy works when everyone gets one vote, but when you create a class that doesn’t get to vote, you’re fouling up democracy’s engine.
Iowa Independent: That said, what are your thoughts on the guest worker program?
Bowe: This is too simplistic. Under America’s current guest worker programs, workers are attached to a specific employer, and virtually every time a worker comes over, they are tied to a debt — usually to whoever helped them procure the job. So they come, and basically they are merely part of this new-fangled form of indentured servantry. There are protections for them written into the law, but very rarely are they ever enforced. In many ways, undocumented workers have more freedoms than these guest workers. That is not the intended effect, but that is the way it has worked out.
Historically, governments in the world have used labor policies similar to the guest worker programs as a way of screwing over labor without arousing the working-class people. They promise that the guest workers are only here temporarily, which placates the workers, but rarely do these people leave, which ends up making the blue-collar workers even angrier.
Iowa Independent: Two of the biggest federal raids have been aimed at companies in Iowa, which seems conspicuous, given all of the other companies outside of Iowa who probably fit Agriprocessors’ profile. What is your take on this? Why Iowa?
Bowe: I don’t know. That’s a good question. I was at a roundtable discussion recently and we were wondering the same thing. One thing that was postulated was that the federal government wants to increase the number of guest workers, so raids like this help make the feds’ case stronger. We currently have something like 29,000 guest workers, and the Bush administration wants to change this by increasing the guest worker program to 500,000 and as many as 700,000 workers. In fact, they are in the process of trying to do this by changing the Department of Labor rules, so they don’t have to go through Congress.
Iowa Independent: Given the political gridlock in Washington, do you see any reforms passing through Congress and the president before the next president takes office?
Bowe: No. That’s why I think they are trying to sneak this rule change through the Department of Labor before Bush leaves office. They are trying to do this non-democratically.
Iowa Independent: Is there any way of stopping this?
Bowe: The DoL opened up their site for comments, but outside a public outcry, there’s not much that can be done. Any law Bush pushes through the last 60 days of office can be undone by the next president, so they want to have rule change in effect by November.
Iowa Independent: What does the next president and cabinet need to do to address immigration, slave labor, and the economic dark side of these issues?
Bowe: As a result of investigating and reporting on trafficking for the past six years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to address trafficking is by not addressing trafficking.
We need to address labor rights and laws. We need to go into the workplaces of the lowest-end workplaces and figure out a way to make labor practices fair. What this really means is that we need to make it easier for workers to organize and form unions. At the same time, we need to nail employers who are breaking American laws. So it’s having a labor policy and enforcing it.
The same holds true for immigration.
Iowa Independent: What can individuals do to help put an end to slave labor?
Bowe: If you can afford it and it’s accessible to your area, buy your food from a farmers market.
From an activists’ standpoint, there’s a group called The Campaign for Fair Food, which is a campaign that goes after corporations one at a time. They contact the corporation and let them know that the products they are buying are picked by slaves.
Most corporations aren’t evil; they just want to make money, so they invest a lot in their brand. If consumers start complaining and get their attention, this translates into a response, and it’s worked in the past with companies like McDonalds, and more recently Burger King.