Recently, I came across an article in The Week magazine excerpting a new book by John Bowe entitled Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the Global Economy. In this particular excerpt, Bowe, a journalist by trade, describes what amounts to modern-day slavery in the orange groves of Immokalee, Florida. Outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment some 140 years ago, involuntary servitude or forced labor is still alive and well – and being litigated in the federal courts. In 2002, a Florida district court convicted Ramiro Ramos, his brother, and their cousin of enslaving approximately 700 undocumented Mexican workers. Ramos, known to the workers as El Diablo (the devil), and the other defendants threatened to beat and kill the migrant workers if they tried to leave without paying alleged debts. The Ramos case is just one of a number of slavery cases cropping up in recent years in the United States. Though Bowe gives other equally appalling accounts of forced labor in his book, he confines his discussion to the U.S., choosing not to venture very far onto the world stage where forced labor is undoubtedly more commonplace, and more widely-known to be commonplace.

At first glance, Bowe’s allegory seems to achieve its stated purpose – to expose one aspect of the dark underbelly of globalization. Arguably, a byproduct of globalization is forced labor, and from both an economic and a moral perspective, the practice is abhorrent. However, it is unclear from my initial reading whether Bowe challenges globalization on a larger scale. Tying this incident into a larger argument against globalization seems problematic at best.

For clues, one can look to another excerpt on Bowe’s website, where he references the problem of illegal immigration as creating a feeding ground for exploitation (thereby suggesting that opening up the borders would help alleviate the conditions described in his book). However, Bowe also quotes the Immokalee workers union in a different portion of the book, making the interesting point that focusing on illegal immigration is a “short-term view” of the problem of enslavement, and that the agricultural sphere’s skill in sidestepping the labor rules imposed on other industries in the U.S. suggests a different kind of problem very specific to farmworkers. At the same time, in an interview with USA Today, he seems to suggest that there’s something problematic about the notion of a global economy itself.

Personally, I have always struggled to reconcile the numerous economic benefits of globalization with the very real human costs. Tending to a defense of globalization as a means of fostering prosperity, however, doesn’t preclude the necessity of addressing the exploitation of workers and the extreme violations of human rights that occur as a result.

Ultimately, one question, as many experts have stated, is how we address the exploitation of vulnerable populations without imposing stark trade barriers or exacerbating the problem by collapsing industries that create economic growth and speed economic alternatives. Arguably, addressing the underlying causal factors of forced labor – such as extreme poverty and lack of investment in human capital – will not be achieved by simply changing our shopping patterns. But there needs be some incentive for industries to engage in more sound practices. If foregoing Tropicana, Wal-Mart, and other industries that engage in questionable practices, as Bowe might have us do, is not the right course, then what is?

The Center for American Progress has suggested a couple of approaches related to international labor standards. Other proposals (pdf) argue against trade sanctions for violations of labor standards as having a possible adverse effect.

While the debate continues to rage in this area, there is at least general agreement that strategies can be developed to address, in the long-term, at least one of the root causes of forced labor regimes – the lack of investment in human capital. Agreement on the content of these strategies, as you might expect, is a different story. Alas, if only we could get around that pesky issue of better education.

Creative commons photo courtesy of Flickr user claudecf

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2 Comments so far

  1. john bowe on October 24, 2007 8:38 am

    hey! nice to see this discussion. the point of my book is that the slavery we’re seeing is a byproduct of income and power inequality. the reason i confined my study to cases in the US was because in this country, we have both a controlled laboratory, and a zone within which slavery is, to our way of thinking and to our economic reality, absolutely absurd. right? there’s no *reason* to have slaves in the US.

    so why does it still exist?

    well, what i found is that hard as it is to imagine for the modern person, domination over other people is an innate drive that pretty much strives to play itself out whenever, wherever, however absurdly it can. this is what we do. and it doesn’t have to do solely with big, evil corporations. it happens on a person to person level as well. a lot of what my book is devoted to is studying the machinations of normal people, how they justify abusing other people, how they ponder someone else’s weakness and then just decide, “oh, i guess it’s ok if i abuse them.” i admit i’m fascinated by that. and the backdropo against that fascination is of course, globalization. the fact is, we used to buy all our stuff made by americans who were, by and large, free. they could vote for whomever they wanted to. they could form unions. they could stand out on the streetcorner if they wanted to and shout about communism or racial matters or whatever they wanted. we now buy all our stuff from Chinese workers who are not free in any such way. do we think this mass transition to “free trade” is really promoting freedom in this world?

    income inequality is on the rise, both domestically and globally. per capita income in rich countries is not 60 times that of per capita income in poor countries. the difference between rich and poor in the US is growing with awesome rapidity. so the question my book asks, merely, again, against the backdrop of humankind’s tendency to enslave one another, and against the backdrop of horrible conditions for Chinese workers, is, “umm, so like, where do these trends take us if they don’t eventually get somehow checked? and how would we check them if, say, for example, we decided we wanted to do something about it?”

  2. Whitney Price on October 24, 2007 11:26 am

    John, Thanks so much for leaving a comment. It is wonderful to hear from the mouth of the author himself. I am very interested in your study of domination, especially in the U.S. The implications of this sociological phenom in the foreign policy sphere is also fascinating to me (and perhaps, quite sad).

    I think another aside in regards to the other focus of your book is that globalization and slave labor in the U.S. may be a hard tie-in. Simply because slave labor is a different animal here than, say, slave labor or sweatshops in SE Asia. The latter is inarguably a byproduct of gloabalization, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on why slave labor in the U.S. is also a byproduct of globalization (or maybe a different sort of problem). Some might argue that poor immigration policies may be more at the root of slave labor in the U.S. But I think your book may be pulling the U.S. slave labor practice into the larger debate, and that is an interesting hypothesis, and one worth exploring (might I be able to entice you to take a trip out to W&M for a speaking event and book signing?)

    Regardless, and perhaps the more important question that your comment and book points up (if I may say so) is the interesting, difficult, and oftentimes frustrating problem we are confronting with the rise of the global economy, and I would love to get some threads running on this — how do we deal with the very real social impact/byproducts of gloabalization without stifling the benefits of globalization for the very individuals we are trying to help? It is arguably more harmful to vulnerable populations to boycott those goods and industries that are helping to raise the poverty level of these communities, but because the industries are not paying a living wage or pushing for liveable and workable conditions in the vulnerable communities, the rise in the poverty level is meager, and the conditions verge on the cruel and the inhumane despite the greater level of income these communities are experiencing. So we are stuck. How do we not do worse by these populations by removing the industries altogether. But are we stuck?

    I tend to think that many economists would say that just because the poverty level is increasing overall because of globalization (including for those actually working in deporable conditions), that doesn’t mean that these deplorable conditions should continue. In fact, our collective conscience dictates that we do something to stop the tide — perhaps of domination, as you put it. Just because it is better with the industry than without doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t take steps that are necessary to be humane. I mean, for goodness sake, when will we start investing in infrastructure and human capital in the countries that are making these corporations and Americans so dang rich? But if companies can make one more dollar where they don’t have to invest some of the proceeds back, will they? I would argue that this might be where global agreements should come in.

    I think what I neglected to say in my post, also, was how riveting your accounts of slave labor actually are — for those who haven’t read your whole book, it’s time to get it.

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