Fair Game with Faith Salie: Author John Bowe, October 17, 2007

Author John Bowe talks about his investigation into current-day slavery in America.

Faith Salie: My next guest is an award-winning journalist who spent the last six years investigating slave labor in three places you might no expect it: southern Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma and the U.S. Commonwealth, Saipan. He's written a book called Nobodies: Modern Global Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. John Bowe, thank you so much for joining me.

John Bowe: Thank you, Faith.

Faith Salie: So we've seen all the, you know, crazy-bizarre headlines where some evil, old couple, you know, locks up a bunch of people and forces them to be--to do sex work. But those attention-grabbing stories aren't the ones that you're talking about in your book, right?

John Bowe: Right, those kind of crowd out any discussion of this stuff, which I call labor slavery, where it is people manufacturing stuff that we use in everyday life.

Faith Salie: And I mean, I think when people think of slavery, they think of pre-Civil War times where we go and grab people and shackle them and bring them over here--that's not happening in this case. How has the definition of slavery changed?

John Bowe: The definition really hasn't changed that much, you're talking about people who are forced by violence or the threat of violence to stay on the job, to not leave their job, and this isn't just me selling my book, this is, you know, the cases that I write about, have been where the bad guys are found guilty in a court of law, of slavery.

Faith Salie: I guess from reading your book when those bad guys go to their defense, what they're saying is, "we didn't force them to come here," these guys argue, "we're helping them."

John Bowe: Right, "we're helping them," and this is something I found in every case, the person helping them really believes that they're helping them, you know. And this, of course, makes you think of the Spaniards "helping" the American Indians by bringing them Christianity.

Faith Salie: Sure. And blankets.

John Bowe: And the white colonists--right! And blankets and stuff.

Faith Salie: "We'll keep you warm!"

John Bowe: White colonists helping Blacks, you know, Africans by taking them out of the barbarism of Africa and bringing them to "benefits of civilization."

Faith Salie: Well, let's talk specifically about the southern Florida case. First off, I think it's important to mention that the person found guilty of labor violations was nicknamed "El Diablo", which is never a good sign.

John Bowe: El Diablo, right.

Faith Salie: Yeah, and you say southern Florida is Ground Zero for modern slavery how so?

John Bowe: Well, I have found cases in just about every state, including Hawaii, Alaska, New York state, but there are these hot spots and south Florida is one of them. This has as much to do with the way people are looking for these cases and the kind of reporting mechanisms that are in place, as it might have to do with bad law-enforcement or racism or, you know, remnants of sort of slavery mentality that linger in places like that. Yeah, there's been six cases coming out of south Florida in the last few years alone. Six--

Faith Salie: Can you give--

John Bowe: Sorry, six successfully prosecuted cases.

Faith Salie: Can you give some background, like, statistics on how many migrant workers are southern Florida?

John Bowe: There are about 300,000 foreign workers in Florida.

Faith Salie: And you say their life expectancy is somewhere between 47 and 49 years?

John Bowe: They earn $7,500 a year on average and they live to be 47, because of all the pesticides that they use. So even on a good day, these guys' life is no picnic, like any job. You know, there are good jobs and bad jobs, good bosses and bad bosses. So what I'm writing about are the bad bosses.

Faith Salie: Like El Diablo.

John Bowe: Like El Diablo.

Faith Salie: Let's talk about him. He and his family kept dozens of illegal immigrants captive and forced them to pick fruit for no pay. How was this operation uncovered and successfully prosecuted?

John Bowe: It was uncovered because of the efforts of a group called Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is a worker advocacy group in Immokalee, Florida, and they have thousands of farmworkers who join up with them and they hang around for a season or two, they get educated about their rights in America and then they fan out all across the country and they tell other people. Part of the reason you have these slavery cases is because you have workers coming from other countries where they have no idea of what their rights are and they're very far away from home--

Faith Salie: They don't even speak English--

John Bowe: They don't speak English, they're afraid of cops, they're afraid of government, they owe a debt--this is in every single case, whether they're from China, India, Philippines, Mexico, whatever, they come owing something to somebody. Whether it's a recruiter in their home country or a coyote who gets them across the border here, and that's usually the lynchpin that makes them vulnerable.

Faith Salie: And, then, specifically can you talk about what those workers were living like under El Diablo? I mean, he would threaten their families back home if they tried to run away?

John Bowe: He would threaten their families, threaten to hurt them, threaten to knee--I mean he did knee-cap somebody and throw them out of a van--and you know, in these rural areas, nobody pays attention to migrant workers. It's very easy to do that.

Faith Salie: Now, I think a lot of Americans would be surprised that operations like those of El Diablo are not just isolated events that happen in the backwaters of Florida. These people are picking fruit for large corporations like Tropicana. So why isn't Tropicana getting persecuted for that--or prosecuted rather, sorry.

John Bowe: Either one sounds fine to me.

Faith Salie: [Laughs] Why aren't they getting their oranges closed?

John Bowe: Well, I trace it all the way from El Diablo to the large, billion dollar, private companies who they pick for, who then sell it to local processors, who then sell it to Tropicana, and there's a legal firewall at each and every level of the chain. So whenever these things come to light, the people up at the top can always say, "oh! This doesn't have anything to do with us. This is between another employer and their workers."

Faith Salie: "These are the people we hire to oversee the workers--"

John Bowe: It's like the Wal-Mart thing, you know, "oh my gosh, they turned out to be illegal aliens!" On the other hand, you know agriculture is the industry that brought us slavery 1.0 and then they bought us ten other kinds of scams since then like prison labor, debt peonage, you know, tenant farming, so one ruse after another, these guys don't like to pay retail for labor.

Faith Salie: OK, let's be specifically with Tropicana. Did you try to call them?

John Bowe: Yeah.

Faith Salie: And what did they say?

John Bowe: "We comply with all state and federal regulations..." blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. So I asked them, "well, what would you do if you found out someone wasn't complying with federal and state regulations?" and they said, "oh, we'll call you back." And they called me back, "well, we would terminate our contract with that grower." And I said, "oh, excellent! Well, did you know that there have been six slavery cases and this one and this one and this one had to do with people picking fruit, you know, for that company? Or these two companies." And of the two companies, I mentioned to them, "well, we don't do business with that one of them."

Faith Salie: That's convenient.

John Bowe: Passively admitting that they do do business with the other one and that they do have slavery in their food chain.

Faith Salie: You know it's so hard to understand how Tropicana, for example, can claim ignorance when you write that the company sends out thousands of supervisors to inspect the fruit and the soil and determine which crops should be picked.

John Bowe: No, it's selective memory, it's selective knowledge and this is really the problem, I mean, what the book is about is not really just these three slavery cases, there's that one in Florida, there's another one in Tulsa, and there're a bunch of cases on this island where I lived for three years called Saipan.

Faith Salie: You know what, I'm going to interrupt you, 'cause we have to take a break, so please stay with me. In a minute I wanna hear how the island of Saipan factors into all of this. That's ahead on Fair Game from PRI.


Faith Salie: This is Fair Game from PRI, I'm Faith Salie. I'm speaking with John Bowe, author of the new book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. John, before the break you were saying that this book, of course, isn't about just the three distinct locations you visited and what's going on there it's about something bigger, so I'd like to give you a chance to express that.

John Bowe: OK, I'll try to stumble through it. When I first wrote about this case, I wrote about the Florida story we were just talking about for The New Yorker. A lot of people asked me, "boy, with, you know, with migrant workers coming so cheaply, why would anybody have to enslave them? Isn't paying 5 bucks an hour, you know, cheap enough? I mean, how much of the final price you pay retail can possibly consist of these workers' pay?"

Faith Salie: Right.

John Bowe: And, of course, it's a fraction of what you pay at the cash register. It's like, actually, one or two percent. So why do they have to be enslaved if they don't have to be enslaved? Well, thinking about that question for five years or six years while I wrote the book and investigating these other cases kept going through my mind and I realized, throughout history, it's always--what we're talking about--it's been people "helping" people. And I kept think about globalization and how we're "helping" to lift hundreds and millions of Chinese people out of poverty.

Faith Salie: You're putting helping in quotation marks, I can hear them.

John Bowe: Very icy quotation marks. Yeah, and I just, we used to buy stuff from Americans who were, never perfectly, but much better treated than Chinese workers get treated now: they could vote, the could form unions, they could go out on a street corner and shout their brains out about whatever they wanted to. And now we buy stuff from this entire, fairly captive population of Chinese people and we call it, "free trade." These people can't vote, they cannot organize, cannot read or listen to a free media, so how are they free? And I just kept obsessing on this question of "are we moving toward a freer world or a less free world?" And of course there's nothing like looking at a group of captive who are literally enslaved, who get raped and shot at, to understand what slavery means and what freedom means. And--

Faith Salie: Let's--

John Bowe: Sorry--

Faith Salie: Let's talk about a specific group of workers in Saipan, which is a US Commonwealth and that means--it's a commonwealth--that means people in Saipan should be protected by US laws but you found out there are hundreds of labor violations happening on the island. What first drew you to go to Saipan?

John Bowe: When I was doing the book proposal for my book, I was hunting around for other cases of modern slavery so I would go to Google or LexisNexis and I'd type in, "modern", "slavery", "America", "contemporary", whatever and just bing! Bing! Bing! This place would come up called Saipan, which I had never heard of. It's an island three and half hours from Japan that we took from the Japanese after World War II and I'm going to fast forward through a lot of history that's in the book and it's all very interesting but this place is part of America and it's a gazillion miles away from the mainland. To enable them to develop themselves and build hospitals and schools, we said, since they have a very small, fairly undeveloped population, we said, "you can bring in guest workers from China and the Philippines and Korea and whatever you want to build these projects." And that very quickly turned into a nightmare with all these Chinese and Korean garment factories there and very quickly the local population became dependent on having guest workers. So 25 percent of the population have US passports and they are citizens with full rights and 75 percent of the population are class B citizens with no rights. So I went there and lived there for three years on and off, studying the way free people react to unfree people and it's not pretty.

Faith Salie: Can you describe a sort of case study, can you talk about Li Lan and her story?

John Bowe: OK, well this is sort of the ending of the book and after studying what a horrible place this is and how all the iniquity there just makes life be completely different than life here, you know, it's a really sort of degraded life in many ways. And then at the end what you realize is that there are millions and billions of people in the world who are so poor that that's a step up for them. There are billions of Chinese and Indian workers who--they're all too willing to come here and be mistreated. So we are looking for some free markets thing, you know, markets of people we can mistreat, there are billions of willing people.

So this Li Lan is a prostitute I met who had been a garment worker. She didn't like working for $3 an hour and didn't like being looked down upon.

Faith Salie: And yet we should point out that she was making more money even doing that than she would have been at home.

John Bowe: Right. Sure and the argument that people always make in all of these cases is, "well, they're making more money than they're making at home!" And they use that to justify not paying according to American law. And it is a very long story and it's very prettily told and I'm much better at writing than talking about it but Li Lan tells about freedom and going to a disco and it's this horrible lame disco but to her coming from a village in China, this is like going to Paris, in the 1920s for F. Scott Fitzgerald, listening to a Filipino cover band and being a prostitute and she describes it, "you know, well, I don't really like the job, it's a really sad job," and at the end she gets caught and I was with her the night she was being deported and she just sighed and she said, "ugh, I love Saipan. Maybe I'll come back here some day."

Faith Salie: Well, that's where this whole problem gets so muddy and complex. Because it's cut and dry that what was going on in southern Florida is an example of slavery but when you have the people you're talking to in Saipan saying they'd rather be here than at home, it makes it such a complex problem.

John Bowe: Yeah, I mean, if we want to have this ideology that the, you know, whoever is willing to sign out for cheap wages that we have the right to go hire them and there's this thing that they call the race to the bottom, which is wages worldwide going down and down and down and down, my point is, that will go down forever and where it goes back to is slavery, if you wanna pursue that to its logical end. And it's not really very pretty. I mean, it's interesting, there's so many books out right now, Robert Wright, Paul Krugman--they all have books about inequality, super capitalism, all this stuff. And my book fits into that whole barrage by saying this is where it's going, dudes, you know, go for it, free market.

Faith Salie: In your conclusion, you offer advice to anyone who feels compelled to talk about freedom or the glories of glabalization and you say, "go live in their huts, eat their rice, squat on their floors, listen to their babies cry, sniff glue and pray with them, and then come back and let's talk about freedom." Now that's not realistically prescriptive, of course. Now what are some of the tangible solutions to ending slavery and slave-like conditions?

John Bowe: Go, for example, do a Google of the Fair Food campaign that is partly run by student groups and church groups and this group that I write about, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and that is one example out of a hundred of different things you can do. You know, these corporate food campaigns, they target one company at a time, consumers have much more power than we know. If you target a company, and right now, I will spell it out, it's B-U-R-G-E-R-K-I-N-G, Burger King, they've already succeeded in getting Taco Bell to pay extra money to the tomato pickers who fill up your chalupa with tomatoes, McDonald's has gotten on board, Burger King is now the hold-out. If their switch board lights up with people calling in and saying, "hey, we don't wanna eat slave food, can you guarantee me that there is no slave food in my mouth?" they actually clean up their act very quickly, they're not so big and evil and horrible.

Faith Salie: Finally, has this changed the way you eat? I mean, are you wearing--your shirt's very nice. Are you wearing a shirt that you know for sure wasn't created by some hands in Saipan.

John Bowe: Let me tell you something, when you write about slaves you don't make money, so I get my clothes at thrift stores, so I don't have to worry about that.

Faith Salie: John, thank you for joining me.

John Bowe: Thank you very much, Faith.

Faith Salie: John Bowe's new book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy is out now, you can find out more about it on our website, morefairgame.org.

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