The Leonard Lopate Show: Slavery in Contemporary America, October 08, 2007
Many Americans complain of feeling overworked and underpaid, but few realize that serious labor abuses and even outright slavery can still be found in the United States. Journalist John Bowe visited sites in Florida, Oklahoma and the U.S.-owned Pacific island of Saipan to record employees' appalling first-hand accounts in Nobodies, an eye-opening look at the most exploited workers in contemporary America.
Leonard Lopate: Today there are an estimated 27,000,000 people enslaved around the world, but you may be surprised to learn that modern slavery exists not just in third world countries but also throughout the United States. In his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, John Bowe describes three places in the United States and its territories where slave labor continues to exist. It's published by Random House, and I'm very pleased that it's brought John Bowe back to the show today. Hello.
John Bowe: Hello, Leonard.
Leonard Lopate: Well, last time you were here it was to talk about your book Gig where you asked Americans to talk about their jobs. Did you learn about slave labor at that point?
John Bowe: Yes. I was in a rented car driving around Appalachia looking for a poultry plant worker, probably an illegal immigrant and I found one through this labor group, this Latino labor group, and just kind of off-hand, they told me about another labor group in Florida that was dealing with a slavery case and my ears kind of perked up and I thought, "oh, that sounds interesting." And two years later I had an article about it--actually, three years later, really. It took three years to do it for The New Yorker about what is the first part of Nobodies, which is this case in Florida.
Leonard Lopate: But you actually focus on that place, Immokalee, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Saipan. Where's Saipan?
John Bowe: Saipan is this little part of the US that no one has ever heard of except WWII buffs. Ah, it's an island about three hours south of Japan, about the same size as Manhattan. We won it from the Japanese after a really, really fierce battle. And that was one of the key battles of the war.
Leonard Lopate: That's in the Marianas Islands.
John Bowe: In the Marianas Islands. Below that is Guam, about 120 miles.
Leonard Lopate: So are these the key places where slavery exists or are they just the best examples for you and a book of this sort.
John Bowe: To be honest--somebody asked me this the other night at a reading, you know, why did you choose and it's for an absolutely no good reason. They are neither the best nor the worst cases, they're just cases that I happened upon. I was putting together a book proposal and Googling and LexisNexis-ing looking slavery cases. There are cases since then that I've heard about in just about every state: Hawaii, Washington, New York state, everywhere.
Leonard Lopate: But I'm assuming there's no way to have accurate figures on how many people are working as slaves of one sort or another in the United States.
John Bowe: People have tried to come up with statistics and I think it's kind of--I mean, I think it's god that they try but it's like trying to come up with statistics for drugs or for incest or whatever. They need statistics so that they can talk about it, but they're sort of meaningless because by definition, this happens off of people's cognitive map, where you can't see it.
Leonard Lopate: Now if you were to ask people about slave trade, I'm sure many have heard about people who have been kept in some sort of domestic slavery, and of course there is the sex trade, but we're talking about different kinds of things, we're talking about people who are doing regular jobs and are not being paid for them.
John Bowe: Right. I wanted to--you know 'cause there is a lot of discussion about sex trafficking, I've read some big articles written about it and it's very sensationalistic and it is absolutely horrific when you find out the details of these cases, but because sex is so sensationalistic it sort of elbows aside the issue of labor trafficking and as I started studying it, I learned that it was, to me, a little more pernicious or something, because the manufacturers of daily products orange juice, widgets, whatever, you can use slaves to make anything. What that des is sort of poisons the well for free workers and for employers who are paying by the rules. So it has the potential to spread like a cancer, whereas I don't think sex trafficking is something that is going to radically change our society and we're all going to become sex traffickers or consumers of sex trafficked victims.
Leonard Lopate: There have been rumors for years about what was happening orange tree groves in Immokalee, Florida. Why were people willing to turn a blind eye?
John Bowe: This is the magic of modern slavery. And this is the thing I've sort of come to again and again in Nobodies, is people do it by accident. No one does it on purpose. If you asked any person in this society and probably any other society, "do you think slavery is cool? Do you wanna return to a world of slavery?" I don't think anybody, in private or public is gonna say, "yes." But the mechanism by which we don't see stuff are amazing and multilayered. There's a great quote from Upton Sinclair who said something like, it's uh, what is it? "It's impossible to get a man to see something when his living depends on him not seeing it."
Leonard Lopate: And in this case, it's orange grooves that produce orange juice that are in an important industry in Florida?
John Bowe: Yeah, it's a huge industry. Oranges, tomatoes, I mean Florida now produces something like $7 billion a year of agricultural products and the ways in which people don't see it are because there are so many layers in the chain from the field to the corporate head office. So if you ever hold a microphone to the guys at the head office and say, "hey, what about this?" and they can say, "well, these are fifteen levels, fifteen legal firewalls away from us, how do we know what's going on down there?"
Leonard Lopate: And who are we talking about, is this, uh, Tropicana oranges?
John Bowe: Pepsi, I mean you can say this with any big food company in America at this point. But Pepsi owns Tropicana, Tropicana buys from these huge, you know, sometimes this one company that's a billion dollars privately-held companies, Consolidated Citrus, Lykes Bros., sometimes there are other middle men. Those big growers buy from labor contractors and in the case that I write about, they were buying from a labor contractor named, "El Diablo."
Leonard Lopate: Ramiro Ramez.
John Bowe: Ramiro Ramos.
Leonard Lopate: How did he ensure that his workers were indebted to him to the point that they had to work as slaves?
John Bowe: Well, this is something that most people don't get. Most of the workers who've come into the US have come with a debt. In the case of Mexican workers, they usually pay 1,000 or 2,000 to a coyote to help get them across the border. In this case, the workers had come across the border and they had paid that debt but then a guy had come to them in Arizona where they crossed the border and said, "hey, I'll give you a ride to Florida where there's a job," and these guys don't know Florida from Utah, from anywhere else in the US. "Job? OK, let's go." So they wake up three days later in the swamps in Florida and there's this short mean-looking guy named El Diablo who says, "hmm! You owe that guy some money for your ride. You know, how are you going to pay it?" And these guys say, "well, uh..." You know, no one--there's a lot of stuff that doesn't get discussed, they don't have contracts, they--
Leonard Lopate: Many of the guys are undocumented anyway--
John Bowe: These guys are undocumented and they come from a sort of informal world and they come from a small town where if a boss acted really badly, the townspeople would gang up and beat him up. So they're just not used to this level of, you know, intimidation and coercion. So anyway, El Diablo says "great I've paid this guy for your ride, you work for me now, and if you wanna run away, I'm going to shoot you." Or "I'm gonna feed you to the alligators," or "I'm going to go down to Mexico and whack your whole family."
Leonard Lopate: And is there a time limit on this agreement or does he say "you're going to work for me forever?"
John Bowe: This stuff just doesn't get discussed, I mean, you're talking about a world where everyone has a nickname, no one has a real name, you're Shorty, you're Fatty, you're the Chinese-Looking Guy. You know, it's not a world of contracts and showing your ID and having a cellphone. So--
Leonard Lopate: And since they're undocumented, they're reluctant to come forward.
John Bowe: Right and with all undocumented workers, there's of course, the threat, "hey, if you speak up or complain, I'm gonna get you deported. So there's not a lot of complaining that goes on. So these guys start working for El Diablo and they're working ten, twelve hours a day in the orange groves, and at the end of the week they get a paycheck and El Diablo cashes it and then subtracts for this and for that and for the ride and for the food and for the housing, which is this disgusting barracks, you know, and by the time they're done, they're making 30 bucks or 40 bucks or 20 bucks for like a 60-, 70- hour week. And really they're made, you know, this is what I'm writing about, it's not just bad situations, people have asked me a few times, "well, they were getting paid." And to that I almost wanna spit in their face, I'm sorry but if you were at your job making $100,000 a year and someone said, "well, we think we're going to pay you 3,000," and you have nothing to say about it, you wanna quibble about whether that's slavery or not? These guys could not leave their job. When they left a couple of times to go to a store down the road, the boss or the boss's henchmen showed up in cars and said, "ahem, where are you guys going? We think you should go back now."
Leonard Lopate: John Bowe's book is Nobodies: Modern Ameircan Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, it's published by Random House. So they started a coalition? How did they become brave enough to do that?
John Bowe: Well, there was a group that already existed called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers which is this sort of motley crew working out of a motley office and they have Haitians and Guatemalans and a couple of white people and they have 3- or 4,000 members now and these are all workers who come, they stay in this town of Immokalee, they join for a season or two and then they fan out across the US and work in different crops and so they sort of, they get educated. It's an old-fashioned, you know, labor education group. They learn, "oh! In America you're supposed to make this much minimum wage. You can only work this number of hours a week, you can only get treated this way and not that way, you have the right to water in the fields, or a place to go to the bathroom," just simple things like that. So what this group can do that police and the FBI can't do is they look just like the people who are being victimized. And so, if a white cop, if an FBI guy shows up at one of these camps and says, "hey! What's going on? Are you enslaved?", that doesn't work. These guys aren't going to talk to the guy, they're scared, they call it "la Migra", they think they're just going to get deported or the boss is going to get mad at them for talking, they're going to get beaten up. But they will talk to other people who look like them, under the right circumstances, so what this coalition is great at doing is infiltrating bad situations like El Diablo's and finding out, "hey, are you guys being paid or not?"
Leonard Lopate: You were kind of skeptical about the reunion at first.
John Bowe: Yes, because to me it seemed like old-fashioned liberal stuff from the 70s that I'd seen, people marching through the streets with big puppets and saying, "we want," you know, "action! we want action!" and when I first started doing this, I thought I was cooler than all that stuff, that all that stuff was sort of discredited--it made me embarrassed. I was surprised, I thought, I'm very liberal, I should be down with all this stuff and I wasn't.
Leonard Lopate: Well, talk about liberal, you point out that even New Deal legislation excluded farm workers from its provisions of the minimum wage. So are farms the most common places workers are taken advantage of because we already have that plantation model and then we have the fact that the minimum wage does not apply?
John Bowe: Well, this is sort of where the book sort of goes from the macro view to the micro view. Or, sorry, the opposite, from the micro view to the macro view. In looking at some slavery cases, you realize: one, slavery happens in situations when you have an unequal playing field. Agriculture has always maintained the worst labor relations of any big business in America, garment industry would be second, but of course now we've exported most of that to China. So what I sort of did just in looking at these slavery cases was to pull out to the wide view and look at globalization and look at how now, world wide we have this really unequal playing field, and its impossible for me to describe this and I do it very well in the book but I can't do it very well live in person but you realize what a danger it is to the average working person in the first world to have either slaves or really abused workers. What it does is radically drive down working conditions for everyone else. There's no employer in the world who can compete with an employer who's using slave labor so it's a lot like AIDS you only need a few little cases, a few diseased cells, to screw up your whole society.
Leonard Lopate: But in the case of Florida you're talking about large farms who have been consolidated and there was a court case that you had been told about and it turns out it was just one of six that came about in southern Florida which has been called Ground Zero for modern slavery. What happened in the court cases?
John Bowe: The court case was interesting because all the time I'd been hearing about what a horrible situation it was for the enslaved workers, they were scared out of their wits, they told me later, once they realized we had been tricked and trapped, they said, "we felt like we were in his pockets," and it's just like the lights go out for these guys because there's no escape, the nearest town is 20 miles away, they don't know how to get there, so you feel very bad and then you find out during the trial how the whole industry works, you find our how these companies Consolidated Citrus, and Lykes Bros. above them, and Tropicana above them, they know everything that goes on in these fields. They know the sugar content of the orange, they know the soil moisture content, they know the market price for orange juice in the Sao Paolo, in the Chicago market but somehow they don't know when some of their workers aren't being paid. You realize how accidentally on purpose the whole situation is.
Leonard Lopate: Now why is this not happening on the same scale in California which is an even bigger agricultural state and one with a large immigrant population?
John Bowe: I wouldn't really wanna speak to whether it is or isn't happening in Florida. You certainly hear of a lot of bad cases. Uh, Eric Schlosser wrote about some really interesting stuff, I think it was his last book, In The Strawberry Fields, um...
Leonard Lopate: So this is happening in California.
John Bowe: This is happening in California! I mean, I just heard about a case where it's happening. It's like in 13 or 14 different states a bunch of workers brought over from Thailand, it's the same old thing. They pay a ton of money in their home country, they come here, someone takes away their passports and says, "you better not leave."
Leonard Lopate: My guest is, John Bowe who's contributed to The New Yorker, New York Magazine, GQ, The American Prospect. He's been on This American Life, he's the co-editor of Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs and that was chosen as one of Harvard Business Review's Best Books of 2000. He's also co-screenwriter for the film Basquiat, so he's done a little bit of everything and now he's written a book called Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy published by Random House. We will continue our conversation after this.
Leonard Lopate: We're back with John Bowe whose latest book is Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy published by Random House. Another cause that you write about is John Pickle recruiting workers from India for JPC, his steel-cutting company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. How did that work?
John Bowe: This was a guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who had a big welding factory and he made these 200 ton tanks that were good for refining oil and utility companies and stuff like that. And he saw American manufacturing going downhill and he decided to open up a joint venture with some Kuwaitis in the Middle East. So typically in the Middle East, the workers come from other countries. The local people don't work, they have guest workers from Pakistan and the Philippines and India. So he was going to staff his welding company with these highly-skilled Indian welders and he decided that he would recruit them in India through a recruiting firm, bring them to Tulsa, just make sure they were good workers, you know, then teach them what he called "the American way" and then ship them off to Kuwait.
Leonard Lopate: So he had no thought of enslaving them at first.
John Bowe: I don't believe so. And actually what's weird, if you talk to this guy, he's a charming guy, he's kind of a likeable guy. He took a couple of shortcuts, he decided to pay them three dollars an hour because he was going to be paying them three dollars an hour in Kuwait, so, you know, why be inconsistent? So he had--
Leonard Lopate: That was already illegal, wasn't it?
John Bowe: That was already illegal. So he brought one group over and had them for a few weeks and had then shipped them ff to Kuwait, no problem. He had another group and they worked for a few weeks and he shipped them out to Kuwait, no problem. And then I think the gears started turning and he kept looking at his American workforce that he was paying $15 an hour, $20 an hour, thinking, "why am I wasting my money like this?" And so he brought over another group and planned to keep them indefinitely. And as with the first two groups, he houses them on company premises, on the factory floor. They didn't have regular rooms to say in. They had these crude bunk beds, they had two toilets for a group of 54 men. They didn't even have enough plates for these guys, the food was awful and they very soon started to complain.
Leonard Lopate: How did they ensure they stayed at the plant?
John Bowe: Well, they had, again, as this is as with every case that I write about , they had paid $2,200 back in India to the recruiting company for the privilege of getting the job.
Leonard Lopate: A three dollar an hour job.
John Bowe: A three dollar an hour job. Now if you go into the math of what they would earn in India, $2,200 is incalculable for what it would be for us, it would be $250,000, I mean it's not even measurable because it means losing their house and it means their large extended family gets made homeless, it is a shame beyond all shame and so they are extremely vulnerable when they come over. So, but they do start complaining. They're getting a quarter of an apple per meal, this guy is very miserly, he ordered enough food for 27 people to feed all 54 of them, just to cut corners and when they started to complain, he said, "you should shut up, you're lucky to be here because you open your mouth one more time, boy, I'm gonna send you back to India."
Leonard Lopate: Were people in Tulsa aware of what was going on at Pickle's plant?
John Bowe: Nobody was aware at first but the situation escalated and escalated and he eventually hired an armed guard to sit outside the factory just to let these guys know what time it was. And eventually some of them snuck out and went to a Pentecostal church across the way and they met up with this really great guy, I really like interviewing this guy, a lay preacher, named Mark Massey, who in time basically said to all of them, "hey," you know it took them weeks to understand the magnitude of what was going on across the street from this church, inside this factory, but when he finally understood and met with more of the workers, he said, "look, this is awful, you know, I have a couple of spare houses that I'm rebuilding, I'm remodeling these houses, come if you want, you can say anytime." So one night a few nights later, 54 of these guys leave their factory, the TV cameras are there, now the press all knows about it and they come camp out in this house and he finds food for them and finds lawyers for them. It's amazing story.
Leonard Lopate: Well, they were, uh, the TV coverage call them "virtual slaves", what was the reaction in Tulsa? After all, John Pickle is an established businessman there.
John Bowe: Well, people were pretty outraged at first, uh, it takes a while for people to get into mechanics of what's going on, everybody, everybody's quick to use the word slavery and then quick to back off from it, 'cause no one really knows, you know, these modern slaves they don't have shackles, they don't have--it's not like antebellum slavery. There's a great quote from another guy, Dr. Kevin Bales, who's a friend of mine, who's an anti-slavery expert, who also has a book out now and he said something like, "we all abhor the idea of slavery but few of us knows what modern slavery looks like." And so these guys, you know, they're not in shackles, they can run away if they want to, but they have this debt and they have this threat of deportation hanging over their head, so they don't know that they can run away.
Leonard Lopate: Did John Pickle believe he did anything wrong, do you think?
John Bowe: To this day, to this day, he says, "I feel like I bent over backwards to help these guys and they shot me in the back."
Leonard Lopate: What about the employees who supervise these Indians, did they acknowledge that they did something wrong?
John Bowe: I think a lot of them thought like their boss, they thought these guys were lucky to be here, they were starving in India. You know, this is--people always play both sides of the card with this stuff, they don't obey the American laws that we have agreed apply to every worker working on US soil instead they think, "well, these guys are lucky to be here!" And this is one of the things I discovered in writing about this in most of these cases, people who are enslaving view it as a positive, they say, "I'm just trying to help."
Leonard Lopate: But aren't they breaking laws?
John Bowe: Yeah, but they don't have to look at that, they're helping people!
Leonard Lopate: And, but has anybody arrested John Pickle for doing this?
John Bowe: He got nailed in a civil suit, not a criminal suit, so he wasn't looking a jail time, but legally he got found guilty of not slavery, but five other things: minimum wage violation, visa violation, false imprisonment, a few other things I can't remember and they levied a big fine at him and of course by that time he had moved all of his assets into his wife's name and his kids' names. But it what it did is establish a very important civil precedent so that civil lawyers, trial lawyers, can go out after people who do this, which is great because you see it more and more and more often. I know of five other cases like this going on right now.
Leonard Lopate: My guest is John Bowe, B-O-W-E, his latest book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, published by Random House, this is WNYC and WNYC.org, I'm Leonard Lopate. Well, the subtitle is "The Dark Side of the New Global Economy" so you see this as a consequence of globalization?
John Bowe: I don't know if this is a consequence, in fact, no, I don't think it's a consequence of globalization, but it made me think a lot about globalization because what we've been seeing in the US in the last 30 years or more is a widening of inequality between the rich and poor. You know from nineteen--from the New Deal to the mid-70s you saw people getting treated more and more equally in this society, at least in terms of income. Since the 70s it's been widening, of course now we have CEOs being paid ten million times more than their employees and retirement plans are being gutted and all of these consequences I think most people are aware of and very worried about but what they're not really aware of is, hey, this is how far down it goes. This is where that goes. There's a great quote from Justice Louis Brandies who said, in the 1920s, "you can either have great disparity of wealth between rich and poor or you can have democracy, but you can't have both." So now that we're seeing increase in disparity, it's a move away from democracy, and like I'm here to say "PS: that leads to slavery."
Leonard Lopate: And we talked a little bit about Saipan before, part of the Northern Mariana Islands, which became a commonwealth of the United Stated in 1986 and I'm--I'm assuming that you thought about this as part of your book because of what happened with Tom Delay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff because that was a big newspaper story.
John Bowe: Right, when I was doing my book proposal and looking desperately for documented cases of this stuff, I was going to LexisNexis and typing in slavery comma modern comma America and here came this place like, "bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! Saipan!" and I had never heard of it before but very quickly I read all the stories about it and it's, like you said, it became part of the US in 1986 and for very valid reasons they set up a weird system which was that Saipan would obey most US laws but they would have control over their immigration and minimum wage and this is because they're so far away from the United States and we were going to give them money to build hospitals and sewers and schools and stuff like that but they didn't have a big enough population or a skilled enough population to do it themselves so they were going to bring in workers from the Philippines and China and Korea to help build this stuff. OK, nothing wrong on the face of it. But what very quickly happened is people took advantage of it. A lot of Chinese, Hong Kong and Korean garment money flowed into the place immediately and they set up garment factories and they would bring in workers from Asia and legally, sort of, legally circumvent labor and tariff laws and they would sell clothes to the US that said "Made In USA." They didn't have to pay a 21 percent tariff, they didn't have to obey the quota system which was in play then, and just almost immediately became a disaster. You know, they didn't have any idea what they were doing as far as human rights and labor rights, the US Department of Labor and the US watchdogs for all this stuff weren't really paying attention to Saipan 'cause it was so far away, so in a very short time you had a society who were 25 percent locals, who had passports and were first-class citizens and then they had 75 percent of the population being these second-class citizens working, not just in the garment factory, but as maids, waiters, housepainters, everything. And the locals immediately stopped working, stopped developing and my point I guess is that this is what's happening in the United States. As we are relying on the second class of Hispanic workers. And so studying the dynamic of the two class society that's a great place to go do it. I'm forgetting something, as soon as this weird dynamic started on Saipan, there were all these stories coming about workers being locked up to their machines, Filipina maids coming and working for $300 a month and being raped repeatedly by their employers, one story after another, workers being duped, paying $3,000 or $7,000 in their home country to come to Saipan where there wouldn't be a job and there were just dozens of stories like this. Congress reacted with an outcry and started trying to do something about it, so what did the island do? They hired Jack Abramoff, who offered his services. So Abramoff set up--this is where Abramoff and Delay got their whole game on, this is where they got their whole machine up and running. Abramoff charged the islands $11 million to keep the Federal government from moving in and implementing reforms. And there were a lot of Democrats and also some Republicans who really, really wanted to reform this place and Delay had a--just a total padlock on the place. And he would brag about it, he would say, "no, no, no this is my petri dish of capitalism!" He said, "this is what happens when we get good, conservative, Christian principles and Republican principles at work!" and he's defending this place that has forced prostitution, slavery, and this went on for years.
Leonard Lopate: And also had, was being criticized by the first president Bush and by Bill Clinton.
John Bowe: Even before that, Reagan said "there's something weird happening here, this is bad." Bush I, Clinton, both terms, they were all saying, "well, this is kind of embarrassing to the United States, we don't think this is good, your reliance on guest workers is bad," So I went out there to look for these slavery cases, I got there in 2003 and I learned how hard it is to ferret out these cases. I would show up at these factories at closing time with a translator and say, "hey, y'all, any slaves around here?" And you know, these Chinese workers do not wanna talk to you, they don't even wanna talk to other Chinese people.
Leonard Lopate: Well, are they really at all surprised by what they find in Saipan because in some cases we hear of similar situations occurring in China.
John Bowe: Oh, yes, yes, yes! I mean, no, you should not be surprised, A. B, you're going to see this any time you have, you know, a corrupt system where there is a big divide between rich and poor or powerful or not powerful so no, it's a surprise. What I learned in doing this book is slavery is not a surprise, it's entirely predictable. If you make a fair playing field, a safe playing field, it tends not to happen.
Leonard Lopate: Although in this case we also in this case we are getting products with labels that say, "Made In America" as you point out. Are we talking about some famous products? You quote designer Izaak Mizrahi saying he doesn't even wanna know where the clothes for his line at Target are made.
John Bowe: I mean just about every major clothing brand at one time or another made clothes in Saipan. What's interesting is now all of that business is going to China because it's even cheaper and to be honest, looking at Saipan, now that I know their factories very well, they've cleaned up their act, it would be much better if these companies were doing business in Saipan than if they were doing in China.
Leonard Lopate: Oh, and so they have cleaned up their acts because of all the attention Delay and Abramoff brought to them?
John Bowe: Yeah, yeah, yeah! They were being criticized for years but the government couldn't do anything until Delay and Abramoff were gone but now that they've gone away, even before they went away these factories started cleaning up their act because he companies themselves were paranoid about getting bad media reports.
Leonard Lopate: Here's another case where companies and corporations who sell a products may be aware of labor conditions but then do everything possible to maintain deniability.
John Bowe: Well, yes, I mean, here's the thing that's ridiculous.
Leonard Lopate: What happens when you ask them, "did you know that these people were being paid nothing?"
John Bowe: "They're not our employees, we don't know anything." And this is what you see all the way up the line. And what's ridiculous is whether is agriculture or clothing, number one: just about everything we put in our mouths or put on our bodies at this point is very, very, very suspect. Number two: to ensure that it isn't suspect would cost nothing. I mean it's so cheap to fix these things. It's not a questions of economics, it's a question of attitudes.
Leonard Lopate: I'm sure most people who go to Wal-Mart and similar stores and get something that looks for an incredibly low price suspect that something has gone on.
John Bowe: I think that people suspect but again, if it's not in your face, why should you know it, and like I quote Izaak Mizrahi saying, "I don't know and I don't wanna know."
Leonard Lopate: So how do you fix something like this? Does congress come up with really harsh new laws? Or is this something that has to be done state by state?
John Bowe: I think this is the part of the discussion that always goes off into weirdo land. Um, you have to sort--you can't fix the whole economy at once. I think everybody knows now or is starting to know globalization has a lot of scary, scary, uh, it could go in a lot of scary directions. But to fix it you can't get crazy about the whole problem, you have t start one step at a time. There's a group I write about in the Florida section that's the Coalition of Immokalee workers that is part of a student and church-led group called The Campaign for Fair Food. And Google them and see what they're doing but they have a boycott thing that goes one company at a time and holds up to these companies, first Taco Bell, then McDonald's and now they're taking aim at Burger King. They have a protest at headquarters, they say, "hey, guess what, here are people who work for you for free." And no company wants to have slavery associated with it brand. Nobody, nobody, nobody. Very bad PR. So it takes them a few months of denying, "hey, no, they're not our employees, this doesn't have anything to do with us," before they cave in and say, "OK, what can we do?" And what they've been doing is setting up a system so these companies pass on an extra penny a pound or something for the crude, you know, retail--I'm sorry, the wholesale price of tomatoes. They pass that on directly to the pickers. And so, you know, their plan is to go one step at a time, you know, Burger King, I think Wal-Mart would be a good example, any large food vendor. So that's one step, that 's one tactic, you get these companies to admit "OK, there are problems in our supply chain." And of course we all think corporations are so evil and horrible, but the truth is, if they're confronted with this stuff, most of them want to do stuff to fix their supply chain, it doesn't really cost them that much. Another thing to do would be to start writing to our liberal congressmen who have taken control of congress again. You know, since Regan, they have cut the budget of Department of Labor, OSHA, EEOC and of course we invented those bureaucracies because they protect little people against big people. And if--the budgets have been sort of strangled since about 1980 and to restore them would cost not very much. Used to be that there was one DOL inspector for every 30,000 workers. Now there's one for every 150,000 workers, do the math. You need someone from the federal government to show up at a workplace from time to time to say, "hey, guess what? You can't be Scrooge out here in the middle of the wilderness, there are other people here watching you."
Leonard Lopate: John Bowe's book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy is published by Random House. Thank you so much for being with us today.
John Bowe: Thank you, Leonard.
Listen to the segment >>