The Rachel Maddow Show, September 19, 2007

Rachel Maddow: If you were to associate with the word slavery, what do you think? Or the word slave labor, you're probably thinking about a very shameful time long gone in this country or a place that's very far away from this country where people are forced to work in horrendous conditions for no pay or for little pay. But what about the prospect that slavery exists in this country? According to our next guest it certainly does. John Bowe is the author of Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. He spent the last several years investigating this, admittedly, harrowing subject that's very poorly understood. John, it's really nice to meet you, thanks for coming in.

John Bowe: thanks, Rachel.

Rachel Maddow: What does modern American slave labor look like and before you wrote this book, did people believe you that it existed?

John Bowe: I think a lot of people have a hard time believing that it existed, but when you go into it and you study it, it's funny, it really doesn't look that interesting, it doesn't look like, you know, if you go look at farm workers, migrant workers who are enslaved, they don't look very different from migrant workers who aren't enslaved. And that's kind of 'cause we don't know very much about their lives, we don't know what goes on down these dirt roads in the middle of nowhere.

Rachel Maddow: So when you, but when you say slavery you mean people who are literally working for no pay, people who are being forced to work without being compensated for it.

John Bowe: Yes. And, you know, for the purposes of this book obviously I had to define very clearly, there are bad jobs, there are horrible jobs, there are abusive bosses, there's child labor, there's all kinds of bad stuff but it's all different than slave labor so to define that you say, you know: a slave is someone who's either threatened with violence or has violence used against them to keep them in a job they don't want to be in--they cannot leave the place where they live, they cannot leave their job--so that someone else can exploit them economically.

Rachel Maddow: In the United States what kind of industries does--do those conditions exist?

John Bowe: You're almost always going to find them in unprogressive industries, agriculture being number one, and that's the industry that brought us slavery, round one.

Rachel Maddow: Mmm.

John Bowe: Slavery 1.0.

Rachel Maddow: Right, yeah.

John Bowe: And they've kind of had one trick after another since the end of slavery to keep conditions very bad. They've always been exempt from a lot of laws that other industries have applied to them. You don't hear about slavery in the auto industry or in the industries where you have unions. You only hear about it in places where cops or labor inspectors or reporters can't really penetrate. So you're gonna see it with agriculture, you'll see it with nannies, you see it with sex workers--that's where it tends to show up.

Rachel Maddow: Talk a little bit about what you uh what you uncovered in Florida, in terms of migrant workers working for Tropicana in Florida. What are--what are their circumstances, like, what did you discover there?

John Bowe: OK, well, I heard about the case because of a labor advocate in North Carolina who said "there's some interesting things, some people I know in Florida are dealing with. They're investigating this case of slavery." So, I met up with this group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Florida who have a track record, they've done this several times and they were getting reports from different migrant workers saying, there's this guy, this boss, named El Diablo who's a really bad guy and he supposedly killed someone, he supposedly knee-capped this guy, he's threatened these other people with bad stuff... anyway, so in writing about this case with El Diablo, I sort of went up the food chain. Of course, El Diablo is a Mexican guy, a non-white guy, he's a labor contractor, and he's very far down on a food chain. Above him are the growers--which is the name for farmers these days--

Rachel Maddow: Mmm-hmm.

John Bowe: They're not some old guy with overalls anymore, these are big, you know, in some cases billion dollar private companies--um, and then these guys sell it to sometimes middlemen but ultimately it goes up the food chain to Tropicana, which is owned by Pepsi--

Rachel Maddow: It is the--go ahead.

John Bowe: Sorry. So what's amazing to me is, you have, you know, not a majority, but a decent percentage of these guys, the guys in the migrant worker level who don't get paid. And you ask Tropicana, "what's up with that? Do you guys--what do you, how do you feel about this?" And they say, "oh! well, we make sure to comply with all US and state laws and if we ever heard of anyone doing anything bad, we'd fire them." Well, of course I asked them, "well, this case has come up and this case has come up and that third case has come up, did you ever fire any of these guys?" And they say, "uhh. we'll get back to you."

Rachel Maddow: Mmm-hmm.

John Bowe: Now--sorry to go on--but what's interesting is the head office up in Tropicana, they know the moisture content in the soil, they know the sugar content in the orange, they know the market, you know, the price of oranges and orange juice in Sao Paolo, in Chicago, in New York, every day, second per second, but somehow they don't know what's going on with their workers. It's this intentional delusion that leads to slavery and even just labor abuse every single time.

Rachel Maddow: And is this something that economic conditions right now are driving this dynamic so that it's getting worse or are these aberrations that are a matter of just needing better enforcement to catch them?

John Bowe: Both. Both. Very much both. I would, you know people ask what's the solution and I have to say it's nothing very interesting or exciting. You know, since Reagan got elected and we made government be the enemy, they've been cutting back the funding for these organizations that developed because people needed them, like the Department of Labor, EEOC, OSHA, all of these things that are part of the Gestapo-like federal government. Well, we didn't invent those things to be a pain in the ass, we invented them to protect regular people from getting squashed by big companies, you know, and bad bosses.

Rachel Maddow: And because we bow down before the communist god.

John Bowe: And because we bow down before the communist god, right.

Rachel Maddow: And because we're pinko commies. [Laughs]

John Bowe: Right, right. We're big government fans. No, so, like, it used to be one Department of Labor inspector for every 30,000 workers and now there's one Department of Labor inspector for every 150,000 workers. So there's really no enforcement presence to make a bad boss remember, "oh, yeah, somebody's watching me."

Rachel Maddow: Yeah.

John Bowe: And that right there is very much part of the solution. It doesn't take that much more than that. And then I think the conclusion that I came to with the book is, look at what's going on worldwide with globalization. It's now we get all this stuff from Chinese workers who aren't free to vote, they're not free to assemble and organize to speak out, they don't get a free media, so now we're buying our stuff from these guys and that's becoming the new standard of labor worldwide. So combine that with what's going on in the US. Gee, does that look like we're making the world a freer place through free trade?

Rachel Maddow: But it looks like we're making the world a cheaper place for US consumers and that's what justifies all of the free trade rhetoric, that excuses so many of the conditions that let this stuff happen.

John Bowe: Yeah, I think that's great, it's like smoking crack is great at first, I'm sure but--

Rachel Maddow: Gives you a lot of energy.

John Bowe: Gives you a lot of energy, a big boost. Ha ha. Sorry. You know, it's great until all of a sudden, it's your grandkids who are working for fourteen cents an hour. But the lower you drive worker wages around the world, you know, what globalization means is that what goes around comes around.

Rachel Maddow: Yeah.

John Bowe: So just like Chinese pollution is becoming California's pollution, and Chinese manufacturing standards, like lead paint in children's toys, is becoming our problem, you know, globalization means that's the new standard for labor. Why would any employer pay fourteen bucks an hour or twelve bucks an hour to an American when they can pay fourteen cents an hour abroad? What's weird is that this is the same concern that Republicans had back in the 70s about trading with dictatorships like China.

Rachel Maddow: Mm-hmm. And it used to be articulated not only in terms of, you know, economic protectionism, it used to be articulated in terms of moral--in terms of morals--in terms of what's right and wrong.

John Bowe: And freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom, freedom. That thing we talk about all the time which becomes incredibly boring until you see a slavery case and then it hits you on the head and you remember, "oh, yeah, that's what these guys were talking about."

Rachel Maddow: Yeah, I wonder, in terms of talking about that case in, um, in Florida, with Tropicana and with Pepsi and you think about how to address these things and make them get better, yeah we need enforcement so that there's some cost that employers and that people who are doing this stuff are balancing against the obvious economic benefits to not paying people and forcing people to work in your production supply chain. But in addition to needing that sort of enforcement stuff there also does need to be a pressure within the system to do it right and that can only be created, I think, probably by shame and by moral arguments. I mean, if Pepsi knew they were going to be thought of as, you know, Pepsi, drink and slaves, too, then they would, you know, in the same way that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, part of the way that they have achieved some of their gains, like against Burger King, is knowing that Burger King is incredibly susceptible to their public image being tarnished by being associated with these sorts of conditions and with slavery. So it has to be it has to be this moral argument, it has to be this moral strategic approach so that the pressure is within the system but then there's also gotta be enforcement. Seems like.

John Bowe: Right. You definitely need the government to step up and it's gonna take consumers and voters to step up that enforcement, but, yeah, consumers can do an amazing amount on their own. You know the beauty of modern corporations is they've spent all that money just becoming brands. Well, that brand is extremely vulnerable, A. And B, Americans, whether they're on the right on the left, whether it's gun-toting NRA people or pro-choice people, I mean, they really don't want the government to tell them what to do. You know, remember when the Terry Schiavo case--

Rachel Maddow: Right, yeah.

John Bowe: It's such a huge majority of Americans were really, really incensed about that because they smelled government intrusion. It doesn't matter right or left, people don't want anyone telling them what to do. And so the second they get this idea of, oh, corporations have the power to enslave us or to get us back to this place we don't want to go, they get really incensed and it's amazing that it does work.

Rachel Maddow: it does work but the--what it what it runs up against is the arguments from people like Tom Delay who was, uh, who you write a lot about in the book in terms of his association Jack Abramoff and Saipan and the labor conditions there, um, I mean, their rhetoric for excusing them is: "Saipan is a capitalist wonderland and we're finally free form the yoke of regulation and business can really do what needs to be done, it can create the most wealth without the government intruding, I mean, they've cornered the freedom language. They've cornered the government intrusion language in order to promote the conditions that lead to slavery in these places.

John Bowe: Well, this is the psychotic thing about slavery that I discovered while doing this book is everybody I found who is enslaving someone else was able to present it as a positive.

Rachel Maddow: [Laughs]

John Bowe: In some cases, they were cynical in other cases I actually think they believed it. I write about a case in Tulsa where there is this very likeable old redneck who has a welding company and he brings over a bunch of Indian guys--Indian nationals--who were top-grade welders from India and he brought them into this weird jury-rigged "training program" and I say that in quotes 'cause the whole things was invented so that he could pay them three bucks an hour.

Rachel Maddow: [Whistles]

John Bowe: Well, these guys were actually really smart, middle class guys and they started fighting back and saying, "dude, you know, we don't wanna live on your factory premisses," uh, you know, "we want outta here." And very quickly he started saying, "I'm gonna deport your ass if you don't, if you raise your voice to me again like that," so the dynamic escalated. They were starting to run away, he was starting to enforce them, hiring an armed guard to stand guard outside the premises--

Rachel Maddow: Wow.

John Bowe: And all of this stuff and uh... um, I have no idea where I was going with that.

Rachel Maddow: He's presenting this as a positive.

John Bowe: Right, you ask the guy, you know, "what's up with that?" and he's like, "I tried to help these guys--"

Rachel Maddow: Wow.

John Bowe: "These were poor Indians and they shot me in the back. I feel like I've been lied to, I've been cheated and they shot me in the back." And he says that with a straight face and you look at him and you feel sympathy for him because--I don't know why. Because.

Rachel Maddow: Well, because he's come up with this he's come up with like, "I was trying to help these guys," but you--

John Bowe: That's what we hear every time with globalization, "we're helping--"

Rachel Maddow: Yeah.

John Bowe: "--third world workers in China."

Rachel Maddow: "They'd kill to make ten cents an hour!"

John Bowe: You know--

Rachel Maddow: "They would love that!"

John Bowe: And you think back, well, the Spaniards were helping American Indians by bringing them Christianity and the American colonists were helping Africans by bringing them out of the barbaric jungles of Africa and into the civilized world of white people. I mean, you'll hear this again and again and again. So it should make you question globalization. It's not to say globalization is gonna stop or that it's inherently evil. But it's not inherently good, either.

Rachel Maddow: Right.

John Bowe: It is what we make it.

Rachel Maddow: And ultimately what it comes down to is letting people decide what they wanna do for themselves. It comes down to self-determination, and Chinese workers being able to form unions if they want to!

John Bowe: Right.

Rachel Maddow: Who cares if you don't think it's good for them. If they think it's good for them, their freedom means they ought to be able to do that.

John Bowe: Well this is the one thing I need to sort of get out every time I'm talking about this book, and this is told to me by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers when I first started this work, there's a great quote from Justice Louis Brandeis who was this genius Supreme Court Judge in the 20s and he was speaking of the extreme income inequality back in the 20s which is, we've come full circle and now in the nine--two thousand seven income inequality in the United States is the same as it was back them.

Rachel Maddow: Mmm.

John Bowe: And he said, "look, either you can have great income inequality in the United"--you know, sorry. "You can have income inequality or you can have democracy, but you can't have both."

Rachel Maddow: Right.

John Bowe: And my whole study of slavery was sort of posited as an end point along this sliding scale between freedom and democracy on the one hand and slavery on the other and so what you see as income inequality widens is this sort of crawl back to slavery. And the point I'm making in the book is I don't think we're gonna live in a slave world again. Instead we're all gonna be like the Phillipines. There'll just be this massive concentration of wealth and this huge cesspool of squalor.

Rachel Maddow: Which sounds like a great idea until you realize that the odds are against you.

John Bowe: Right, everybody--

Rachel Maddow: In terms of thinking where your grandkids are gonna end up because, you know--

John Bowe: Right, everybody--you ask people, you know, when they start telling you about their past lives, you know, "oh, in a past life I was a princess", "in a past life I was a duke." No, in your past life you were, like, a maggot.

Rachel Maddow: You were a Chinese peasant like everybody else.

John Bowe: [Laughs] Right.

Rachel Maddow: Statistically speaking you were a Chinese peasant.

John Bowe: Right, do the math.

Rachel Maddow: We all were. John Bowe, it's really nice to meet you and thanks for doing this work, thanks for writing the book.

John Bowe: Thanks very much, Rachel.

Rachel Maddow: John Bowe is the author of Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. You can learn more about the book and about John's work at

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