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Modern Slavery

Elly Kugler
Date Published: 

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor And The Dark Side of The New Global Economy
By John Bowe
Random House, 2007

Nobodies provides a carefully researched window into the often-overlooked area of what author John Bowe calls, “labor slavery,” which he distinguishes from sex trafficking by the general societal acceptance of the practice. He defines labor slavery as “the enslavement of workers making ordinary goods intended for consumption by the general public.”

Using three different settings, Bowe reviews the ways that globalization permits and encourages the use of labor slavery. The first section focuses on networks of slave labor drawing on undocumented workers in the farmlands of Florida. The next details the ways work-visa workers often end up working for free and against their will. Finally, Bowe provides a labor portrait of Saipan, a US commonwealth which, in 2000, had some of the highest prevalence of complaints about forced labor and slavery of any state or colony of the US.
At every step of the way, Bowe makes it clear that he is telling one story of many, that the conditions he is describing are pervasive and often growing. He also makes connections between modern-day slavery and the historical enslavement of African-Americans, both pointing out similar dynamics and being clear about the differences. While most of the book is about the enslavement of immigrant workers, he also includes a piece on native workers lured from homeless shelters by labor recruiters. However, Bowe does not touch on the use of inmate labor by US prisons, which seems a sizeable oversight, since prisoners are like immigrants – dehumanized and systematically exploited for the production of ordinary goods.

Bowe has a knack for capturing the voices of the players involved; from the elderly man who still expresses no regret for masterminding a scheme to trick and control H2B visa workers in India, to the sex worker in Saipan who feels more dignity in her current job than she did at the sweatshop, to a dedicated lead organizer for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He is able to get his interviewees to speak with great candor, and interviewed people at every level of the labor slavery chain. He also interviewed a range of people working to change these systems – from labor rights attorneys to organizers to former preachers – plus, of course, many workers who try to survive and make change within the system in which they are trapped.

Nobodies is also strong because it aptly and accessibly describes the tangled web woven by labor recruiters, companies dependant on cheap labor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and weak labor enforcement agencies. Many times, people will object to the use of the word “slavery,” saying that it is different today because people can leave or because they are getting paid. But when people work out of fear for their lives, as was the case for the farmworkers in section one, it is not exactly work done out of free will. When workers owe thousands of dollars of debt to a labor recruiter and are only allowed to work for one company, which then confiscates their passports and has free reign to treat them however those at the top might want, as described in section two, those workers are not free.

Psychological impact
The conditions for H2B workers described in section two are taking place all over the country and are particularly rampant in the South. To Bowe’s assessment of ways that these workers are trapped, I add this from knowing H2B visa workers stuck in very similar situations: When immigrant workers, particularly non-English speaking workers, are sent to work in rural, xenophobic areas where it is made abundantly clear to them that they are not welcome to come into town, those workers may, in theory, leave the confines of their worksites and seek support, but in practice they know that to do so is to risk violence and potentially even death.
Nobodies also includes inspiring moments of hope and resistance created by workers laboring in these circumstances: the moment when thousands of farmworkers marched through their farming town and demanded justice for a comrade who had been beaten bloody, and the march of immigrant workers in Saipan who forced congressional representatives to listen to their stories. It is no coincidence that these are some of the most hopeful moments of the book – when marginalized, previously invisible workers suddenly rise up. These moments are frequently contrasted with the ease in which everyday consumers accept the fact that many of the goods they purchase are made with slave labor, and the complete lack of desire those involved at the higher end of the labor slavery system – such as designers – have to know anything about the conditions under which their creations are made.

Bowe also draws the thread of the psychological impact of slavery on those not enslaved throughout the book. While this may not be to everyone’s tastes, his nuanced storytelling ability creates a compelling piece that explores economics, labor systems, and immigration in an easy-to-read, often enraging, sometimes inspiring way.