John Bowe is a rare combination of urbane New Yorker and man of the people. Armed with a stunning gift for spontaneous wordplay and a charmer’s smile, he’s shared boxcars with hobos in the American South and gotten lost in the Sahara. While doing research for his first book, Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs (2000), a Studs Terkel-style collection of oral histories on labor, Bowe was introduced to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a community-based organization in southwest Florida. Since 1993, the group has helped immigrant agricultural workers demand fair labor practices nationwide.
Always passionate about economic disparity in the abstract sense, now Bowe found himself drawn to the concrete. Specifically, to the Coalition’s investigation into the 1997 unsolved murder of an Immokalee-area worker. He began researching and eventually published a piece about the group in the New Yorker in 2003. The story, which focused on three farm workers enslaved by the Florida labor contractors questioned in the 1997 murder case, led him further into the shadowy, sometimes violent, world of forced labor in the United States.
Over the next four years, Bowe immersed himself in the lives of three groups of forced laborers: unpaid, abused farm workers in Florida, captive Indian metalworkers in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and garment- turned sex-industry workers in Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Pacific Ocean. (In its attempt to remain independent of U.S. labor and minimum wage laws, between 1996 and 2001 Saipan supplied millions of dollars in lobbying fees to Jack Abramoff, known for his financial influence over Republican congress members, most notably, Tom Delay.) Bowe’s findings would help him to understand the true costs of globalization and eventually became his second book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy (Random House, 2007), for which he would receive the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, the Sydney Hillman Award for journalists, writers, and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good, and the Richard J. Margolis Award, dedicated to journalism that combines social concern and humor.
Exhaustively reported, the book is a disturbing yet sharply witty and compassionate investigation into modern-day slavery in America: its sources and perpetrators, and the victims who are the “nobodies” Bowe invokes in its title. But even further it is the embodiment of Bowe’s belief in the power of grassroots activism, his belief that ending slavery is within the power of every human being.
I spoke to Bowe in Saipan, on Labor Day.
–Tara Bray Smith for Guernica
Guernica: Gig concludes that human labor is moral and positive. Nobodies is much darker. What was that transition like?
John Bowe: Depressing. Once you start reaching into the roots of slavery, you’re reaching down into the DNA of human screwed-up-ness that is endless. Totally abstract, totally irrational. You’re reaching down into the heart of darkness and staying there. I stayed there for six years.
Guernica: There are an estimated 27 million enslaved people around the world, but perhaps less than 20,000 in America, though you say that number is hard to pinpoint. Nobodies is about the twilight world of illegal immigrants, unpaid contract labor, and guestworkers in the U.S., and our economy’s growing dependence on them, a phenomenon you trace back to the 1970s. You pose the question: Is the economic shift toward inequality because of Americans’ increasingly selfish attitude? Or is it due to the world being a less fair place?
John Bowe: If you’re living in a climate of rising insecurity and inequality, most people’s response is to look out for their own hide. The roots of this are easy to pinpoint. After World War II, the U.S. had unbridled sway over the whole world. It was easy to be generous. By the 1970s, as Europe and Japan became more competitive, the U.S. rewrote its tax laws. Corporations used to pay about a third of the national budget, now they pay something like eleven percent. That means you have decreased money for education and unfair tax policies, which makes for a less equal society. At the same time globalization is happening, so you have three billion poor people joining the world work force.
Guernica: Which brings us to the first section of the book, the story of three Central American farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida, who successfully tried a case against labor contractor Ramiro “El Diablo” Ramos for enslavement. American farmworkers typically come from places where overpopulation and declining commodity prices, brought on by free trade agreements and First World farm subsidies, make it so that people can’t afford to live on their own land in their own countries. Can you explain?
John Bowe: In the past, most of what farmers needed they could grow. Maybe they needed a few hundred dollars a year for tools or medicine. If the price for corn was twenty cents a pound, they could sell their surplus harvest.
Once you start reaching into the roots of slavery, you’re reaching down into the DNA of human screwed-up-ness.
But First World subsidies drop the world market for grain. The price goes from twenty cents a pound to five cents. Farmers can’t earn the necessary extra money, so they sell their land and go into the nearest city where they’re in a cash economy making two dollars a day.
Guernica: Which they can’t afford to live on, so they come to the U.S. to work, where they are often denied overtime pay, medical insurance, sick leave, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, and the right to organize. And this is in legal, non-forced labor situations. The whole Immokalee portion of the book is about this dynamic, and how it continues. But how can it be stopped?
John Bowe: If we enforce the laws that are on the books, 90 percent of this would go away, which is about as good as you can expect. But the budgets for the EEOC, the Department of Labor, and OSHA have gone down since the 1960s, and they don’t have the money or the teeth to do what they’re supposed to. There used to be a Department of Labor inspector for one out of every 70,000 farmworkers. Now it’s one out of every 150,000 workers. If it’s economically viable for these companies to take advantage of their workers, that’s what they’ll do.
Guernica: You call Tropicana to try to hold them accountable but don’t get anywhere, and it’s a disheartening moment when we realize how many layers separate these workers from the corporations that sell the goods produced, in part, using their forced labor. What can a citizen do to avoid helping American companies profit by illegal labor practices?
John Bowe: The most obvious thing is to buy local stuff from local farmers. But that’s an elitist proposal, because part of the problem is that nobody has time to shop any more, and few people have the money to buy organic stuff from boutique farmers. It’s much easier to go to the all-night Wal-mart, and cheaper. Politically there needs to be a huge awakening. Leaders should start thinking more holistically about labor, just like we’re starting to do with the environment.
Guernica: At the end of the Florida section you have a change of heart about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a grassroots labor organization, which you first see as ineffectual and somewhat patronizing. After witnessing firsthand what they accomplished in the El Diablo case, you come to the conclusion that their daily commitment to worker education and coalition building is the key to exposing and ending unfair labor practices nationwide.
John Bowe: This is where I realized my own political cluelessness. The heart of democracy is getting the head to talk to the feet. It’s getting every part of a polity to be able to communicate with each other. That is bone-crushingly boring work. It’s painful and arduous to get a radical, wealthy, educated lesbian to talk to a Mississippi redneck to figure out what they have in common. But that’s what makes a society better.
Guernica: In the second section, you make us feel a bit sorry for John Nash Pickle, president of the John Pickle Company, indicted for enslaving Indian metalworkers in Tulsa. Son of a poor, Southern sharecropping family, Pickle claims that the only thing that was going to keep his American company (they made pressure tanks) profitable was to pay the kind of wages people were getting in India, where the men whom he kept locked up in barracks without their passports were from. Even after his indictment, Pickle maintained he’d done nothing wrong. It’s a typical refrain in the book: “This is bigger than me.”
John Bowe: You need to punish the one bad guy out of several thousand to remind the others that this is the cost of doing business in an illegal way. Few people wake up and say, “I’m going to enslave some people.” In Florida, you have an evolved system that couldn’t be more efficient, solid, and mean, the top so isolated from the bottom that there seems to be no relationship. But John Pickle was a one-man band and amateurish. He thought this would be a way to cut corners. Once his employees started complaining, he got more coercive, which led to more complaints, which led to more coercion, which escalated into a situation where he was hiring an armed guard to sit outside of the barracks.
Guernica: The most complex situation in the book takes place in Saipan. You lived on the island for three years, researching and writing Nobodies.
John Bowe: Saipan is a U.S. colonial outpost in the Pacific that we inherited after World War II from the Japanese. In the 1970s it decided to join the U.S. as a commonwealth, which means that it recognizes the sovereignty of the United States, but it’s self-governing. It’s supposed to have American laws and obey the Constitution, but there are exceptions: the island has control over its own minimum wage, immigration, and customs.
If it’s economically viable for these companies to take advantage of their workers, that’s what they’ll do.
Because Saipan is three hours from Japan and twelve from the States, it made more sense to be importing workers from Asia. So the U.S. government hired cheap Chinese, Korean, and Filipino workers to build the schools and hospitals and sewer lines. What was born was the guestworker model. Immediately it became everyone’s idea that local people are not supposed to work. Only foreign people work. It takes about two seconds for people—nice people, horrible people—to ingest this mentality: “Why, I can’t possibly take out my own garbage! That’s wrong in the following sixteen ways!”
Guernica: You note that the rise of capitalism coincided with the worldwide decline in slavery, citing Adam Smith’s statement that “the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of any.” But in Saipan, you come to the conclusion that slavery isn’t about economics, it’s about power.
John Bowe: Slavery is inefficient. Besides being morally unsavory, and besides the fact that it changes the tenor of a society in ways that most people would agree is negative, there’s the fact that, economically, it’s a disaster. There are very few good reasons for slavery. So you wonder, why do people do it?
Guernica: In Florida you have a rather cut-and-dried situation of illegal labor practices that are, for the most part, economically based, what you see in Saipan is the psychological underpinning of slavery, for which there doesn’t seem to be an answer.
John Bowe: The trajectory of the book is, beware of what’s inside you. You will unwittingly always be seeking ways of exploiting other people. It’s your responsibility and society’s responsibility to keep that in check. It only takes a generation to forget about something big like slavery or World War II or the Depression. No normal modern person walks around remembering what that world must have been like. But now here’s this thing called globalization. Now here’s the fact that we’re all buying stuff from this nation of slaves in China. They’re not actually slaves but they aren’t free, and we think that’s fine. “This is their shot at prosperity.” Some people justify it that way, but I think that’s crap.
Guernica: Do you see China taking steps to be more vigilant in their labor practices?
John Bowe: China’s main government is pretty enlightened right now. They realize that unless they do something about the environment and wealth inequality, it’s all over.
The trajectory of the book is, beware of what’s inside you.
There will be huge unrest, and that’s China’s history over and over again. What’s funny is that now the local leaders are refusing to do what the top guys are telling them. So the brass is saying, “We need to allow these guys to organize,” and immediately the American Chamber of Commerce rushes in and says, “We don’t think that’s a good idea. Labor costs will go up, and we might be forced to move operations.” It’s not just that we need to be more vigilant. That’s too simple. We need some kind of trading mechanism that rewards countries that allow free elections, free media, free labor organizing. People have this very convenient assumption that if China embraces free trade, things will become freer politically. But that’s a naive assumption, one that I don’t think is borne out.
Guernica: That reminds me of the story of Li Lan at the end of the book. She starts in the garment industry in Saipan and ends up being a sex worker, then deported. But her experience in Saipan gives her a sense of unique identity that she yearned for back in China. She lived through something exciting, and even when she leaves she says she might return.
John Bowe: We can’t imagine how deadly boring living in rural China is. One girl told me she never had a beer until she got to Saipan. “If I was hungry, I would just eat rice,” she said. That worldview tells you so much, equating beer with rice. You’re there to put food in your mouth, there’s no such thing as having fun.
Guernica: The ending of the book was fairly damning. You write, “If you can read this page you’re on top of the world and billions and billions of people are beneath you. Your ignorance and your lack of a program will likely equal the squalor of your grandchildren’s existence.” What would “having a program” entail?
John Bowe: When you have meetings like Davos and the W.T.O., half the people there need to be representative of poor people and working people. That’s fair. The head can’t keep talking like there’s only a head. The head is connected to the bowels, which is connected to the feet. You have to get it so that everyone in the body is aware of it being a body. This idea that dog eats dog: It’s not a very interesting ideology, and it’s not sustainable. So what would it look like? More fair. Possibly a little more boring.
Guernica: More like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers?
John Bowe: You get to be free and you get to be rich and you get to be a democracy, and before you know it, the tendency toward inequality creeps back into society on a macro level, and into people’s psyches on a micro level. The thing I keep coming to in the book, is, inequality is the magic drug. It’s like the ring in Lord of the Rings: it turns nice people into deceived, horrible vampires with fangs and claws, who would do anything to defend that situation. So in a way it is true, the world can be seen as a struggle between master versus slave again and again, in all these different permutations. For all that hollow-sounding stuff about freedom when you hear it coming out of the mouths of corporate speakers or Bush, even though it’s done cynically and imperfectly and unevenly, it’s still a lot nicer than being subjected, master-slave, whatever. It really is worth jibber-jabbering about.