The TH Interview: John Bowe, Author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy"

nobodies cover
john bowe

In Nobodies, John Bowe has crafted an incisive exposé of the seedy underbelly of modern labor practices in the U.S., which, in certain circumstances, have lent themselves to virtual enslavement. The book traces his journey from the fields of Immokalee, Florida, to the factories of Tulsa, Oklahoma - eventually taking him to the island of Saipan in the Western Pacific. Bowe is a prolific writer who has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ and many others. He co-edited Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs and was the co-screenwriter of the film "Basquiat". He is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, the Sydney Hillman Award for journalists and the Richard J. Margolis Award. We had a chance to sit down and talk to John as he prepares to embark on a tour to promote his latest book.

TH: This book's subject-matter is certainly a departure from the topics you addressed in Gig. What motivated you to write about slave labor?

I think it's one of those deals where if you hear about it, you wanna learn more about it and sort of go into town crier mode. I was driving around the country, rounding up people to interview for GIG: Americans Talk About Their jobs (the book is composed of 126 interviews, from Heidi Klum, the supermodel, to Ford assembly plant workers, smokehouse chefs, waitresses, buffalo ranchers, etc.). In North Carolina, I met a labor activist who mentioned a labor group in Florida called the Coalition for Immokalee Workers that had stumbled onto a case of slavery in the orange groves. I had known conditions were bad for migrant workers in this country, but I didn't know they were that bad. Originally, I thought that I'd simply write a magazine article about the case. But it was just too huge of a subject, and the bad treatment of was so carefully, demonically systematized, I was fascinated to see the mechanics of it all. I began to realize this wasn't just something bad happening to poor foreigners; it was something global and important happening to my country and my world, and therefore, to me. I had this epiphany that the widening income inequality around the world that we're seeing is actually very similar to global warming, sort of like this impending potential Armageddon, and it freaked me out. It still does.

I guess Nobodies is much more "serious" than other stuff I've done in the past, but it still comes from a general interest in writing about so-called "regular people," rather than about celebrities or experts, which I'm not so into. The regular people in "Nobodies" just happen to be foreign instead of American.

Were you surprised to hear that slave labor was still present in the United States?

Not totally. It's sort of like drug abuse or sexual abuse. Do we really think that stuff will ever be driven out of the human psyche? The more I learned about slavery, the more I realized it's a bit like a virus that refuses to die off. It thrives wherever it can, and as social and economic and human rights conditions improve or deteriorate in different parts of the world, it either dies off or thrives. But it's always there, lurking around, waiting to take root. So.. with the income gap between rich and poor increasingly enormously, both domestically and worldwide, and with the importation of millions of super-poor, non-English speakers into the US, it's not surprising that employers have begun to take advantage of them in every way they can. It's human nature, unfortunately. Give us a chance to be evil, and we're evil. Force us to be nice, and we're surprisingly nice.

How do you reconcile its existence with our society's oft emphatic embrace of freedom?

People who enslave others tend very often to think that what they're doing is positive. The guy I wrote about in my book in the Tulsa chapter was a good example. He kept telling the media that his enslaved workers had lied, that they had "stabbed him in the back." They were poor guys, from India, who (he felt) couldn't get enough food to eat each day. And here, he'd offered them a job, and at least some money and food. What was the problem if he kinda locked 'em up? The court found him guilty, and he'd very unequivocally broken numerous laws, but still, he felt he'd been taken advantage of and betrayed. And this delusional quality he displayed, I would argue, was perhaps extreme, but not unusual.

Modern America and ancient Greece both articulated beautifully about freedom and democracy. But in order to do that, you need a leisure class, sitting around, pontificating, and in order to have that, you need a ton of other people doing the actual work work. I'm not just talking about Bush or neo-conservatives or free marketers or whomever. Look at the guys in that movie Knocked Up. None of them did anything all day but loaf. How many millions of similarly slacker-y twenty-somethings are there in the US? What enables them to slack, of course, is the fact that millions of people around the planet work for pennies an hour. I don't wanna reconcile that, I want people to wake up and realize that if anything, globalization means that soon, we, too, might be working for pennies an hour. It's like Adam Smith in reverse. Trade with people less free than you, and your own freedom is threatened.

So.. To bring your question back home, the fact that we babble incessantly about freedom, freedom, bringing freedom to Iraq, bring free trade to the world, at the same time we've imported ten — some say twenty— million illegal immigrants who don't have the same rights Americans do — this should be ringing alarm bells, if it's not. If you hear someone talking about freedom, ask them who brings their water and food.

This book is as much about your own struggle to grasp the full ramifications of globalization as it is about exposing the seedy underbelly of unfettered free trade. How have your views on the matter changed?

Recently I encountered the term "Apnia Ethiopis" or something like that, which was something concocted by some American doctor in the 1800's purporting to explain why Africans didn't feel pain as sensitively as Europeans. Ergo, it was ok to whip and enslave them. As you delve into the history of slavery, you realize the justifications and obfuscations are endless.

When we hear pro-globalization pundits, who, by the way, are often very well paid, talking about how globalization is "lifting" hundreds of millions of poor Chinese out of poverty, we should wonder why we don't hear from the people we're supposedly "helping" so much. How do they like globalization? To not have them be in the mix is a departure from what I'd call democracy, i.e. the idea having all connected parties take part in determining what kind of world we want to live in. In my opinion, globalization is leading us in a very undemocratic direction, not in an overtly political way, but economically. And I would argue that economics and politics meet somewhere and are inseparable. Wherever you draw that line, we're becoming economically-and-therefore-politically enjoined with workers who can't vote or learn about the world through free media, who can't organize or protest. We're trading with people who are palpably less free than we are and calling it "free trade." I think that's kind of funny, don't you? So I'd feel a lot better about globalization it if we brought these people to Davos or the next WTO conference or whatever and gave them a chance to tell us about how psyched they are about globalization.

What do you think has been the impact of these unregulated labor practices on the environment relative to the effects modern corporations have traditionally exerted?

I would agree with the arch-free marketer, Milton Friedman, who said it's not right to expect corporations to reform themselves. I don't think it's right to blame corporations. I do think, however, that it's right to commit absolute war upon them, whether thru acts of boycott, violence, or politics, to reign them in, like the founders of the United States did when they imposed tons and tons of limits upon them. But until they are restrained, and their profits and well-being are threatened, corporations are going to continue doing whatever they need to do, nice or not, to the environment and to human beings alike, to keep making a profit. That's just the way power works, and that's their mission. To blame them is like blaming a cold virus for infecting people.

Very unscientifically, to answer your question, I'd say I feel is that people who are exploited by their boss, society, corporation, or whatever tend to pass it on. If I'm starving to death or working 18-hr days, where or how do I find time to care about some stupid tree or eco-system? Love pretty much seems to beget love, and hate and mistreatment beget more of the same. Raping your workers, literally or figuratively, is not, I think, very likely to turn them into tremendously sensitive people. In the end, I find it very hard and rather silly to draw a line between human rights and good environmental practice. People are part of the environment, and people's feelings determine their connection to their world. Either we develop ways to care about who or what's around us, or we don't.

You discuss the negative effects our subsidy-driven food production practices have had on millions of farmers living in underdeveloped countries. In light of this, what are your thoughts about the version of the farm bill recently passed by the House?

It hasn't passed the Senate yet, but it seems it will, and it seems to be very much a continuation of same old same old corporate welfare. There really aren't many old-fashioned "independent American farmers" anymore." Most of American agriculture is done by big agribusinesses. This is kind of old hat by now, but it's pretty well-known how American and EU subsidies create artificially low commodity prices which have the effect of bankrupting poor subsistence farmers in the Third World and forcing them off their land. They move into the nearest slum, become beggers, rag pickers, whores and car-parkers, and are thus ushered into the "new global economy." We're not talking about thousands of people, but hundreds of millions of people. So. This kind of policy isn't just a waste of American tax money, it's having a massive effect, globally.

Why do you think prominent pundits like Thomas Friedman and others in the media have had such free rein to dominate the debate about the merits of globalization? What have American citizens been missing out on?

Look at who gets quoted in The World Is Flat: one CEO after another. No Juan Valdez. No street kids. No rice paddy peasants or slum dwellers. So 99% of the people involved with this great exciting thing called globalization are left out of the discussion. That's suspect right there. I think if you're talking about something global, but don't then include all different types of people in discussions about globalization, you're consciously or unconsciously promoting the antithesis of democracy and freedom.

Friedman writes at great length about how exciting Indian's hi-tech sector is, then pauses ever so briefly to mention that the sector accounts for only 0.2 percent of employment in India. He fails to mention that the vast majority of Indians actually became poorer during the miracle period of economic reforms he taks about. It's a bit like saying, "Gee, I've been having great sex lately! Isn't sex terrific?" and forgetting to mention that you're having sex with your sibling — and that you have HIV. It's such a limited view as to be fundamentally useless.

What upsides do you see to free trade?

I think it's great that at least in theory, poor people in poor countries now have a chance to seize new technologies and figure out ways to become educated, employed and rich. I definitely think there's a slightly higher chance of that happening in some places than there used to be. And more broadly, if globalization and free trade can be progressively channeled, and we end up with a world where people around the world receive similar wages for similar kinds of work, then that's great. I mean, in America, we always talk about how all men are created equal. Why should a Malaysian lawyer or baker make so much less than one in the US, EU, or Japan?

But overall, I don't think it's globalization or "free trade" that make the world better or worse, and they aren't the things to be focused upon. After all, there was global trade back when Spain and Holland and whoever were racing to dominate trade with Africa, the Americas, Indonesia, China, etc. And "free trade" is such a broad and kind of useless term that I'm not sure it's a practical guide for much. What is important is to focus on equality and progress —social, environmental, whatever. Is globalization leading to more social justice? If so, great. I'm all for it. I certainly think it could do so, even if it's not doing such a great job so far.

What measures do you think should be taken to prevent the types of abusive practices you discuss in your book? What labor and environmental standards do you see as being necessary to create a fairer, more equal playing field?

The problems created by inequality are so huge and complicated, but the solutions to them are almost boringly simple. We have wonderful laws on the books. So does China, for that matter. We simply need to enforce the laws we have. Here in the U.S., the budgets for the Department of Labor, the EEOC, OSHA, and so on, and their state-level equivalents have been slashed for the last 35 years or so, and, perhaps coincidentally, that's when income inequality became to widen between rich and poor. If we restored some meat to these budgets — and I'm talking about amounts of money that probably get spent in half an hour in Iraq—you'd see a major difference. The number of Department of Labor inspectors used to translate into something like one inspector per 30,000 workers, and now it's one inspector per 150,000 workers. It stands to reason that the more supervisory pressure from above, the less temptation for bosses to act like jerks. Pure and simple. Solving America's abuse wouldn't be that hard at all. Doing the same thing globally is a very different story, but it's not one that I think would be so hard. It just has to be made a priority. What I found again and again in my research, however, is that it always —and I mean always — costs surprisingly little to ensure that workers are treated fairly. In American agriculture, it would cost just a couple of cents per dollar at the checkout line to make sure every migrant worker in the country gets paid fairly. For garments, world wide, it's something like 6%. The problem isn't money, per se, it's attitudes, people thinking it's ok to treat the poorest of the poor as badly as they can. And that would be one example of my research into slavery led back to the global economy. How do we keep competition between rich and poor from ripening into outright slavery? It's a matter of creating economic incentives for people to behave well.

You mention that equality and social justice should come to be viewed as the environment has. What do you mean by that?

I mean that this whole rah rah rah thing about freedom and democracy and the American way actually embodies a beautiful bunch of ideas, and that it would suck to lose them. It's easy to be cynical about them, but even though they're imperfectly embodied in the modern world, they're still miles ahead of past worlds with slaves, kings, czars, theological poo-bahs, and so on.
In the conclusion to my book, I write about this epiphany I had. The more I read about life in the world's slums, the more I realized how afraid of these people I was. And I realized that if being nice to poor people for humanitarian reasons doesn't grab you, you really have to realize: there are billions of utterly ignorant slum-dwellers. And though they're ignorant, they're certainly not stupid. They watch TV. They see how we live. And if they break out of their cages and attack us, we're doomed. Cuz I really don't think they care about the environment or about human rights. They care about getting a cellphone and some cool sunglasses and some food for their baby.

If the harsher tendencies of globalization and free trade don't get softened, and if this new chapter of history doesn't deliver at least something good to these people, they will rather predictably revolt, we can probably kiss the whole post-Enlightenment world g'bye. Like the environment we've been given, I think we just have one chance to blow it.

John Bowe is the author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy," in bookstores now.

The TH Interview: John Bowe, Author of "Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy"
In Nobodies, John Bowe has crafted an incisive exposé of the seedy underbelly of modern labor practices in the U.S., which, in certain circumstances, have lent themselves to virtual enslavement. The book traces his journey from the fields of