Years from now, when the story of our corporate age is told with the clarity of hindsight, I’m guessing one of the phrases scholars will keep coming back to is “plausible deniability.” The tale will capture our era’s wide disparities in wealth, and its almost universal indifference to the rampant mistreatment of workers from countries less fortunate than our own.
After all, when we buy a product-a piece of fruit, a new suit, an iPod-how many of us really comprehend what was required to bring that product to our tables, our backs, or our pockets? The expanding global economy demands that corporations seek out the cheapest possible labor to maximize profit, and stimulate growth and innovation. With free trade has come an explosion of global inequality that has left more than 2.8 billion people living on less than $2 a day. We in the wealthy West, living and dining off the fruits of their labor, can honestly say we are unaware of the devil’s bargain we bought into. Or that if we do know, the problem is simply too great to comprehend and beyond our means to do anything about, save changing our lifestyles entirely. Best, in other words, not to think about it.
This kind of willful indifference, you might remember, is the line of defense Michael Jordan used to justify his sponsorship deal with Nike Inc. during the 1990s, when that corporation was coming under heavy fire from labor-rights groups for its use of underage, sweatshop labor in Indonesia. It’s not my business, he argued; I just wear the shoes. Or take the case of fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, who agreed to create a line of affordable clothing for Target Corp. stores. Asked if he knew where his clothes were being manufactured, and by whom under what conditions, he responded, “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know.”
So it will probably come as no surprise that when Jonathan Blum, vice president for public relations of Yum! Brands Inc. (parent of Taco Bell, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut, among others), learned his company had been doing business for years with a farming subcontractor in Florida that grossly underpaid its largely illegal work force, he said, “My gosh, I’m sorry, but I don’t think it has anything to do with us.” The subcontractor’s workers picked tomatoes in what one observer termed “sweatshop-like conditions,” without the right to organize, without access to basic rights, protections, or benefits. If celebrities like Jordan and Mizrahi can stand in front of a camera and claim reasonable unaccountability, why shouldn’t a corporate mouthpiece like Blum do the same?
This is the world John Bowe stumbled into in 2001. Bowe, a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and National Public Radio’s “This American Life”, was in North Carolina working on a book called Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs when he heard about a community group in South Florida that had uncovered a slavery ring in local orange groves. Fascinated, Bowe headed to the small town of Lake Placid, where rumors were spreading of a labor contractor in the orange-picking business named Ramiro Ramos. Nicknamed “El Diablo,” Ramos had worked for some of the biggest names in the food-service industry, including Pepsico Inc.’s Tropicana, Coca-Cola Co.’s Minute Maid, McDonald’s Corp., Wendy’s International Inc., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. He had become notorious for illegally hiring migrant workers from Mexico and using manipulation, financial coercion, deportation threats, and even violence (up to and including murder) to maintain a work force of essentially unpaid and terrified slave labor that had little or no recourse to the American legal system.
Shocked to learn that slavery still existed in the United States nearly 140 years after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, Bowe found himself staring at an enormous catalog of unanswered questions: How could this be happening in America? How common is it? How can people not know about it? Most sobering of all, “What did it mean that I was drinking someone else’s misery for breakfast?”
Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy is Bowe’s answers. The book focuses on fruit pickers in South Florida; Indian welders in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Asian garment workers and sex slaves in the tiny U.S. commonwealth of Saipan in the Pacific Ocean. Employing a tone that’s both journalistic and crusading-heavy on facts and firsthand accounts but clear in its sense of moral indignation-Bowe aims to make explicit the connection between the rise of the global market-with its promises of cheap goods, high employment, and peace-and the growing number of people throughout the world living in poverty, doomed to spend their lives providing goods and services for people born into wealthier circumstances. “I want to make it absolutely clear,” he writes, “that everything in this book is a simple and patent metaphor for the dark potential of [globalization].” More than a demonstration of slavery’s existence in the United Sates, Nobodies is an indictment of the new global economy and of everyone (himself included) who profits by it while conveniently forgetting those who don’t.
The new slavery, Bowe discovered, is not quite like the old slavery-in some ways it’s more sinister, more subtle, and harder to define. If, like Bowe, you wonder how slavery could persist in a country that prides itself on freedom, human dignity, and worker rights, the answer lies in the definition of the word itself. In Lake Placid, for example, workers Bowe met weren’t chained to one another or locked into their rooms at night. They were never bought or sold; there were no official documents relegating them to second-class status. In theory at least, they were free to come and go as they chose. Those who were there had come of their own free will. Bowe had to wonder, are they really slaves?
The answer, he concluded, is yes. In the new global economy, where borders have become negotiable and cheap foreign labor has become the foundation for corporate success, workers like the Mexicans in Florida were living under a new form of slavery. Instead of being whipped, the men were intimidated, taken to their bare, crowded lodgings far from civilization and guarded by men with guns. Instead of being beaten, the men-already in debt to their bosses for the cost of transportation from Mexico to Arizona and then to Florida-were threatened, told that if they tried to leave before paying off their debts, they would be sent back to their impoverished villages or slums. These modern-day slave owners didn’t need whips or chains; they knew they could rely on their workers’ fears of poverty and deportation to keep them in line.
Nobodies is full of these horror stories. Bowe meets Indian welders brought to Oklahoma by a manufacturer of oil-refinery tanks. Having mortgaged their futures to make American wages, they find out the contracts they’d signed in India weren’t binding, that they were starting their jobs already drowning in debt to their new employers, and that they would be earning far less than minimum wages. And they would be living in subhuman conditions while being intimidated by their supervisors. The supervisors, by the way, had the Indians’ passports and visas, and could put them on a plane back to India, unpaid, whenever they saw fit. Meanwhile, life as a slave in Saipan-with its inhuman working conditions, bleak urban surroundings, and high levels of rape, forced prostitution, and other violence-makes life in Lake Placid or Tulsa sound like a dream.
But that’s Saipan. Most of us couldn’t find it on a map of the Northern Mariana Islands, much less claim we know about its social and economic conditions or think Saipan has anything to do with us. It’s that “plausible deniability” effect: We didn’t know what was going on, and even if we did, what could we possibly do about it? In his rousing conclusion, Bowe argues that the thing to be done is admit that free-market globalization doesn’t work for the 95 percent of the world’s population living in destitution. The “invisible hand” of the market is neither a wise nor a moral agent, and it needs to be tempered with global labor standards-worldwide minimum wages, 40-hour workweeks, guaranteed health care and education-not so we can sleep at night knowing the wretched of the Earth aren’t wretched because of us, but for a more pressing reason: Social injustice and economic inequality can go on only so long before the people on the bottom of the pyramid grow desperate enough to do something about their situations. Witness the rise of Islamic fundamentalism or the proliferation of prison gangs in Brazil: These ultraviolent groups thrive in areas of blatant disparity, and if the global market continues to ignore them, Bowe argues, these “social pandemics” will become as menacing as global warming. “The issue,” he writes, “will then become one of self-preservation more than justice. Never mind the question, ‘Are you fine with your comfort relying on the misery of billions?’ The question would be, ‘Do you want them to come kill you?’”
Bowe does a remarkable job of combining his reporter’s instincts with a deep sense of humanity and a social critic’s eye for the relevant detail and the well-timed outburst. He writes with his mind and his heart. He could have come off as a scold, demanding that his readers accept his worldview, a view brought down from the mountaintop. On the other hand, Nobodies could have been a mere collection of facts, dates, and police reports. Instead it is heartbreaking and important, with the sense of humanity necessary to speak for those who’ve been denied the ability to speak for themselves.
Josh Rosenblatt is a writer living in Austin.