Are We Eating the Fruits of Slave Labor?

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

Slavery in America is alive and well, according to author John Bowe, whose book Nobodies documents the shocking degree to which some American industries--including food producers--are exploiting foreign workers. Bowe's book is a shot across the bow to American consumers; are we so enslaved by our own addictions to cheap food and cut-price clothing that we'll still buy these things knowing they're a product of slave labor?

Bowe's book unravels the Florida-based food chain that connects Tropicana, Minute Maid, Taco Bell and McDonald's, among others, to a network of contractors who lure migrant workers into a form of indentured servitude that sounds so Dickensian you can't believe it exists in this country, in this day and age. The workers Bowe profiles in Nobodies sometimes don't get paid at all, and are essentially prisoners in squalid camps or trailer parks where they're subjected to abysmal living conditions and routinely threatened with violence if they attempt to leave.

The workers, many undocumented and most speaking little or no English, are reluctant or unable to seek help, so they make perfect victims. Their employers pay them little or nothing, and pass the savings on to the corporations who've subcontracted the production of citrus fruits and tomatoes to these shady operators so that they can reap the benefits of this sleazy system without having to worry about public relations.

After breezing through Bowe's lively, gripping expose of Florida's fruit and vegetable growers, I understand just how crucial undocumented workers are to some of our largest companies. Corporate America needs those porous borders to keep its profits flowing.

But does it, really? Bowe discussed the pervasiveness of the problem with Jon Stewart on Monday's Daily Show, and again on Tuesday with Doug Krizner of American Public Media's Marketplace:

KRIZNER: So what are the companies, then, that I might be familiar with who are taking advantage of this situation, where we have workers in conditions that we are calling slave-like?

BOWE: I would say that the conditions are bad enough, especially in the fruits and vegetables area, that pretty much every large vendor of food products -- that means McDonald's, Burger King, Wal-Mart, anybody big at the top of the supply chain -- probably has a trickle of slave-picked stuff in their supply chain.

KRIZNER: If we go up and talk a little bit about pseudo-slave labor, immigrants who have come in and are making themselves available to do work, what would be the impact if these people were to be fairly compensated for their work?

BOWE: Well, one of the things I found that was so surprising is how little money it would take to make it so that the lowest-tier workers are adequately treated. So for example, for the 1 to 2 million migrant farm workers we have in the U.S., for them all to be paid minimum wage would cost the average American household $50 a year. So I don't think it'd be stretching too far to be able to make it fair.

Bowe expresses the hope that Americans would rather not knowingly purchase goods made by slave labor. He's also optimistic about the power of organizations like the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to shine a light on this very dark side of our food chain. CIW's mission is to help migrant workers, bring their exploiters to justice, and shame corporations into raising their standards.

They've succeeded in getting the Department of Justice to prosecute some of the worst subcontractors, and they've also persuaded Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell, to pay an additional penny per pound directly to their tomato pickers. That may not sound like much, but, according to Bowe, it will nearly double the pickers' wages. And, pressured by CIW and a coalition of church and student-based groups, McDonald's has agreed to a similar program.

profiles two other industries that rely on indentured servitude besides the Florida produce growers: a Tulsa, Oklahoma pressure tank plant that imported fifty three workers from India and then essentially held them hostage, paying them three dollars an hour; and the garment industry of Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth in the Western Pacific, where workers toil for companies like Target and the Gap in sweatshop conditions while the clothes they crank out get to bear a "Made in America" label, thanks to the machinations of patriots like Tom Delay and disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Bowe writes about the grimmer aspects of globalization and capitalism run amuck in a surprisingly entertaining and engaging way, providing a wealth of facts and figures while openly acknowledging his own biases. He dissects the notion of "free trade" and wonders just how much unfairness and misery we're willing to inflict on others in pursuit of our own creature comforts.

We're paying a price, too, with millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs washing out to foreign shores and a commensurate flood of shoddy and toxic consumer goods from overseas filling our store shelves. Bowe takes issue with Thomas Friedman's rosy view of our globalized economy; a "flat" world hasn't translated to a level playing field for the workers Bowe profiles. What's so great about a flat earth, anyway? Seems like you could sail right off the edge of it without seeing the precipice.