Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy
By John Bowe
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published September 18th 2007 by Random House
“We all seek control. Control equals power. Power corrupts. Corruption makes us blind, tyrannical, and desperate to justify our behavior. I state this with less judgement than the words may suggest. I think human nature has both lovely and evil aspects. But let’s agree that the evil ones aren’t pretty.”
I read this book over three years ago and I think about it all the time. The stories about the “Nobodies” has changed the way that I live. My shopping habits have been affected by John Bowe, and my desire for stuff also diminished.
This book is a “biopsy of slavery’s guts.” It shows slavery’s guts by following three places and looking at how slavery looks different than it has in the past. The places are Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Saipan, a commonwealth of the United States of America. It is eye- opening to see that not everything that is “Made in the USA” is free of slave labor. It bothers me to know that slavery has masked itself to look normal, it is hard to spot in most cases.
These stories involve products that you or I might use on a daily basis. We’ve all purchased produce from farms in Florida even if we didn’t know it. This book shows us how a few farms use brutality and force to keep people enslaved, just to keep the price of tomatoes and lettuce for fast food joints low. Cruel men and women who are not willing to make less money but are willing to treat people worse than you’d treat a machine. Farms that might look normal to any passerby might be filled with modern day slaves.
“Today’s farmworkers are almost entirely foreign-born. For the vast majority of them, farmwork isn’t a lifestyle choice or a preference. It’s a matter of survival.” Most of these farmworkers are sending money back to their families who live in abject poverty. Their money is what provides for their wives, children, mothers and in some cases entire villages. But as these migrant workers cross borders, often illegally, they are already wanting to stay below the radar, and this makes them more vulnerable. “About 40 percent of South Florida’s laborers are new each season, and they are often unsure of their rights (or the idea of rights in general).” It is so easy to see how these ‘nobodies’ might be taken advantage of and why they wouldn’t report any abuse.
The farms that are described in these stories are farms where lettuce and tomatoes for our favorite fast food joints and large grocery chains come from. The processes are described in such a way that shows how hard it is to know if you have actually purchased slave labor veggies. Big corporations can keep a clean conscience to a large extent because slavery only happens on certain farms, and they might never be able to see these farms. But the pinch that they put on the suppliers of these products cuts into the profits and some owners of these farms feel as though they need ‘the edge’ in profit that slavery brings. “It is staggering to contemplate the power and vast reach of such near monopolies.” We give companies power with each and every purchase we make from them. If make fewer purchases, we don’t feed into their power.
Nobodies will also take you to the greed of a construction business in Tulsa, Oklahoma where men are brought over legally from India. They were tricked into coming to America with the promise of a better life and then forced to work in dangerous and harsh conditions. These men were never paid. They were hoping to send good money to their families back home. What looked like a great opportunity turned into a nightmare. “To keep the men in line, the company told them that if they tried to leave the location where they were being forcibly held, police and immigration officials would be called to arrest them.”
The author writes: “It is easy to forget that we, as a species, have spent a far greater proportion of our existence flogging and killing than sending one another text messages with smiley faces…” However, slavery is not easy to see because there are times when people are locked up. This particular case of slavery housed all them men on site away from a residential location. Plus, the men didn’t speak English. So they were isolated and trapped; in these situations hope begins to fade away.
We are often kept in ignorance about the crime of slavery. Slavery is so confusing and even in the retelling of slaves' stories we can see that they are not straight forward. But too often we believe: “If I don’t know or believe I’m hurting you, I’m not hurting you.” And with this attitude we turn a blind eye to what goes on. However, if you read this book, it will be far harder to turn an eye and that is why I’d recommend it.
Lastly Nobodies looked at Saipan and how they make cheap “Made in America” clothes. This was completely eye-opening on how the "Made in America" label isn’t as moral as I once thought. Staying away from slavery isn’t as easy as purchasing “Made in America” products. The stories of fraud, cover-ups and the lack of options that are afforded to the men and women who are brought to Saipan are hard to know about. It is difficult to know because I, like you don’t want to have any part of slavery. The vast contrast of the wealthy homeowners and slave workers on the Island of Saipan breaks my heart.
It was after reading this section in the book is when my shopping habits really changed. I want to have integrity. I don’t want to buy stuff made by slaves if I can help it. This is not easy. It takes patience and investigation to ensure that I can be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem. I know I represent a family of five, and we can’t change the worldwide trend, but we can play our part.
Slavery in the legal sense means that the slaver used force, fraud or coercion to enslave their victims. This book contained all these tactics being used on American soil and makes us aware and more able to see what goes on with stuff we cannot see. I would love slavery to end in my lifetime. I would love for justice to prevail.
I hope and pray that we may open our eyes to these atrocities. I never would willing take part in slavery, but now I know that all I have to do to take part in slavery is keep my eyes closed. I don’t want to do this anymore. Nobodies helps give eyes to what I cannot see. Please purchase and read. If you’d like to talk about it call me up, it is because of books like Nobodies that I have devoted my life to help end slavery.
Pages 267-68 - all quotes come from this book.