Malcolm David Logan's Reviews > Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy

Nobodies by John Bowe
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Dec 16, 2007

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Recommended for: those concerned about globalization
Read in December, 2007

John Bowe is worried about the corrupting influences of globalization and issues a credible warning about the dangers of labor exploitation throughout the world; he is an engaging writer and at points this book is a genuine page turner; but, for all that, it fails in its main objective, to expose the sinister problem of slave labor in the USA. It appears that in spite of Bowe's best efforts slave labor is still pretty much an abberation here. He cites three cases: migrant workers in Florida whose illegal status and ignorance of the language are the most coercive elements in keeping them enthrall to their employer; East Indian workers at a welding plant in Tulsa who, he admits, might be sensaltionalizing their bondage in order to attain a more favorable visa status; and the quasi-third-world protectorate of American Saipan where Chinese apparel workers are systematically exploited by a backwater government in league with sweatshop owners. And yet the closest he can come to a clear cut example of slavery is the sex workers in Saipan, who, it occurs to me, are "enslaved" pretty much the same way in every American city, so why travel to Saipan? Well, because the rumors of labor abuse there were so rife Bowe believed he would find evidence of slavery, which was the agenda. Sadly (or not, depending on how you look at it) he came up short. At this point, he might have taken a different tact and written a book about the temptation to abuse labor in a globalized economy, which is pretty much where he ends up anyway, but he hangs on to the notion of slavery to the detriment of his findings and the weakening of his credibility. Look, when you march out a word like "slavery" you'd better have plenty of evidence of physical coercian to compell people to do something against their wills. The presence of labor contracts, freedom of movement and the refusal of the "enslaved" to simply remove themselves from their conditions when they have the opportunity, smacks of a raw labor deal, not a tied-to-the-whipping-post scenario. After all, the worst Bowe can come up with to indict the oppressors who stand in for slavemasters in this book comes from the mouth of a resident of Saipan who says of one such, "He'll get away with as much as he can. If you give him room, he'll abuse people. If you watch over him, he'll comply. Whatever he can do to make money he'll do." A pretty standard observation about the attitude of many American employers and a ringing endorsement of the need for government regulation of labor, but an example of slavery? That's a little too strong, certainly misleading, and perhaps a tad disingenuous.
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message 1: by Marlow (new)

Marlow Malcolm: Sounds like you missed the portion of Bowe's book where he addresses precisely this point -- where one crosses the line from a bad labor deal to the category of slavery per se. He does a fine job of distilling the essence, the meaning, of slavery, and distinguishing it from it's familiar trappings, so that one can recognize it in its diverse forms and locales.

Idiosyncratic I would suggest you read Not For Sale, written by a San Francisco lawyer who discovered his local favourite cheapie restaurant had slave labour. Or try Invisible Chains, written by a law professor at UBC on human trafficking in Canada. The apartment building I live in here in Vancouver, Canada had a guy running a mini-brothel, pimping young Chinese women who spoke almost no English; we had to get the sex crimes unit involved. To state that slavery is an "aberration" shows a remarkable lack of awareness - and reading.

Idiosyncratic Further to my last comment, which was admittedly written in a kind of knee-jerk, reactionary way - I work with low-income people and see a lot of exploitation and abuse, so I am extremely sensitive to suggestions that abuse rarely happens. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon - domestic workers (e.g. nannies) are also another very vulnerable group. A Vancouver couple was just charged this week with human smuggling and trafficking, because they forced their nanny to work round the clock, and emotionally and physically abused her. I wish it was uncommon, but it's not.

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