New economy, antiquated labor system

Cover of "Nobodies" by John Bowe

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: Conventional wisdom says slavery in this country was abolished 150 years ago. Yet there's evidence it still exists.

John Bowe is author of a new book, "Nobodies: Modern Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy." John, welcome to the program. Give me an example of contemporary slavery in the U.S.

John Bowe: Well, the second part of the book that I read about is a case in Tulsa, where there was a guy who owned a welding company, who began experimenting with temp workers he imported from India. And very quickly he noticed, "Wow, this is kind of cool, having these really good welders for $3 an hour. Why am I paying my American guys $15, $20 an hour?" So he started bringing more of 'em, and decided that it would be a good idea to keep them on factory premises. And he started threatening them with deportation. So very quickly, things escalated into a situation where he was hiring an armed guard to sit outside of the factory, just to kind of remind them that it might not be such a great idea to leave.

Krizner: Where is the government in all of this, from your point of view?

Bowe: In my point of view, the government is busy cutting the budgets of the Department of Labor, increasing funding to these departments that everybody hates. Like OSHA, EEOC, Department of Labor. It's not very glamorous, they're not very sexy, but it used to be that there's one DOL inspector for every 30,000 workers in the United States. Now, it's one inspector for every 150,000 workers. You increase the number of inspectors, Bingo, you don't have as many workplace problems.

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 top far to be able to make it fair.

Krizner: John Bowe is the author of a new book, "Nobodies: Modern Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy." John, thanks so much for talking with us.

Bowe: Well, thank you very much.

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