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Dirty work

How powerless Americans have been entrapped in forced labor and poverty

Workers in a strawberry field in California. In 'Nobodies,' John Bowe examines how 'free people benefit from slave labor.' Workers in a strawberry field in California. In "Nobodies," John Bowe examines how "free people benefit from slave labor." (new york times/robert galbraith)

Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy
By John Bowe
Random House, 304 pp., $25.95

The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America
By Katherine S. Newman and Victor Tan Chen
Beacon, 258 pp., $24.95

In the heated debate about undocumented immigrant workers toiling away in the United States, we don't hear much about the condition of abject bondage under which many of these laborers toil in what is supposed be the world's freest nation. These working people are the subject of "Nobodies," a disturbing new study by journalist John Bowe, who believes that the American public has been numbed by horrific news stories of contract laborers who are trapped and suffocated in ship containers, railroad cars, and trailer trucks. Bowe hopes his book will wake up a nation unaware of what is happening to these shadow people.

To this end, the author provides three sharply written case studies of what he calls "labor slavery."

In one case, a manufacturer of oil tanks imported 53 welders from India to Oklahoma, then asked them to surrender their documents and stay in dormitories with steel doors that made their quarters seem like jails. Facing bad publicity and a lawsuit, the manufacturer closed his business, but he never believed he was doing anything wrong, writes Bowe, never understood why his employees felt intimidated and terrorized.

An even more alarming case study takes place in South Florida - "ground zero for modern slavery" in the nation - where a ruthless labor contractor named Ramos kept his Mexican and Central American tomato pickers in bondage at an isolated camp. A federal court convicted Ramos and his brothers of conspiring to hold people in involuntary servitude, and on various other charges.

This was one of six successful federal cases prosecuted in South Florida, none of which involved charges against corporate executives of food chains because purveyors like Taco Bell are exempt from prosecution under federal anti-slavery laws, even if they benefit from coerced labor.

Bowe's final case concerns the fate of Asians working in the sex trade and the garment industry of Saipan, in Micronesia. The island became a US commonwealth in 1978, and in the 1990s a haven for garment production where apparel giants like Gap and Ralph Lauren could import clothes made for $3 an hour without paying tariff duties.

Bowe spent two years on Saipan talking to native islanders as well as Asian factory workers and prostitutes. He writes evocatively about the awesome beauty of the island and the "depressing tawdriness of everything human beings have done to it." People on Saipan seemed universally "doleful." This is what Bowe calls the "dark side" of globalization - a condition ignored by prophets of the new global age of market freedom.

Bowe wonders whether "slavery" is the right word to describe the condition of workers who had been restricted, intimidated, threatened, and unpaid for a few weeks' work. Unfortunately, he doesn't settle the matter, nor does he explore the difference between temporary and permanent bondage - the kind of conditions black children of chattel slaves inherited. Though less alarming than the word "slavery," the term "involuntary servitude" used in the 13th Amendment is still the designation best used to characterize the distressing range of forced labor that still exists in our nation.

This confusion about naming the problem reveals that Bowe is not as skilled at historical and political argument as he is at investigative journalism; nonetheless, his book should still serve to arouse a numbed public to the ways powerless people are being coerced in thousands of workplaces.

In "The Missing Class" sociologist Katherine S. Newman and journalist Victor Tan Chen shine a light on another nearly invisible group of people who live in economic peril - workers with steady jobs that put them in the $20,000-$40,000 income bracket.

For seven years Newman and Chen studied nine families in New York City who belong to this new "missing class" of near poor. The result is a compelling group portrait of heroic families living at risk of descending into poverty if someone is laid off, taken ill, or trapped in the clutches of predatory loan sharks and credit card companies.

The authors tell these people's stories not just to evoke empathy but to reveal the many forces, like the credit industry, that pull them back toward poverty and prevent their children from getting ahead.

Newman and Chen are not asking just for sympathy but attainable public policies that would, for example, expand health protection for people with few choices, cut predatory interest rates, open up access to equity through home ownership, and increase job mobility though career ladder programs in workplaces.

The authors don't base their argument - at least explicitly - on appeals to the nearly abandoned New Deal and Great Society belief that greater equal opportunity would raise all boats together. Instead, Newman and Chen invoke a conservative American belief in the value of hard work: the promise that, if you sacrifice, you will reap the rewards for yourself and your children.

Since this is clearly a false promise to families of "the missing class," the book ends with a troubling question: If these hard-working, hard-pressed people continue to struggle and fail, and their children do too, then what confidence can anyone else have in this vaunted American Dream that is supposed to make us so exceptional as a nation?

James Green teaches history at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is working on a new book about West Virginia coal miners.

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