In his new book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy, investigative journalist John Bowe suggests that Americans call the work force behind our cheap food and clothing what it really is: slave labor.

Yes, that’s a harsh term, evoking in many Americans’ minds the horrific specter of the 19th-century African slave trade. A San Francisco Chronicle article about the book opines that while modern-day slavery may not be as out in the open, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist:

Since its abolition in the United States, slavery has lived on in a variety of disguises: tenant farming, chain gangs assembled through flimsy arrests, guest worker programs just a step away from forced servitude. Nowhere is slavery’s modern-day reconfiguration clearer than with bonded labor, an extremely common arrangement where immigrants come to a country to work, only to find themselves owing vast sums to those who help ferry them over, for housing and even for the job itself and the tools of their employment—a sack for the fruit they collect.

A review at Eating Liberally says the 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, 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.

Bowe was recently on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, talking about his book. It’s serious stuff.

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