Slavery is real and plays a huge role in feeding America, and it will continue if we keep buying everyday items from those who exploit immigrants, author John Bowe said tonight at Auburn University.

Bowe details the desperate paths that lead immigrants from Mexico, India, and other parts of the developing world to the U.S. in his book Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

Here’s one example Bowe gave Thursday in his talk to a full auditorium at Foy Hall: A couple of laborers in southern Mexico, “people from near Cancun, but not beach guys,” could barely find enough work to feed their families, so they get help from a coyote — a Mexican term for an immigrant smuggler — to cross the border into New Mexico, where the coyote puts them up in a shack until one day he says, “Do you want to hop in the van and go to Florida?”

Unfamiliar with the area, unable to speak English in a place where it’s the unofficial language of the land, ignorant of basic details about their location and therefore dependent on the coyote to tell them their next move, they agreed. Twenty-seven workers piled into a van rigged with super-tough suspension for the three-day drive with no food and no bathroom stops. “They told me they just passed a jug,” Bowe said. Their destination: Immokalee, Fla., which Bowe called “one of those places in the world that’s been belching out horrible things for a long time — it used to be African-Americans who were exploited there, and then it was the Haitians, and then the Caribbeans, and now, Mexicans.”

Immokalee is where they met a labor contractor nicknamed El Diablo, Spanish for “the Devil” — “He even looks like the devil, with bloodshot eyes,” Bowe said.

“So you want to work for me?” El Diablo asked. “I paid the coyote $1,000 to bring you here. Now you all owe me $1,000, and you’ll work it off. If you don’t, and you run away, I’ll pump you full of lead and throw you to the alligators.”

How modern slavery works

This is modern slavery, Bowe said, coerced labor under the threat of violence and under circumstances that make it almost impossible to escape. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang “I owe my soul to the company store” in reference to the plight of coal miners who overreached their credit by buying food from their employers. Something just like that accounts for much of the migrants’ economic dependence on El Diablo, who overcharged them for barracks-style housing, made them overpay for groceries at his wife’s store, and deducted those expenses from their pay and left each with $20 a week for their labor, which they felt duty-bound to send home to feed their families. “We realized we were in their pocket,” one migrant told Bowe. They were stuck.

Their poverty and suffering, Bowe said, have benefitted multinational beverage companies such as Tropicana and Pepsi and fast-food corporations such as McDonald’s and Taco Bell that enjoy lower prices on produce used in their products. Bowe said 80,000 to 90,000 migrant workers, mostly in the United States without authorization, pick oranges for labor contractors who managed the harvest for companies such as Lykes Brothers and Consolidated Citrus. These companies sell to Tropicana, which Bowe said posted revenue of $2 billion a year that helped pad the bottom line of its parent company, Pepsico, which posted $65 billion in revenue.

Bowe began to lose some of the audience when he showed a slide illustrating that wealth in the United States is so concentrated that the top 1 percent would own the northwest quarter of the Lower 48 states, an area from roughly the Oklahoma Panhandle to the Canadian border and from the Colorado-Kansas line to the Pacific Ocean.

“He’s interesting,” a woman muttered to her neighbor as she rose from her seat to leave Foy Auditorium. “But I don’t think I believe him.”

She was the kind of skeptic Bowe seemed most worried about: those who simply could not believe that slavery by any definition exists.

“That disconnect, where you hear something wrong and don’t know what it is, and you think this can’t be real, that’s how we think about slavery,” Bowe said. “And you don’t know about it so you don’t feel a need to do something about it, and that is what I wanted to write about.”

People are loath to do anything about this modern form of peon slavery, Bowe said, and have been reluctant to fix the system for hundreds of years.

“The enslaver always says, ‘I’m only trying to help these people from the Third World,’” Bowe said. Yet enjoying the fruits of others’ unpaid labor has its price. Bowe pointed to Benjamin Franklin, who said slavery ruined the economy by making it impossible for free labor to compete with slave labor and ruined society by making the children of slavers lazy, spoiled, entitled, stupid and arrogant.

What you can do to stop modern slavery

“I used to really suck at offering solutions to this,” Bowe said. But he recommended we all do three things to break the cycle of exploitation and reward for corporations:

  • Buy locally: Buy your food from local vendors and buy your clothing from local manufacturers. Bosses can’t mistreat their workers if they have to see their customers every day and their customers know what’s going on.
  •  Support activists: The Campaign for Fair Food engages in low-cost, highly effective lobbying by picketing outside the headquarters of multinational corporations that rely on exploitation by labor contractors. Recent targets include Wendy’s and Taco Bell, and activists are now focusing on Publix and Whole Foods. He pointed to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Student/Farmworker Alliance. “It’s cute that these companies are spending all this money on social responsibility, but most of it’s a waste of time. They’re like sharks: You can talk nice to a shark all you want, but it’s more effective to whack them on the nose, and they’ll go away. Milton Friedman figured this out a long time ago: Corporations are designed to maximize shareholder profits and won’t respond until they see their behavior drives away customers and embarrasses shareholders. Nobody wants to go on the record supporting slavery, so we’ve got that going for us.”
  • Become an activist yourself: “Get up off your ass and get involved,” Bowe said. “I know you want to think pressing a button on the Internet, ‘I oppose slavery,’ and that’s it, will do it. It won’t.” The Student/Farmworker Alliance plans actions in Atlanta and other major Southern cities in the coming weeks, he said, so go to their websites, make contact with protest organizers, and join the fight.

You don’t have to turn it into your mission in life.

“I don’t do this full time,” Bowe said. “I don’t have it in me to be angry 24/7. Your options are either kill the rich or help lift up the poor.”