Critical Essay on “Annals of Labor Nobodies”

John Bowe’s “Annals of Labor Nobodies” is a very ugly article describing the virtual slavery of agricultural workers. Reminiscent of public attitude toward and awareness of domestic abuse and pedophilia in most of the Twentieth Century, modern slavery is buried deep in a cesspool of ignorance, apathy and denial. Those at the “top of the heap” are protected by “buffer layers” and deniability.
Fear and brutality are tools employed to maintain the silence. Resources and alternatives for victims are scarce or nonexistent. These are among the themes presented by Boles in his review of dirty secret of one of America’s largest industries, fresh produce production; while he presents a little hope, the situation will continue to exist.
South Florida is one of the nation’s greatest citrus and tomato production areas and “ground zero for modern slavery” (Bowe, 3). Bowe describes the plight of the undocumented Mexican and Central American workers from the time of departure from their homes to their arrival in South Florida. It is a story of an “opportunity” to terrific homeland poverty which can be worse than what they left. Workers are conned and exploited throughout their journey, paying exorbitant sums to every one in the vicious chain. They are so impoverished and terrified that slave labor is their only option. As a Border Patrol agent remarked “They’re controllable. There’s no escape” (s).

There has been a great deal of consolidation of the produce farms as well as their huge customers. There are many familiar names in the food chain: ConAgra, Cargill, Tropicana, Minute Maid, Coke, Pepsi and Taco Bell. All claim a “hands off” to the issue of slave labor picking their tomatoes and oranges. The industry has long enjoyed special status exempting it from many labor laws, including overtime pay, workers’ compensation and the right to organize. Unfortunately although the price of the produce may increase, the price of labor decreases due to the large pool of workers coming from Mexico and Central America.
In 2000 the Trafficking Victims Act was made into law; unfortunately the usual congressional deal-making resulted in exempting everyone except the labor contractors from fines and imprisonment. The cases are difficult to make. Victims and witnesses are too terrified to testify. Even if they were willing and able to testify their migratory work patterns make them difficult to find. As usual the blanket of “limited resources” in law enforcement as well as state and federal prosecution offices is used but not believed. Paraphrasing one anonymous laborer, they and their plight is virtually invisible to the outside world.
Slow change is coming about and with it a shred of hope for those enslaved. Legal and social service agencies are starting to reach this dark world, and loose coalitions of workers are growing. According to one former tomato picker “change won’t come from Washington or from the lawyers. It will come from people in the field. If you change people’s consciousness, the people themselves will take care of it” (6).  He is right, of course, and the hope is if change won’t come from Washington and the lawyers, at least they will be an ally and not an impediment.
After the sentencing of convicted human traffickers the federal trial judge mentioned to the U.S. Attorneys prosecuting the case that they should not exhaust the “limited resources” prosecuting low-level thugs and enforcers. The judge, likely mindful of the powerful federal conspiracy laws, stated “others at a higher level of the fruit picking industry seem complicit in one way or another with how these activities occur” (11).
Bowe, John. “Annals of Labor Nobodies”. April 21, 2003.

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