Disguises of Slavery

One thing I learned from the cases I researched for Nobodies is how easy slavery is. Slavery rarely looks like slavery. In a piece for the SFGate titled On The Job: Nobodies: Modern-day slavery in the United States, Chris Colin offers some illustrations:

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.

In cases like these, the workers’ employers are often in league with those who helped them immigrate, or perhaps they rent out the squalid quarters where the workers stay or charge exorbitant prices for minor services like check-cashing. Finding themselves in such debt, the workers are forced to stay on — at risk of violent retribution if they leave — and surrender their wages until their obligation is paid.

Bowe captures not just the misery of these situations, but also how often they happen right under our noses. Frequently these years-long scenes of exploitation, terror and violence play out within walking distance of those who could intervene — neighbors, a hotel or gas station attendant, even police. But language barriers, fear of reprisal against family members and ignorance of the law keep the slaves from seeking help.

In cases where authorities do step in, it can be a high bar to prove slavery. On paper, the arrangement can be made to look legitimate. Meanwhile fellow immigrants are often reluctant to testify, or to talk to a government official, fearing deportation. Bowe describes how even those willing to cooperate can be difficult to work with. Profoundly poor, they lack that which facilitates basic communication and organization in this country: a phone, a permanent address, a regular work schedule… Read the whole piece…


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