About

This blog belongs to the John Bowe who is neither a B+ level English actor nor an Australian race car driver. This is the John Bowe who just wrote a book called Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

I was born in 1964, in rural Minnesota, and grew up playing the drums for variously hapless, improbable rock bands. Later, I sensed a need to grace the world with my singing talents and (characteristically ahead of the curve) became one of the Midwest’s first white rappers. Simultaneously, I attended the University of Minnesota and received an undergraduate degree with honors in English in 1987.

My studies were interrupted for two years while I dropped out, hitchhiked across the Sahara desert, herded cows on an Argentine cattle ranch, bailed water on a trader’s barge in the Amazon and crewed on a cargo ship sailing from Brazil to Boston. For several years after graduating from college, I continued to spend a few weeks each winter taking time off from my job as a house painter to hitchhike and tour the southern U.S. by cargo train, armed with a bag of books.

I received a Masters degree in film at Columbia University in 1996. That year, I co-wrote the script for the film Basquiat, directed by Julian Schnabel and was also a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab. In 1997 and ’98, I co-founded an award-winning literary and humor website called Word.com. I spent a few years writing screenplays I could never finish while doing freelance journalism as a day job. The journalism and the website led to co-editing the book GIG: Americans Talk About Their Jobs in 2000, which was widely and highly acclaimed and elevated the journalism sideline to a career.

This led to writing about slavery for The New Yorker magazine, which evolved into my most recent book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy.

The book just came out this September, and the reception thus far is proving to be gratifying and tremendous. I will be making appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bloomberg Financial News, NPR’s Marketplace, This American Life, and The World. I have also lined up speaking engagements in book stores, universities, Seattle’s Town Hall, and the Carnegie Center, a UN-based forum for human rights discussions. For information about events or to read articles or interview transcripts, please visit my personal website.

14 responses to “About

  1. I founded and staffed the Office of Human Rights for the Catholic Church in the CNMI (92-95). My worked with over 1000 abused workers during my stay in the CNMI. My work and mainly that of the Doromal family led to whatever lame reforms that have happend in CNMI since we left.

    Besides greatly appreciating your Norman Fell reference I share your fustration with the peoples of the CNMI. While I was the Church could not have found folks to people a 1950 like Civil Rights Commission. I found two government attorneys who shared my horror of the place. I greatly appreciate your willingness to report on the local perspective on the mess.

    I came to Saipan after a working over 20 years in various advocacy positions in Washington State. In that time I lobbied for Legal Services,
    Washington Poverty Law Advocates and the Coalition for the Homeless. I was the first professional advocate to be given a free hand to try to bust the place.

    The Church was totally unprepaired to address the human/labor crisis that was staring them in the face. The contract workers most at risk of horrific abuse were Filipino, who were Catholic like their oppressors.

    The Bishop and the Chancellor of the Diocese
    wanted the federal government to intervene.
    When Phil Sheenan came to Saipan in 1993 he called me asking for help in covering the story.
    I was encouraged to help him.

    His front page story featured the plight of u-drive workers abandonded by their Korean employer. I was from one of those workers I got the employment contract you quoted in your book.

    I don’t know if you interview Wendy for your book if you didn’t you lost out.

    She has led the advocacy effort for reform since 1995. I tried as well. I got the Seattle Times to publish the first expose on Preston Gates/ Abramoff’s efforts in 1998.

    If you are interested I can give you a deeper contextual understanding of the place then you currently enjoy.

    Phil

  2. Johnboy!

    A delight to stumble upon the blog, as well as to have you recently materialize in my living room alongside John Stewart.

    Well done on the book. I’m am just finishing up Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” on Lincoln and his eclectic cabinet, which opened my eyes to some of the nuances of the original debate over slavery.

    Cheers! Jack Mason, jkmason@us.ibm.com

  3. Nobodies is a great book! I just completed it for my sociology class.
    Zdarova! John Chavez

  4. Your book really made me wonder about how much our comfort grows out of the suffering of others. About how in order to keep our standard of living, we must lower that standard for others. The identity of these “others” is what I believe intrigues me most. I wonder if these workers were White, as opposed to Latino, Indian and East Asian if they would be exposed to such treatment. Would more public outrage be incurred? For example, if we were to move the garment industry to America, would white workers take those jobs? I believe that if they were to the wages and living conditions would be drastically different.

  5. I appreciated the shocking descriptions of modern day slavery in America and the struggles that some immigrant employees were forced to endure that were expressed in your book. However, I wonder if by revealing this information whether or not it will make a difference due to the fact that we (America) depend on cheap labor and ignore the process behind the clothing we buy. People are always looking for a bargain and never think about where the work behind the product is coming from. I feel like with the exposure of information like this, people may either feel guilty or ignore the fact that the clothes/products they purchase are made by people under unbearable working conditions. In fact in many instances, people pass on the responsibility and leave the resolutions to the government.

    I believe that the book will/have shock people, like myself, that there are conditions that exist like this within the United States or within U.S. territories, but that excuses can always be made. For example, the fact that these are not American citizens, and that maybe the places they are coming from have worse conditions. I am not in anyway condoning these excuses but simply stating a perspective. Although there are always problems when writing a controversial piece of work, I appreciated the perspective portrayed in “Nobodies” and that there are places one can go to find the truth about issues such as this.

  6. Dear John Bowe,

    I truly enjoyed reading your book for my sociology class this semester. I learned so much about our global economy, the forgotton slave worker, and the ways in which governments refuse to help those in need.

    I had a few lingering questions and critiques after finishing the book. I am just curious to know how one is supposed to change the system that is in place right now. It appears that we as a capitalist system are dependent on the labor of those workers in Saipan and the other countries you mentioned. It would seem that even those workers are dependent on this system that exploits them. If we are to truely make labor laws reach to third world countries, would this in fact have a negative effect on the workers? The factories would just leave and go somewhere else and exploit others. The workers would now become jobless and then back to where they started. What can truly be done that would both help these workers provide for their families as well as give them some sort of protection? Is this sort of thing possible in the capitalist system that dominates the global trade? It appears that it would be impossible to protect the worker and give them labor as long as capitalism exists, but eliminating capitalism does not appear to be the best solution. What am I to do as a consumer in a capitalist system now that I have finished your book I guess is what I’m left with.

    Thanks again for your hard work and wonderful book. Good luck and I hope that as a young person I can help continue the work your are doing.

    Selena Levy

  7. While I have absolutely no first hand experience like some others do on the subject matter, we did read your book in my college sociology class. I have to say it is by far one of the most engaging stories I’ve read in a while. I think part of that sad fact is because the stories in your book are true. It’s amazing to me that things like these still happen today much less happen in the United States. There is such a fine line between what is considered slavery or forced servitude and what is considered labor rights violation. You have shed some very interesting light on a situation that is not at the forefront of American society. We would like to think after the civil rights movement and especially after we have elected a black president that slavery, something that goes so far back in are nation’s history still exists within our borders today. It was an interesting read and something that this country definitely needs to focus on in the future with our new leaders. My personal take is that I feel its nearly impossible to make a decision without being present in the situation first hand and talking with the workers to see what kind of violations took place. The apathetic stance of the people in the government needs to change. You did what not many people would want to do and spent the time to look into these matters. I would like to commend you on a Great job with the book.

  8. Mr. Bowe,
    Your book gave a face to a social problem that I had always known to exist but never fully understood. I come from an area in Southern California where most illegal immigrants live a very nice life in comparison to those described in your book, and so when I started reading, it was easy to assume you were painting an extreme version of events that do not occur all too often. However, in reading more about the garment industry in Saipan, I now realize it is a problem of global proportions and is not confined to states near the Border. How can this social problem be changed in a realistic manner, acknowledging that capitalism, though imperfect, is the dominant system for global trade? Is a revolution of sorts really necessary, or may the problem be fixed aptly through government reform?

  9. Before reading your book I was aware that there were labor violations happening outside of the U.S., but not inside. It is appalling to me that our country says that we do not condone slavery yet we still have these cases where the workers are virtual slaves. I am still not certain whether or not I believe it is actually slavery, but I do think that it is wrong and is very close to slavery.

    I really appreciate all the work you have put into investigating these cases, after reading your book that I am going to be doing what I can to not support and more labor violations.

    Kyla

  10. I never knew all these things were going on around me, especially everything in Saipan, until I read this book. I felt like I’d gotten insight into where all the stuff I owned came from and who made it. It makes me want to be a cautious consumer so I don’t unintentionally support the mistreatment of all the workers, the only thing is, could that really be possible? Are any of the solutions people can think of actually possible to help these people?

  11. Mr. Bowe, I am writing for Sudarat Musikawong’s Navigating Social Worlds class at Willamette University. I thought your book was accessible and written with a form that was easy to follow and yet always interesting. I agree that it is time we redefined the term ‘slavery’ to fit the circumstances experienced by so many people in America today. We had a discussion during class about the severity of slavery and how redefining the term might somehow detract from the experiences of slaves in the American south. I personally believe that the experiences of so many of these foreign workers is comparable, although by no means identical, to the traditional “version” of slavery. Thank you for doing so much work to bring this important topic to light. It is refreshing as an American (and therefore as a rampant consumer) to be reminded of just how the goods I consume arrived at my table.

  12. I just purchased your book on modern slave trade. I can’t wait to read and and see what your perspective on the issues surrounding slave trade are. It’s an issue I’ve been really interested about for 8 years. I also just read the NY times article about you.

  13. John Bowe,
    Just read the Times article and wanted to send you a message: take heart, brother! Like you, I focused on my career and having fun throughout my thirties with the abstract dream of marrying and starting a family someday. By age 39 I started to wonder if my window was closing. Then I met my beautiful, intelligent wife at a museum two months before I turned 41. I’ll be 45 next week and we have a beautiful son and a house in the ‘burbs of San Francisco, and I’m proudly ‘boring and normal’. You will get what you want.

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