A man toils in the hot sun. He is picking the fruit and vegetables, the kind that are on our sandwiches purchased from a fast food restaurant, the kind that grace the salads we prepare for dinner. If the man working in the field is lucky, he is able to garner a spot closest to the truck where he turns out his bushels. If not he must walk down a long row of plants to deliver his bushel of just picked fruit and vegetables. His walk is long and makes the day seem endless and tiring. It is hot and the sun is burning bright. There is no shelter from the beating rays of the bright sun. His day is not a mere eight hour shift, with a one hour lunch. More likely it is a “sun up” to “sun down” shift, with a half hour lunch break thrown in where he can fit it.
It is picking season, the harvest is ready, and time is of the essence. The more he picks the more he is paid. It is a constant grind, a six day a week job. From this crop he will move onto to another, following the fields that are ready to harvest. From the field he does not go to a nice home or a warm meal. His home is a cramp dilapidated trailer. Many men live in the trailer that was meant for no more than four people. Dirty mattresses cover the floor, the shower is filthy and a bare bulb hung from the ceiling lights the room. No one would choose to live this way.
Many of us have a romantic notion about where our food comes from. We see beautiful fruits and vegetables displayed at the store and notions of a man on a tractor, a quaint farmhouse in a pastoral setting come to mind. We simply don’t think about the path our food takes before it ends up on our table.
The food industry is no longer made up of small farms run “mom and pop” style. Instead a huge corporation will own a company that purchases the crops that go into making their product, like tomatoes for Del Monte. Someone else owns the land and someone else acts as a middleman who supplies workers to work the fields. These workers are desperate. They will be lured into working and living in dreadful conditions and then too scared to leave, only because they were gullible enough to think they would be treated fairly and paid a living wage. These are modern day slaves and they exist right here in the good old USA.
Many factors contribute to hiding the practice of slave labor. Big companies distance themselves from the actual illegal practice by not owning the land that is being farmed and not hiring the workers directly, but hiring a labor contractor to secure the workers. Big companies hide behind the letter of the law, knowing full well of the abhorrent conditions of the workers who supply the corporate giant with a product. If the law does not deter these companies to do the right thing, sometimes community protest can. Consumers who become educated will often boycott a product simply based on the knowledge that the company is engaging in shady practices. Globalization, greed and money is the motivation for this inhumane treatment of workers. If a company’s bottom line is being threatened, then suddenly what is being called into question will be dropped. No questions asked. If only we knew.
New York Public Library will host a FREE progam on Tuesday September 9th 2008, at 6:30 PM on the 6th floor of the Mid-Manhattan Library. Author John Bowe will be discussing his new book, Nobodies: Modern American Slave Labor and the Dark Side of the New Global Economy. John Bowe has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, The American Prospect, National Public Radio’s This American Life, McSweeney’s, and others. He is the co-editor of , Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs, one of Harvard Business Review’s best books of 2000, and co-screenwriter of the film Basquiat. John Bowe's website and blog.