«Neo-Slavery» Re-emerging As A Business Strategy

By Brenda Walker on May 14, 2009 at 12:00am

Some patriotic friends of borders may have thought that a severe recession would be an impossible time for Washington to push through an amnesty for 10-30 million lawbreaking foreigners. But Senator Charles Schumer, Chair of the Subcommittee on Immigration, thinks now is a fine time for amnesty. He held a hearing April 30 to explore how to accomplish that goal.

Why?

It’s just another example the lengths to which business elites will go to protect and expand their firehose supply of the cheapest workers possible—by promoting everything from open borders to H-1b visas and permissive legal immigration. Labor can never be too cheap nor too exploitable for the captains of industry

Hence the substantial lobbying arm in Washington to thwart the well-being of citizen workers. A recent FAIR report found that 521 corporations, business groups, unions, nonprofits and the like reported lobbying on three important immigration bills introduced in Congress over the past three years. Of those, 98 percent of activity was to secure more permissive immigration laws and lessened enforcement to ensure cheap, «willing» workers keep coming.

It’s that important. Slave-cheap labor is worth billions of dollars to employers. They will never rest.

I was reminded again of the shortsighted selfishness of business when I watched a BookTV talk given by Douglas A. Blackmon on his recent book, Slavery by Another Name. (You can watch the lecture online at its BookTV Archive page and clicking on the red «Watch» button.)

Blackmon found, during his seven years of research, that very cheap labor was obtained in the post-Civil War South by authorities arresting black men on flimsy charges like vagrancy and then leasing them out to commercial enterprises such as farming and mining.

Blackmon himself calls the practice «neo-slavery», which is a helpful term. He writes:

«…in truth, since the beginning of the 20th century, a new form of forced labor involving hundreds of thousands of people, and terrorizing hundreds of thousands of other people, had emerged in the South, that amounted to what I call ‘neo-slavery,’ and we should call it what it was, the age of neo-slavery.» [KFPK transcript, May 6, 2009]

The Civil War itself was fought over slave labor. More than 600,000 men died. But the answer to the ante-bellum question «Who will pick the cotton?» (if slavery were ended) turned out to be: «The same people who picked it before». Land owners and other users of unskilled labor strongly preferred their labor costs to be very close to zero.

Blackmon made an interesting observation in the interview about how old habits are difficult to end:

«One of the things that became clear to me as I studied what was happening on cotton farms and in other settings across the South, was that number one, the southern economy and in some respects the national economy, were addicted to forced slavery. White southerners really had no idea how to grow cotton without the availability of armies of forced Black workers to do that work, both in terms of the need for manual laborers and the intellectual knowledge that was necessary to deploy those laborers in the setting of cotton farms and even in industrial settings. This addiction to forced labor was so great that there was this enormous compulsion to return to it.»

Of course, slaves did not supply totally «free» labor because the owner had to feed, clothe and house them. It would be interesting if a number cruncher could analyze and compare the costs between actual slavery in the South with its 21st century replacement—the illegal immigration of millions who volunteer for the worst sort of treatment with very little pay.

The neo-slaves of the iPod age may sleep several to a room or even outdoors. They depend upon do-gooders in churches to help out with clothing and other assistance. The unwilling taxpayer is forced to supplement the «cheap» labor with food stamps, housing and free-to-aliens medical care. The threat of deportation keeps them in line.

Even the U.S. government has recognized that absurdly low wages in situations of ignorance or servitude cross the line. The New York Times has reported that several Florida labor contractors had been convicted of enslaving farm workers [Middlemen in the Low-Wage Economy, by Steven Greenhouse, December 28, 2003]. The same report also noted how a New York grocery chain paid ignorant Africans $2 an hour instead of the $5.15 then required by law.

In the aftermath of the noisy Postville, Iowa, meatpacking raid of a year ago, the Des Moines Register reported that illegal alien employees were paid $5 an hour and later $6 after a few months, while the state minimum wage is $7.25. [Claims of ID fraud lead to largest raid in state history, by Nigel Duara, William Petroski and Grant Schulte, May 12, 2008.] Meatpacking was a middle-class gig for blue-collar citizens not that many years ago. But no longer.

Some illegals manage to save some money or send cash home to the family, even receiving such miserable wages. But that progress is only possible because of the subsidies provided by us unhappy taxpayers with a gun held to our heads.

Of course, not all business owners are oppressive thieving monsters—far from it. But when one company in a community chooses the illegal alien route, it completely rejiggers the playing field so the cheaters win.

When one roofer or construction firm can underbid others by 30 or 40 percent, those in competition must struggle to adjust somehow. Although they can’t.

The story of one builder in Colorado is instructive:

«Bob is an independent contractor, bidding on individual jobs. ‘Guys are coming in with bids that are impossible’, he tells me. After all his time in the business, ‘no way can they be as efficient in time and material as me’. The difference has to be in the cost of labor. ‘They’re not paying the taxes and insurance that I am’. Insurance, workmen’s compensation and taxes add about 40 percent to the cost of legally employed workers. When you add the lower wages that immigrants are often willing to take, there’s plenty of opportunity for competing contractors to underbid Bob and still make a tidy profit…

 

 «‘I’ve gone in to spray a house and there’s a guy sleeping in the bathtub, with a microwave set up in the kitchen. I’m thinking, «You moved into this house for two weeks to hang and paint it, you’re gonna get cash from somebody, and he’s gonna pick you up and drive you to the next one.’

«In this way, some construction trades are turning into the equivalent of migrant labor. Workers don’t have insurance or workmen’s comp, so if they are hurt or worn out on the job, they are simply replaced. Workers can be used up, and the builders and contractors higher up the food chain can keep more of the profits for themselves.

«‘The quality of life has changed drastically,’ says Bob. ‘I don’t want to live like that. I want to go home and live with my family.'»

[Whatever we do about illegal immigration, somebody suffers, by Philip Cafaro, Writers on the Range, July 16, 2008]

But now in fact Bob the contractor has been forced to «live like that»—to travel far from his home to find work, a middle-class American effectively forced down into the ranks of migrant labor.

Slavery has been a tragic theme throughout human history. Market forces with no moral leavening can be brutal.

But Rome had its Spartacus and the United States had Nat Turner. We also had abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Owen Lovejoy and Susan B. Anthony, leaders who applied an ethical standard to labor that included human dignity.

Now, however, we have regressed. We are faced with a modern reincarnation of «neo-slavery».

The manacles may be gone. But the exploitation is back, as stubborn as ever.

Workplace safety has taken a nosedive with the presence of millions of throw-away workers. Citizens who have jobs find their earnings are stagnating or declining.

The powerful business interests have the system fine-tuned to benefit them alone. You can tell how unbalanced Washington has become against the welfare of the American people when the immigration doors remain wide open in a worsening economy, and top Congressional leaders, like Nancy Pelosi, take the side of foreigners against citizens.

By contrast, European countries are tightening up on immigration to protect their own people. Imagine that.

Patriots have remarked that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. That aphorism has never been more true than today—and doubly so when borders and sovereignty are at risk.

Brenda Walker (email her) lives in Northern California and publishes two websites, LimitsToGrowth.org and ImmigrationsHumanCost.org. She has her fingers crossed that Hub

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