Modern Slavery Comes to Kansas

Published on The Wall Street Journal, by THOMAS FRANK, June 17, 2009.

Back in grade school our teachers would take us to the statehouse in Topeka, Kan., and maneuver us in front of John Steuart Curry’s terrifying mural of John Brown, trying to make abolitionism seem fresh and vivid. But we were children of the 1970s and knew that slavery was a brutish subject from long ago. This was the modern world. If we thought about such things at all, we understood that the concerns of our time were matters like inflation and the Problem of Conformity …

… The days of appreciative servitude are over now, however, and a spokesman for the city’s hoteliers told the Kansas City Star that they had nothing to do with the labor recruiter’s alleged distasteful practices.

But I suspect this problem won’t be brushed off so easily. Hotel chains may denounce their former labor recruiter, but the Web site of the hotel industry’s trade association still bellows its support for the federal H-2B visa program that may have made it all possible.

However, according to Ana Avendano, the director of the Immigrant Worker Program at the AFL-CIO, the federal visa program builds worker powerlessness into the equation. When workers sign up with labor recruiters overseas, she told me, they often “have to leave a deed to their house or some other collateral to ensure they don’t leave the program.” Once here in America, of course, they can’t quit, or else they lose their visa status.

It’s a recipe for indenture even without the old-school flourishes allegedly added by the Kansas City recruiters. As I was told by the author John Bowe, an authority on modern slave systems, if you import workers without rights equal to ours “of course they’re going to get exploited.”

What I keep wondering is why we have such a program. Unemployment is over 9% and climbing. Why make it worse?

The answer comes in another choice phrase from the Web site of the accused: Bring on Giant Labor and “your recruiting, hiring and payroll expenses will drastically drop.”

It’s a “labor solution,” all right. It’s “a win-win situation,” even. For everyone but the workers. (full text).

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