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Feature

Letters to the Editor, fall 2005

From M, fall 2005

A photo in the summer 2005 M article "U prof combats slavery" carried the following caption:

In Florida, migrant field workers head for the truck with buckets of banana peppers. Migrant workers in the U.S. live and work in dangerous conditions, for little money, and with scant protection from abuses.

In response to the article and caption, we received the following two letters. They are followed by a note from professor David Weissbrodt (subject of the original article), who responded at our request.

I take issue with the article on "U prof combats slavery" (M summer 2005) and the picture caption depicting [migrant workers] and implying that they are in slavery. Slavery is involuntary Servitude!!! These migrant workers are here of their own free will--you are off in LA LA land...Our former neighbors used to have migrant workers for their potato crops--I personally talked to them on many occasions and they were elated that they could come to the US and make money. They told us that they would go back to Mexico in the off-season and live very well with the money that they made here in the US.

Lyle Clemenson

Slavery to me "suggests" some stringent factors: No wages, none, zero. No ability to leave a job even by walking away; in other words a sort of imprisonment. No redress or access to any person or entity that could alleviate the bondage or "get some message out," however difficult it might be, to help with the problem... Does anyone at your publication seriously doubt that the caption unmistakably suggest that the three guys shown are Slaves? That they are not employees? That they receive no wages, are physically disallowed to leave the farm or whatever, have no access to aid--aid from the local, state, or federal folks? These would be, to me, the basic outlines of folks who are not employees no matter how awful their living situation, but are just flat-ass captives. I think [migrant workers] are employees.

Brian F. Leo Weissbrodt response:

The photograph in question came from a series of stories published in December 2003 by the Palm Beach Post after a nine-month investigation into the conditions facing migrant workers in central and southern Florida. While migrant workers do not generally face conditions that are tantamount to slavery, the articles do reflect some cases in which Mexican farm workers (like the ones in the photo) paid smugglers a fee (for example, $750-$1,000) to bring them to the United States on the promise that they would be paid $150 for a 10-hour day picking tomatoes, so that they could pay off the debt and then be able to bring money home to their families. When they arrived, however, they found that the pay was $15 per day; they were locked up at night in a small, roach and snake-infested trailer and not permitted to leave. Labor contractors beat workers who tried to escape. When a few of the workers were able to get free and report their situation to the U.S. Department of Labor, the labor contractors were prosecuted and convicted for smuggling and involuntary servitude under U.S. law.

Migrants in these cases came to the U.S. of their own free will, entered their employment voluntarily, and were paid a very modest wage. Nonetheless, their entry to the U.S. violated immigration law and was the result of illegal smuggling; they could not leave their employment; and their wages were insufficient for them to escape the illegal debts they owed the smugglers. Those conditions qualify as a contemporary form of slavery. Slavery does not only include the "chattel slavery" of the past in which the master owned his slaves. In the modern context, the circumstances of the enslaved person are crucial to identify what constitutes slavery, including (1) the degree of restriction of the individual's inherent right to freedom of movement, (2) the degree of control of the individual's personal belongings, and (3) the existence of informed consent and a full understanding of the nature of the relationship between the parties.

The article in M did not suggest that all migrant workers are subjected to such deplorable and illegal conditions. The article was making the point that the phenomenon of slavery has not only arisen in history, but occurs today and even in some places in the United States.