America Indentured, Part I : What it Really Means to be MADE IN AMERICA
[Note: This is the first in a four part series, in which I hope to start a conversation about the working conditions we allow — or even welcome — when it comes to society’s least important or desirable citizens. Part II will be posted one week from today. Also, please note that while I don’t believe a trigger warning is warranted, there is absolutely some unpleasant subject matter ahead.]
Over the past several weeks, flailing POTUS candidate Mike Huckabee has made minor horse-race headlines by speaking out on the subject of slavery. Not once, but twice.
The first instance came on September 9, when the Southern Baptist minister declared that the court’s holding Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis in contempt was akin to supporting slavery. Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Governor Huckabee suggested that if one believed the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges went against the grain of Constitutional authority, that a person had both a legal right and a moral duty to ignore the ruling:
So I go back to my question. Is slavery the law of the land? Should it have been the law of the land because Dred Scott said so? Was that a correct decision? Should the courts have been irrevocably followed on that?
Huckabee’s question, though clothed in the tapestry of historic precedent and legal jurisprudence, is largely a moral one. If the courts rule in favor of a custom as obscene as slavery, he seems to be asking, what is our obligation to follow that ruling? My own personal objections to declaring same-sex marriage the moral equivalent of human bondage aside, Huckabee’s use of Dred Scott should not be all that surprising. In America, after all, there are two historic examples always reached for when one is looking for an over-the-top example of evil: Hitler, and slavery.
What was surprising, especially in the context of his earlier comments regarding Davis, was his conversation with conservative radio host Jan Mickelson a few weeks later.
If you do not live in Iowa, it is likely that you are unfamiliar with Jan Mickelson. To say that Jan Mickelson is “just” a local talk show host, however, would be somewhat incomplete. His influence in Iowa Republican politics — and therefore in GOP presidential primaries — is enormous, as the L.A. Times noted in 2007. In February of this year, in a feature story for Bloomberg News, Dave Weigel reported that Mickelson is one of three grassroots gatekeepers “no GOP candidate [hoping for the POTUS nod] can ignore.”
This past August, Mickelson briefly made the national news cycle when he floated the idea of reintroducing slavery as a “common sense” solution to illegal immigration:
Anyone who is in the state of Iowa that who is not here legally and who cannot demonstrate their legal status to the satisfaction of the local and state authorities here in the State of Iowa, [becomes] property of the State of Iowa. So if you are here without our permission, and we have given you two months to leave, and you’re still here, and we find that you’re still here after we we’ve given you the deadline to leave, then you become property of the State of Iowa. And we have a job for you. And we start using compelled labor, the people who are here illegally would therefore be owned by the state and become an asset of the state rather than a liability and we start inventing jobs for them to do.
Mickelson did not initially use the word “slavery” in his proposal. However, when a caller suggested that the proposal would be seen as slavery, Mickelson responded, “Well, what’s wrong with slavery?” Mickelson, who considers himself a Constitutional Originalist, went on to say that the verbiage of the 13th amendment actually allows for the legal practice of both slavery and indentured servitude. 1
In talk radio circles, this is one of those bats**t-crazy, populist ideas that’s picked up what might be described as some minor “but-for” steam: But for the way liberals would paint this as evil, it would be workable. But for the way the liberal mainstream media would demonize us for bringing back slavery to those who deserve it, a “free” labor source of non-citizens could be used as a way to not only solve the immigration problem, but also to reduce both taxes and debt; and so on. Indeed, the caller I noted above — the one who initially called in to take Mickelson to task for promoting slavery — was himself swayed by the radio show host’s argument that by entering the country illegally, South-of-the-border aliens had already expressed a de facto agreement to become property of the state.
By the time Huckabee sat down as a guest on Mickelson’s show two weeks ago, the idea of making people property of the state had been expanded as a solution to the entire criminal justice system. During the interview, Mickelson asked Huckabee if he did not support scrapping the very concept of prisons — a “pagan invention,” dismissed Mickelson — in favor of a Biblical-based criminal justice system that followed the mandate of Exodus 22:3. Under such a system, Mickelson pitched, those with enough money would be allowed to pay their way out of of trouble. As for those with insufficient economic resources to pay court-mandated restitution, he insisted that the state should “take them down and sell them.” When Mickelson asked if such a system wouldn’t be an improvement, Huckabee answered that “it really would be. Sometimes the best way to deal with non-violent criminal behavior is what you just suggested.”
It’s worth stopping for just a moment to zoom out and take stock of these events.
If this is your first time reading about Mickelson’s proposal to have society’s less desirables become property of the state and sold into indentured servitude, or Huckabee’s eye-popping response to this idea, it’s likely your jaw may still be hanging in disbelief. And if you are of the Left, perhaps it is merely confirmation of your assumption that the Right is nuttier than a sack of wet cats.
But to whatever degree all of this approval of slavery and indentured servitude in our modern age seems inconceivable to you, know that it really shouldn’t. For one thing, it’s not the first time we’ve seen a currently well-respected public figure come out in favor of human bondage. As I have argued before, the longer and more overly-winding (or windy) roads you’re willing to let your intellect go down in the service of winning a debate, the greater the chances you end up at a place you’d have previously sworn you’d never, ever go. 2 The human mind, after all, is an often confusing, often contradictory, and often dark thing.
But there’s actually a different, better reason why Mickelson and Huckabee’s opinions on slavery and indentured servitude shouldn’t come as a big surprise.
The truth is that what Mickelson proposes isn’t actually all that radical. In fact, to one degree or another, the United States or its citizens have been involved in some form of this type of indentured servitude on a pretty regular basis for at least the past several decades. Similar to Mickelson’s suggestions, the systems usually (but not always) involve non-citizens and criminals. And for the most part, these systems are remarkably visible. They are allowed to continue for surprisingly long periods of time, and rarely are they done underground or hidden by conspiracy. Indeed, they are likely to be well-known to legislators, government regulators, and bureaucrats alike, and also part of the public record. When they are eventually stopped — if they are eventually stopped — there is little if any punishment doled out to the perpetrators.
These systems exist, in other words, not despite our collective wishes so much as because of them.
This four-part series will look in-depth at just a few examples of these modern, publicly approved, and often perfectly legal exploitations of society’s underbelly in the U.S. labor structure. As I will show, Americans and their government are largely satisfied with systems that embrace forced and indentured servitude — often to the point where any arguments that those systems aren’t slavery or indentured servitude are a mere niggling over semantics. Further, I will demonstrate that we as a people largely approve of businesses subverting local, state, and federal employment laws — provided that we find those business’s workers to be sufficiently unimportant or contemptible. Finally, I hope to establish that this is not a Republican problem, a Democrat problem, or even a Libertarian problem. It’s an American problem, with more than enough blame to go around.
To begin this series, let’s start in that corner of America where hopeful immigrants gather to pursue their dream of American citizenship. That place where those poor and huddled masses, often with families and children still in their country of origin, have traveled to work for a free and better future. That fertile crescent of the American Dream that produces goods that proudly carry the Made In America label:
A tiny group of Pacific islands, nearly 6,000 miles west of California’s coast line and 4,000 miles west of Hawaii’s.
* * *
The Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is, in many ways, the very definition of a tropical paradise.
Situated in-between Japan and New Guinea — its two closest non-trivially sized neighbors — its topography is nothing short of gorgeous. White sands, blue seas, and lush tropical flora make CNMI look like the quintessential dreamscape of where you’d live after you win the lottery. No less an authority than the Guinness Book of World Records has declared its climate the most equitable on the planet. Google its capital island, Saipan, and the search engine will return countless photographs that make Hawaii look like Toledo, Ohio by comparison. Because of this, CNMI is rightly a poplar luxury vacation destination for wealthy Japanese vacationers.
Like most beautiful tropical islands with indigenous populations, CNMI spent hundreds of years in the possession of far-off countries after they were “discovered” by the Western world. Spain declared the islands theirs in 1541, and then sold them to Germany in 1899. After World War I, the League of Nations passed them on to Japan. Within two decades, over 50,000 Japanese citizens and military personnel lived there. Almost all of them perished during the United States’ invasion of the islands in 1944. After Japan’s defeat, the islands came under U.S. control, and in 1975 they became an American commonwealth territory. Within a year of that, U.S. legislators and business interests began to construct what many have since called a virtual slave system, what nearly everyone agrees is at the very least indentured servitude, and what a leading member of the US Congress glowingly praised as “a perfect petri dish of capitalism.”
The system created by the United States and its corporate citizens is one that can only be described as horrific. And it lasted for decades before it was finally reformed — although to what degree one believes it actually has been reformed continues to be, as we shall see later, something of a matter of faith.
How this system was allowed to fester by both major political parties is an important part of the CNMI story. So too is the current whitewashing of that story — a whitewashing perpetrated by both parties, to create the illusion that the nation’s sins were but the fault of a rogue lobbyist and disgraced Congressman. The reaction of the American public upon being informed about this abhorrent system — a revelation that was revisited and rehashed in the most public of forums regularly over a twenty year period — is perhaps the most important aspect of the story. And we will get to all of that in the second part of this series next week. But before we can fully process the hows and whys of CNMI, and how that system was finally ended (to the degree that it was), it’s important to understand what that CNMI system entailed.
* * *
After its introduction as a United States territory, CNMI was held to special, business-friendly standards in order to promote economic development. Manufacturers that setup shop in CNMI were given a three-legged stool of government non-interference on which to build and conduct business, through various legislation passed between 1976 and 1988. In many ways, this three-legged stool represented the embodiment of the libertarian dream. (Or, perhaps more accurately, the dream of a certain type of libertarian.)
The first leg of the stool was an agreement with the United States that products manufactured on a CNMI island were considered to be made on American soil. So, if you made a widget on Saipan, the capital island of CNMI, it was exempted from all taxes, tariffs, and various customs holdups to which products made in other U.S. territories or foreign countries are subjected. From a legal standpoint, shipping goods from Saipan to Texas is pretty much the same as shipping them from New York to New Jersey. This is why clothing and other goods made in Saipan are allowed to carry the label MADE IN AMERICA. 3
The second leg of the stool dealt with U.S. employment laws. Manufacturers doing business in CNMI were exempt from quite a lot of them. This included various U.S. wage laws, including the federal minimum wage, employee safety regulations, and government oversight. And as was discovered multiple times in the 1990s and 2000s, those wage and safety laws and regulations that companies were required to follow were rarely enforced. In fact, CNMI factories could have local judges bar government auditors and health and safety inspectors from entering factory grounds.
The last leg to the stool was this: CNMI was exempt from almost all U.S. immigration laws. This meant that although CNMI citizens were considered to be U.S. citizens and were thus granted basic Constitutional rights, corporations doing business could bring any number of workers from foreign countries that had no rights whatsoever. And they could do so without permission from or notification to the government. Further, a foreign worker’s status regarding both entry to the country and deportation was determined not by the U.S. or CNMI governments, but by the corporations that hired them.
Here is the result of this three-legged stool: 4
Workers were brought in by the ship-load, primarily from China, the Philippines, and other Asian and Pacific Island countries. All of these workers had signed contracts. However, the third-party headhunters employed to sign up workers tended to target illiterate women, usually with little more than a first grade education. The contracts, manufacturers, and headhunters all varied, of course, and thus so too did different contract specifics. However, there were some troubling patterns that quickly emerged.
Many women were told that by headhunters that these contracts were the first step in a fast-tracked process toward moving their families to the United States; some were even promised eventual citizenship status. They were often promised wages far greater than they would actually be paid. They were promised access to enough funds that they would be able to send back money on a regular basis to support their families until such time as the families could join them. In fact, largely because of this last bit, many who signed on had children they left behind with relatives, on the assumption that the children would soon follow. Many of the women were told that they were coming to the islands to be part of its tourism industry; most of these arrived with the understanding that they were going to be waiting tables and changing beds at posh resorts. In fact, almost all of them had been brought to CNMI to work at garment factories.
What is perhaps more important, however, is the parts of the contracts that were not shared with the women.
Workers agreed to work any amount of hours requested by their employers. Usually, this resulted in six-day, 10-14 hour work weeks; overtime was not paid. Workers going to CNMI also agreed to borrow money for the expenses needed to travel to the islands. These amounts were often grossly inflated considering they were usually taken on what were basically cargo ships. Some (more extreme) contracts listed this travel expense as high as $12,000 US. dollars; the interest on these loans could go as high as 20%. Most of the wages they earned — often just a few dollars an hour, if they were paid (many were not) — went first to pay these travel fees, meaning that workers often had to labor for years before they were free from debt.
Further, the workers agreed to waive any and all legal (and, some might say, human) rights that might otherwise be granted them. In practice, this often included the right to leave the factory compound during off hours, to attend or practice religious observances, and the right to socialize with others of their choosing.
Employers could terminate a worker at any time for any reason, and if they did so they were allowed to take the employee wages they were holding to pay for whatever expenses the employer saw fit to collect. Employers also regularly held all passports, legal papers, and any form of personal identification that the employees needed to return home.
Under these contractual conditions, the employee-employer environment developed the way you might expect, only worse.
Compounds were built to “house” employees when they were not working. These compounds often lacked basic furniture, and over the years ex-employees and human rights groups would testify before Congress that many were built without access to electricity, plumbing, or potable water. As many as twelve women would be housed in tiny, windowless rooms. In many factories, employees were not allowed to leave the compound, even when they were not working. To ensure this, these compounds were guarded both by barbed wire and private armed guards.
Physical and sexual assault were not uncommon. Worse, employers with a downturn in orders sometimes forced the women to earn money as prostitutes for the island’s tourists. Although the women were not given any form of birth control, all employment contracts strictly forbid pregnancies. If a worker did conceive, the company would have in-house staff abort the child, regardless of the employee’s wishes.
For those employees who contracted with the worst offending employers, there were only two options: The first, obviously, was to live as indentured servants until, after a sufficient amount of months or years, the company decided that a fresher body would do more work and shipped them back to their country of origin. The other was to try to escape and go home, but this was not as wise an option as one might first guess. For one thing, their passports and papers were usually held by their employers, as often times was their money. Even if a worker was able to slip past the guard and get through the barbed wire, there was nowhere for them to escape to — or at least nowhere that was enviable. Those women who did escape, as well as those terminated without pay, found that other companies on the island would not hire them. More often then not they ended up homeless, selling the only asset they still had available to them: their bodies.
* * *
I first became aware of the situation in CNMI in 1991, after Levi Strauss came under scrutiny for the conditions of their contracted manufacturers. Then, as now, the predisposition of Americans to turn every conversation about government policy into a political debate meant that everyone who discussed it — in Congress, on NPR, at my neighborhood bar — fixated on one question above all others:
Yeah, but since there’s a contract and it’s only temporary, is it really slavery?
What a stupid, useless, and short-sighted question that was then, and remains today.
Over the decade and a half that followed, up until the time a Washington, DC scandal gave everyone an out from having to face their own complicity, that’s what discussions about CNMI inevitably wrought. Not an outraged call for action, but a vapid quibble over semantics. How easily we human beings can un-see ongoing horrors, when it is in our interest to do so.
And that’s why Jan Mickelson’s idea, currently sifting through the talk-radio circuit as we speak, isn’t some crackpot, lunatic rant that could never happen. Of course it could happen. It could happen pretty easily. After all, what Mickelson proposes isn’t really that different from what we just did to hundreds of thousands of Asian women for decades. For that matter, it isn’t all that different from what we let people do to undocumented workers in this country today.
We wouldn’t call it slavery or even indentured servitude, obviously, and we certainly wouldn’t refer to “them” as property. Those are all words that would shine too bright a light on our public policy. Instead, we’d do what we always do: find euphemisms that allow us to take full advantage of cheap labor without having to face the reality of what it was we were collectively allowing.
It’s a thing to keep in mind, as the debate over what to do with undocumented workers heats up in the coming years.
[Next up: A look at how the U.S. political system, media, and public dealt with the Mariana issue over time, and collectively chose to allow it to continue unabated.]
[Images: Slave Dance with Banjo, folk art via Wikipedia; Northern Mariana, via Wikimedia; Mike Huckabee via Wikipedia; Jan Mickelson screenshot from YouTube, Immigration Day protester via Wiki Commons, Garment workers via Wiki Commons.]
- This is actually true: According to the 13th Amendment, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” [emphasis mine, obviously].
In addition, the Constitution’s protections would not be applied to non-citizens under most strict Originalists’ interpretations, making the question of illegal alien’s criminality somewhat moot anyway.
- Recently those labels have been changed to read “MADE IN AMERICA (SAIPAN).”
- There’s a lot of claims of very specific facts here, but please don’t think I’m just making this stuff up. Here is a list of source material I used while preparing this piece, where you can find everything referred to herein, and more.