A common misconception, ingrained both in the liberal and Marxist traditions, is that unfree labour – work that is performed under some form of coercion – is a remnant of the past, at odds with modern capitalism. Or else, a criminal activity, an abuse of deviant individuals over unfortunate, helpless victims. Yet in the United States, the society that has most extolled the virtues of the free market economy, unfree labour has continued to exist in the Twentieth Century (and beyond) and informed important aspects of its political economy, under the aegis of the state and with the protection of the law.
20th century exploitation of racial minorities
In my research, which I recently presented at the Interdisciplinary Labour Studies Seminar at Middlesex and at the Institute of Historical Research of the University of London, I explore the evolution of practices of unfree labour in Twentieth-Century United States where they were most glaring, in the agricultural farm work of the southern and south-west states where they ensnared racial minorities such as African Americans and then, increasingly, migrants from Mexico and the West Indies.
As long as racial segregation existed, black farm labourers and sharecroppers were induced in debt, often obtained with fraud, that kept them in virtual bondage, at the mercy of a planter or an employer, until that debt had been repaid. Because the accounts were kept by the landowner and the threat of violence was omnipresent, releasing workers from such bondage was left to the whims of most powerful party in the contract. Peonage, as this system came to be known, often affected black sharecroppers in the Cotton Belt or employees in the lumber and turpentine camps where wages were too low to attract any domestic migrant labour without a degree of coercion. Law enforcement helped by fining African Americans for vagrancy and other trivial offenses and giving them the option between the chain gang or working on the fields.
The case that I found evocative of how unfree labour changed in the Twentieth century occurred in southern Florida, in sugarcane plantations which were at the vanguard of the agro-industry in terms of rational organisation and capitalization. Sugarcane harvesting is one of the most fatiguing and dangerous jobs in agriculture and, in the 1940s, once the Great Depression was on the wane, large growers such as the US Sugar Corporation, found it difficult to attract cheap labour for this seasonal task – typically running from November to April. Drawing on the labour culture of the South, they employed all the instruments of peonage known locally, including luring workers with fraudulent promises or rounding them up with vagrancy charges, and then kept them under close surveillance in the secluded quarters.
Almost a century after emancipation, plantation work was still deemed suitable only for African Americans and modern companies such as US Sugar, established with northern capital, had a racialised vision of how their workforce should be selected. No white American, in their view, was suitable for this task.
Charged with ‘peonage’, but never prosecuted, US Sugar changed its labour strategy during the Second World War, when African Americans fled to occupy jobs in the defense industry or were drafted in the army. With the help of the Government the agro-industry brought in guest workers from Mexico and the West Indies.
In the case of Florida, sugar growers obtained permission to employ workers from Bahama, Barbados, and, especially, Jamaica, during harvest season. Nominally under a contract that gave them a minimum of protection, these workers were actually indentured labour: they could work only for the employers to which they were destined, they would be arrested and deported for any misbehaviour, including claiming what was due to them, and a part of their wages would be withheld in case of deportation and their name blacklisted for future entry to the United States.
These workers were not slaves, but neither were they free. Similarly overt to be source of abuses was the most famous guest worker programme of the day, which brought braceros from Mexico, mainly destined to the south-west. Rationalised as a war emergency, the Bracero programme lasted until 1964, when it was closed after having been mired in controversy. Although sugar growers do not employ guestworkers since the 1990s, the H2 programme continues to exist.
Unfree labour today
If President-elect Trump will carry out some of his electoral pledges, both guestworkers and undocumented immigrants are set to become even more vulnerable to the infringement of their labour and human rights. Unfree labour practices prosper in societies that denigrate immigrant labour, while at the same time exploiting it. However, my research shows that these attitudes and practices have not emerged with the Trump campaign but are deeply ingrained in 20th century United States history, in which a gap has emerged between the realities of unfree labour and the judicial application of the 13th Amendment.
This is visible in the discrepancy between the human rights treaties of which the US is part and US statutes and case law. The former define involuntary servitude in broad terms, open to all forms of coercion; the latter offer a narrow interpretation based on physical coercion or threat of violence, a conception reminiscent of 19th century African American slavery and at odds with the current standards of the International Labour Organisation and NGOs. This restrictive interpretation has harmed the protection of human and labour rights in the United States and will continue to do so under a Trump presidency.