Modern-day slavery is among America’s best kept secrets. In our “land of the free,” thousands of workers are forced to sacrifice their freedom to growers or farm labor contractors (FLC). Octavia Butler addresses modern-day slavery in The Parable of the Sower, first when Joanne Garfield’s family moves to Oliver, California to work for KSF, a water purification company. She later introduces Emery and her daughter Tori, and Mora along with his daughter Doe, who escaped from agricultural slavery and fled north. These two separate sections of the novel reflect the conditions that were occurring throughout the 20th century, including the 1980s and 1990s when Butler was writing her novel.
When Lauren’s town hears news that KSF has bought the town of Oliver and is offering work, some of the families get excited and inquire into the opportunity. This includes Lauren’s best friend, Joanne Garfield’s family. They eventually move, and Lauren’s step-mother, Cory, begs her father to move their family also. However, he warns — and Lauren has utter faith in his accuracy — that KSF is not looking out for the well-being of its workers, but for the money in its pockets. He describes the system as one in which the workers become gradually enslaved; the companies offer wages too low to live on — let alone support a family on — and only allow the workers to buy their products at inflated prices. When the workers fall into debt, the companies begin to restrict their rights until they become slaves; they use the debt as a justification for restrictions on human rights.
The slavery that Lauren’s father describes is not one that exists only in fiction. A case study conducted for Oxfam International entitled “Like Machines in the Fields: Workers without Rights in American Agriculture” outlines some of the conditions for farmworkers in Florida, North Carolina and California — for purposes of this paper I will focus on the statements about California (where Butler’s novel is focused). A state law was passed in the 1970s to protect farmers such as by maintaining a minimum wage (federal labor laws do not apply to farmworkers), however, as Manuel Gómez, a Californian farm labor contractor (FLC), stated, “Ninety-nine percent of all contractors work outside of the law. Not one, not two—all of us” (2). While this figure is likely exaggerated, it nonetheless expresses a firsthand account that even in California, one of the few states that had legislation to protect these workers in the 1980s and 1990s, the laws often proved useless in practice.
The FLCs provide workers to the growers, who would rather use these services to hire temporary seasonal workers than hire full-time (on-the-books) workers. They hire them and are responsible for monitering their working conditions. However, it is a mutual authority between them and the growers over the workers because the growers often want them to impose stricter rules on the workers; “Farm labor contracting exists for the growers’ benefit… By using a contractor, a grower avoids having to deal with the labor laws. If I don’t do the job the way he wants, he’ll just call another contractor” (20).
Contractors regularly take advantage of the farmworkers’ vulnerability—their desperate need for employment, their lack of alternative opportunities, especially given their often illegal status, their inability to speak English, etc. They pay less than growers would, offer workers no benefits, but charge them for food, rent, transportation and tools at inflated prices. They use a variety of ways to cheat workers out of part of their wages (a common scheme is to pocket the workers’ wage deductions for Social Security or taxes), and in the most extreme cases, subject them to debt peonage (e.g., forcing illegal immigrants to work off smuggling debts). (20)
The workers hardly stand a chance next to the growers and FLCs, who take advantage of them to increase their own profits in a highly competitive industry.
When Butler decided to incorporate this form of slavery into her writing, she was reflecting on the time period. If The Parable of the Sower is to be viewed as a survival guide to a world that we may one day face, than the current slavery would only worsen. The industry is so powerful that to many, the question of slavery is a mere legend or hearsay. But this world existed in the 1980s and 1990s (and still exists today) and the human rights violations that occur contradict the “freedom” that American abolitionists believed they won for all people of this country. Yet, slavery persists.