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  • My grandfather once worked on a French rubber plantation in the central highlands of Vietnam where he quickly became promoted to a foreman. His French, while barely adequate, was better than most of the Vietnamese who toiled at the plantation, most of the workers were peasants who lived a subsistence life not far removed from slavery, desperate people, in rags, famished children, barefoot. That year the Red River delta had flooded, and so people were desperate for work under any conditions.

    And so they became part of the colonial-industrial production system that would maul them, use these bodies as machines to produce cheap Michelin tires. It did not matter the insufferable conditions, the long work days, the broiling sun, the meager wages. They had no choice, they mortgaged their health, their future so that their children could eat today.

    My grandfather did not last very long at the plantation. He saw a woman, pregnant, dehydrated, fainting, in the tropical heat, he saw an old man, being slapped in the face by a North African guard, the feeling of humiliation was unbearable, it reminded him of that first time, when he saw that sign in an elegant restaurants in Saigon—“No dogs or Vietnamese.”

    And so he fled in the middle of night. He escaped.

    I think of my grandfather's story when I read the newspaper, articles about slavery in the Thai fishing industry, slavery in factories that supply electronic gadgets to Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft. And also the garment workers in Bangladesh who died in that unsafe crumbling factory. People who have no choice. People whose exploitation and suffering produced the laptop I write on, the shirt I wear, the shrimp on my dinner plate. . .

    Plus ca change, plus . . .
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