While medieval serfs and lords had an arrangement that kept the powers of the lord in check, and gave the serfs many protections – such as the right of inheritance – there are no such protections for the common person today, mainly because it hasn’t been particularly thought of yet.
While a medieval serf was able to will his land parcel to his children, without the permission or interference of the lord (the actual ‘owner’ of the land), that is not the case today. I recently read of a wealthy man in California who was offering a small stipend and a furnished guest house in return for gardening and landscaping duties at his mansion. Sounds like a pretty decent deal right? Not really. The problem was that the stipend was vanishingly small – buying food would essentially wipe it out – and the duties encompassed being at the wealthy man’s beck and call, available for his whims, at all hours. The duties themselves involved between 60 and 70 hours a week of hard labor. The astounding thing was that the wealthy man couldn’t understand why he couldn’t keep a gardener.
I have also read recently that there is a farm in Oregon that uses free labor under the guise of ‘teaching’ farming to ‘students’ who come to live on the farm. There is no pay, only room and board provided. And the workload is just as great; the teaching is merely the performance of manual labor at the direction of the owner, and little is carried away by the student other than a general distaste for being taken advantage of. This is not like Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where real teaching of the nuts and bolts of what he does and why is part of the daily labor, where part of the evenings are spent answering questions from students. It is merely taking advantage of eager or desperate people wanting to learn a skill.
On the local Craigslist last year in the farming and gardening section there was a recurring post by a farmer who was looking for labor as described above. The farmer also gave a warning that his farm was a Christian one, and that there were strict rising and sleeping times, mandatory church and prayer, and no drugs or alcohol allowed. I haven’t seen the posting in quite a while; I don’t know if he had no takers or if he got some willing labor. I suspect that his farm was much more like the farmer in Oregon than like Mr. Salatin’s though, regardless of the religious bent of the farmer.
These examples (not Salatin, the others) are to me exactly what we must guard against. If there are to be land owners using serf type labor, there MUST be accepted rules and laws in place, commonly known and accepted by society at large, to govern the behavior of the owners particularly, but the serfs as well. Land owners cannot demand labor on the level of slavery in exchange for housing. They cannot keep the serf from performing work for himself and his/her family in order to be at least a little self sustaining. The owner cannot demand labor 7 days a week, with no holidays. There must be bonuses paid to the serfs, at least in the form of food gifts, money, or offers of land purchase. In return, serfs must do the contracted labor or they cannot keep their housing.
It sounds simple, or crazy, or both. I really think, though, that we must begin thinking about these boundaries now, before serfdom/slavery becomes the custom of the land again, or many thousands of people will be taken advantage of a la Tom Joad’s family in the The Grapes of Wrath.