(Sept. 10) Try to think of the worst charge that can be leveled against an industry.

Price fixing? Adulterated products? How about the use of slave labor?

The most recent issue of National Geographic magazine features a lead article on modern-day slavery. The article focuses on Africa, on industries in India where people become virtual slaves because they cannot leave or get out of debt. There’s also a kind of slavery in which women from Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere are forced into prostitution and held against their will.

These are often terrible conditions. But the word “slavery” is so sensational, so fraught with multiple meanings, that it ought to be used with a great deal of caution.

Slavery, as Americans experienced it, was condoned and aided by government and official policy. That’s not the case today. National Geographic claims to have uncovered examples of slavery in the U.S. centered on the growing and harvesting of produce and citrus.

They point to an instance in Lake Placid, Fla., a southern Florida town in the citrus belt, where a crew chief held workers in slavelike conditions.

The article makes the point that the U.S. doesn’t have clean hands when it comes to slavery.

But here is where the caution flag pops up big time. There is something amiss here. Crew leaders, who recruit and supply workers for produce harvesting, are covered by federal legislation. They are not supposed to hold people in labor camps against their will or steal or withhold their money. Does this happen despite the law? Yes.

There have been other cases of “involuntary servitude” involving crew leaders and produce harvesting. And what happened? The crew leaders went to prison, which is where the crew chiefs cited in the National Geographic story wound up.

These unsavory people go to jail, which is where they belong. They are lawbreakers, and their shady practices are not condoned by the government or by the produce industry in general. In the Florida case the offenders were sentenced to nearly 35 years in prison.

Crew leaders perform a function. If they are crooked, then they can do a lot of harm, particularly when they engage in illegal activities. Some growers, who have a short window in which to harvest crops that are their sole source of income, may not ask a lot of questions about the crew leaders.

But that’s a far cry from condoning illegal practices. A marginal grower may turn a blind eye. A larger producer may simply not know what is going on. (Yes, and maybe some don’t want to know.)

I don’t know of anyone who condones “slavery” in the workplace. If they exist, they are mercifully keeping quiet. No industry, particularly an industry producing products with a good health image, wants their products associated with slavery.

Beyond that there is a bit of phoniness and hypocrisy in the National Geographic story. The magazine is based in Washington, D.C. To find bad working conditions and questionable labor practices, and maybe even a form of involuntary servitude, they could have simply walked out of their plush offices.

It’s a dirty little secret that much of the dirty work in the nation’s capital is done by foreign workers of questionable legal status. They wash the dishes, tend the green lawns, mind the children of the affluent, empty the bedpans, and do the hundreds of mundane chores that allow the well-off to live well.

Some officials from international organizations bring domestic workers from their home countries. These people are sometimes held in virtual bondage.

All this is well known in Washington, D.C. People joke about it. Many people benefit from the labors of these hidden workers. And yes, these workers experience exploitation, bad conditions, bad housing, language barriers, and the uncertainty of having no official status. Still, they come, and they are eagerly hired.

That’s because conditions where they come from are much worse. Washington, D.C., is no different from Lake Placid, Fla., or California or Iowa meatpacking towns.

They all need labor that’s willing to do unsavory, unpopular work.

Friends and acquaintances in the U.S. State Department tell me there is little to stem the tide and the trends, short of sealing the borders. Many benefit, even though there are serious flaws, in a labor system that is part legal, part illegal, part quasi-legal.

One State Department friend, who recently had occasion to visit all the countries in the Caribbean and Central America, said it was his impression that “remittances” — money sent back by workers who sneaked into the U.S. — are keeping the social pot from boiling over in some of these countries.

Another friend, a consular official, said it is basically U.S. policy to look the other way when dealing with migratory workers from certain Central American countries. That’s why a lot of the work in Washington, D.C., seems to be done by folks from El Salvador.

Still, a lot of people don’t like the fact the U.S. uses workers with vague or nonexistent legal status. It’s certainly an issue in California’s potential recall of its governor, Gray Davis.

Peter Ueberroth, one of the recall’s gubernatorial candidates, said California has 2.2 million undocumented people in the state and that it cannot afford the associated cost. He blames the federal government.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor who wants to be governor, praises California agriculture “for feeding the world.” As an immigrant and a businessman, he must know that it requires workers to harvest those crops, regardless of where those workers come from.

A California professor estimates that Mexican workers in the U.S. send back $10 billion a year to Mexico. So the labor issue is complex, international, difficult to solve. That’s why it doesn’t get solved. Solving it would create even worse problems.