Is a Pirate a Worker?

I hope you got to hear the latest WORKING profile. It was produced by Kelly McEvers and features a pirate, Agus Laodi, in Indonesia. Agus boards cargo ships in the Strait of Malacca, holds their crews at knifepoint, and steals the money from their safes. Then he spends his “earnings” on women and booze instead of sending them home to his family. He is not, I’d venture to say, a terribly admirable fellow.

I think it’s a fascinating, revealing piece of journalism. It’s timely (pirates have been much in the news lately) and it has everything to do with the global economy (cargo ships move 90 percent of all traded goods, and piracy remains one of their biggest challenges). It is also an intimate look into the life of a person who has chosen a path and who doesn’t seem capable of changing course. Kelly observes (keenly) but she doesn’t judge. The feedback so far has been very good. But some listeners have written to say that it was wrong to feature a criminal, or to call him a “worker.”

This is the second WORKING profile of a person whose work is illegal (the other was a prostitute in Azerbaijan). One of the first pieces in the series features a fixer in Lebanon who turns out to be a bit of a shady character; a more recent profile features a trader in Dubai who sometimes smuggles American goods into Iran despite a US trade embargo. (Hmm, all four of these have been reported by Kelly – what is it about that woman?) An upcoming piece, produced by Gregory Warner, profiles a human smuggler on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

I have been in favor of including all sorts of workers in our series, law-abiding or not. Illegal work (from trafficking in drugs, arms, wildlife, and human beings to extortion, insider trading, and email fraud) is a significant part of the global economy. For some people it’s the only employment available; others see it as the only way to get ahead. I figure an honest group portrait of the working world has to include some folks operating on the dark side. I’m curious what others think. Are we glorifying scoundrels by giving them their eight minutes of fame?


P.S. We are saddened by the passing of Studs Terkel, but joyful in the knowledge that he touched so many people over his long life, and that his good work will live on. Studs was convinced that everyone has a story to tell – that simple, subversive idea has been a major inspiration for our work.