In nearly every country in the world, May First is an important holiday – a time when people come together to celebrate the dignity of labor, and to reflect on the crucial role that ordinary workers play in building better societies. For the last two years, we at Homelands Productions have tried to do both those things, and it has been a profoundly uplifting experience.
It’s worth remembering, though, how hard life is for so many working people. Workplaces are too often zones of exploitation, where employers squeeze what they can from their employees with little regard for their basic human rights. Big corporations disrupt thousands of lives with the stroke of an accountant’s pen. Small businesses use family obligations or personal debts to hold their workers hostage. People toiling in the informal economy are tormented by everyone from street gangs to police. Incredibly, millions of people, many of them children, are still bought and sold and forced to work against their wills. Governments too often leave working people physically or legally unprotected.
We’ve touched on a few of these issues in the WORKING series. We profiled a teenage tannery worker, Mohmen, who isn’t allowed to go to the window when the fumes overtake him. We profiled a metal worker, Pedro, who can’t get his bosses to compensate him for a deadly lung disease he contracted on the job. We profiled a miner, Fidele, who is shaken down by corrupt soldiers every time he finds minerals. We profiled a sex worker, Samanta, who has been threatened by zealots, harassed by police, and stabbed by a client. We profiled a lobster diver, Romulo, who was nearly killed because of corner-cutting by boat owners and negligence by government regulators. We profiled a middle-aged woman, Vicki, whose attempt to start a recycling business was nearly thwarted by jealous neighbors and bribe-seeking officials. And we profiled a young labor inspector, Leandro, who has devoted his life to freeing slaves, of whom, he has found, there are still far too many.
Our hope for WORKING was that it would remind our audience how work connects us to millions of other human beings around the world – to real people with hearts and lungs and families and dreams and needs and desires. It’s an obvious point, but one worth noting, and celebrating. And one that comes with a dose of responsibility as well.