Photo Essay: Making Work Visible – Consumer Awareness and Labor Rights

Making Work Visible

Consumer Awareness and Labor Rights

Text by Lauren Walsh

Photo selection by Maryam Ashrafi

May 29, 2024

I’m not a labor historian. But I work and, as such, am part of a broader labor workforce in the US. I also partake of goods and services made locally as well as internationally. Accordingly, I am intertwined in an international economy that involves the time, effort, skills, and craft of many others around the world. I lead a life that relies upon people sometimes far away to produce parts of the devices I use or the clothing I wear or the coffee I drink. I am not alone in this sort of existence.

Sometimes we get caught up in the stresses and challenges of our lives: our family, our friends, our jobs. But the fact that I partake of an international economy—that I myself directly consume goods of this economy—means I should be cognizant of the stresses and challenges faced by others: individuals I will likely never meet but with whom I share some point of economic connection.

As Susan Sontag put it in Regarding the Pain of Others, in writing about the diffuse politics of war, we need to consider “how our privileges are located on the same map as [others’] suffering, and may — in ways that we prefer not to imagine — be linked to their suffering, as the wealth of some may imply the destitution of others.” In short, such consideration is a moral imperative. And in the case of international economies, it means that I, for instance, could modify my own spending behaviors if I feel my dollars might be doing harm.

Where I live, it is all too easy to gloss over the process and simply purchase the product. That is not the responsible course of action. At the same time, informed awareness of all labor conditions that sit behind every product or service is an enormous ask and an enormous task, potentially an impossible one.

Campaigns for labor reform rise up. Strikes occur. The media covers. At times, the cameras show up when disaster has happened and lives are lost, because conditions were unsafe, procedures were not regulated, and human lives were sacrificed for capitalist gains. One aims to stay abreast in the global ecosystem of labor violation. Some do this better than others. But if there is one date that demands our concentrated focus on employment conditions and workers’ rights it is May 1, International Workers’ Day. This essay and these images, written shortly after that commemorative day, highlight the challenges, successes, and continued hard work of laborers around the world.

International Workers’ Day, by some accounts, has its antecedent in the late 18th century in Europe. By 1856, Australian stonemasons went on strike to demand an eight-hour workday. This influenced the American workers’ scene, early defined by the infamous Haymarket massacre, a labor demonstration in Chicago in 1886. That rally began peacefully, an American-led demand for an eight-hour day, but ultimately ended in violence with both police and civilians dead. It was not the first nor the last volatile moment in labor history.

May 1 has become a global date for demonstrating on behalf of workers, demanding protections—whether regarding length of workday, age of laborers, safety conditions, regulatory practices, equitable workspace, or fair pay. The pursuit of better labor rights is an everyday affair, an ongoing battle, and infuses sectors of nearly every industry globally. Burdens and outright violations occur around the world, where often some of the most disadvantaged face the greatest abuses.

The subsequent images remind us of the hard work occurring in varied societies and of the injustices that play out in myriad spaces. These photographs reveal a breadth of perspectives, from migrants in Iran to loved ones looking for survivors of a factory collapse in Bangladesh; from women working in harsh conditions in India to a sex worker in Canada whose profession is criminalized by the law to a Poland-based rally against Amazon, “for the death of our colleagues in the workplace!” While photos, like those by Ismail Ferdous, can be painful to look at, they also stand as visual testimony, calling out the wrongs that were perpetrated against workers, in this case the lack of safety guarantees that, in a single incident, led to the deaths of 1,134 people and the injury of over 2,500 others.

Meanwhile, numerous images below portray a show of force on May 1, with photographs of protests from Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, France, Chile, and beyond. This is a worldwide endeavor.

Yet it is significant that many of this essay’s images were not taken on International Workers’ Day. While May 1 may be the date that demands our concentrated focus on these issues, it should be a starting point, not an end. This can—and should—be the beginning, or the extension, of a protracted engagement to support better labor practice and conditions, to divest from unjust financial sources, to make smarter, wiser, more ethical consumer choices, and, for those of us who can, to speak up and out in pressuring for more equitable economic relations.

Earlier photo essays