How socially motivated storytellers have chronicled cases of worker exploitation and got the world to listen.

There is a big drive in the corporate sector these days to make workplaces as employee friendly as possible. At a minimum, that means having policies in place to foster fairness, prevent discrimination, enable pay equity and curb sexual harassment.

In a bid to attract talent, many companies are going the extra mile with on-site perks – free food, foosball tables, plush lounges, and coffee bars, to name just a few standard deal sweeteners.

But outside the corporate universe, most employees are far from being coddled. There are still many industries and jobs where a day at work means long hours of backbreaking labor, usually under unsafe or unsanitary conditions. You can see examples of this when you drive past building construction sites and see workers precariously perched on scaffolding, often with no harnesses or other safety gear to protect them. Waste workers also operate under very inhuman conditions — sorting through garbage with bare hands, and separating trash from so-called treasure.

Luckily, there have always been socially conscious storytellers – photographers, movie makers, writers and others – who take on the task of bringing cases of worker exploitation to our attention. Their work can shake us out of apathy, desensitization or just plain ignorance. By boosting public awareness regarding these issues, they help to create pressure for change and reforms. 

Black and white photography has always been a powerful way to record dark and gritty aspects of our lives. When it comes to telling the stories of migrant workers in the industrialized era, this format has been very effective. From soot-faced miners to faceless factory workers, black and white photographs have eloquently captured the difficult daily lives of these workers.

One well-known photograph titled ‘’Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” shows workers – largely immigrants – sitting on a steel girder of the Rockefeller Center, high above the streets of New York City. The photo is credited to Charles C. Ebbets and dates back to 1932 when skyscraper building was at its peak in that city. Although intended to be a symbol of optimism and the American can-do spirit, the photo indirectly (and unintentionally) also spotlights the struggling immigrant worker and the ones who died during the construction of famous city landmarks. 

However, there is nothing remotely uplifting about the work of Lewis Hines – a photographer and sociologist who documented child labor deployed in the mills, mines and factories of America in the early part of the 1900s. Each of his heartrending photos of children who were forced to work in these places was intended as a statement and a challenge to society to do something about it. The tactic worked. His photos prompted public outrage and eventually led to child labor reform laws in the country. 

Apart from photos, books and movies have also triggered a social awakening of sorts and helped to overturn exploitative practices in different industries.

This was true in the case of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, ‘The
Jungle’
. Set in early 20th century Chicago, the story describes the unsanitary working conditions that workers – again mostly immigrants – in the meatpacking industry had to endure on a daily basis. Although Sinclair wrote the novel to advance the idea of socialism in the country, his graphic description of the ugliness in the industry led to a public outcry and goaded the government into action. As Sinclair said of the impact of his work: “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

If things that you buy are produced through the exploitation of workers in other parts of the world, it’s easy to remain blissfully unaware of the real situation – unless it’s brought home to you through a hard-hitting movie. 

‘Blood
Diamond’
is a movie in that vein. At the heart of its plot are diamonds mined in an African conflict zone that are used to finance a civil war and also line the pockets of mining executives in the region. Although the movie did not lead to any real reforms, it did help people understand the harsh conditions under which diamonds are mined in Africa and the power imbalance between mine workers and employers. It would be hard to see a diamond ring in the same light again after watching the movie. 

Like ‘Blood
Diamond’’
, documentaries such as ‘The
True
Cost’
, a 2015 film on the human toll of producing cheap, use-and-discard clothing, places the onus on the consumer to be better informed about the products they buy. The idea is that if a significantly large number of consumers vote with their wallets based on this information, companies will be forced to rethink their practices. 

Several Bollywood movies from the pre-liberalization era often featured worker rights as the central theme of their plots. The storytelling arc was largely predictable and included a few familiar elements – exploitative factory owners, poorly treated workers, a hero willing to take on the establishment. But they served as important reminders of the gaps that existed and continue to exist in this area. 

Many of these movies showed that by banding together it’s possible to make more progress. The right to organize and collectively bargain for a better deal is, of course, the cornerstone of the modern labor rights movement. 

Given how strikes are perceived in our country, we may roll our eyes at yet another one that seems to serve no real purpose other than inconveniencing the average citizen. It’s hard to separate real issues from more politically motivated ones in many of these union-led protests. But if organizing can help different groups – sanitation workers, teachers, day laborers – to fight for legitimate demands in terms of better pay, working conditions and hours, then it needs to be completely supported. As activist-minded storytellers will tell us, when basic human rights are violated in a place of work, silence is not an option.

Sangita Srinivasa is a writer and the editor of Viewpoint.