Eduardo Galeano: Workers’ Rights – A Subject for Archaeologists?

Below is a translation of the text of a talk, given by Eduardo Galeano at the Latin American and Caribbean Social Sciences Conference in Mexico City on Friday 9th November, in front of ‘hundreds of students who had waited up to nine hours to get in’. It was published Sunday 18th November in Argentina’s Página/12.

This mosaic has been put together with a few texts of mine published in books and magazines in recent years. Wanting without wanting to, coming and going between the past and present and amid different themes, all the texts refer, in some way, directly or indirectly, to the rights of workers, rights shredded by the hurricane of the crisis: this ferocious crisis, which punishes labour and rewards speculation and is dumping more than two centuries of labour conquests into the rubbish bin.

The universal tarantula.

It happened in Chicago, in 1886.

On the 1st of May, when the labour strike paralysed Chicago and other cities, the Philadelphia Tribune made a diagnosis: the labour element has been bitten by a kind of universal tarantula – it has gone dancing mad.

Dancing mad were the workers who were fighting for the eight hour working day and the right to organise unions.

The following year, four labour leaders, accused of murder, were sentenced without proof in a sham trial. Georg Engel, Adolf Fischer, Albert Parsons and Auguste Spies went off to the gallows. The fifth person condemned, Louis Lingg, had blown his head off in his cell.

Each 1st of May, the whole world remembers them.

With the passage of time, international conventions, constitutions and laws have proven them right.

However, the most successful firms have yet to find out. They forbid labour unions and measure the working day with those melted watches painted by Salvador Dalí.

A disease called work

In 1714 Bernardino Ramazzini died.

He was a strange doctor, who would start by asking:

-What is your job?

It hadn’t occurred to anyone that this could be of any importance.

His experience allowed him to write the first treatise on occupational medicine, where he described, one by one, the common illnesses in more than fifty occupations. And he showed that there were few hopes of a cure for those workers who ate hunger, without sun and without rest, in enclosed suffocating and grimy workshops.

While Ramazzini was dying in Padua, in London, Percivall Pott was born.

Following in the tracks of the Italian master, this English doctor investigated the life and death of poor workers. Among other discoveries, Pott found out why the life of chimney sweep children was so short. Children would slide, naked, down chimneys, house to house, and in their difficult cleaning duties they would breathe in a lot of soot. Soot was their executioner.


More than 90 million customers turn up, every week, at Wal-Mart stores. Their more than nine hundred thousand employees are forbidden from affiliation to any union. When the idea occurs to any of them, they become one more unemployed person. The successful business openly denies one of the human rights proclaimed by the United Nations: freedom of association. The founder of Wal-Mart, Sam Walton, received, in 1992, the Medal of Freedom, one of the highest honours in the United States.

One in every four North American adults, and nine in every ten children, devour at McDonalds the plastic food that makes them fat. McDonald’s workers are as disposable as the food they serve: they are minced by the same machine. Nor do they have the right to join a union.

In Malaysia, where labour unions still exist and function, Intel, Motorola, Texas Instruments and Hewlett Packard managed to avoid that annoyance. The Malaysian government declared the electronics sector union free.

Nor was there any possibility of forming a union for the 190 female workers who were burnt to death in Thailand, in 1993, in the shed locked from the outside where they made dolls of Sesame Street, Bart Simpson and The Muppets.

In their election campaigns in 2000, candidates Bush and Gore were agreed on the need to continue imposing the North American model of labour relations on the world. “Our working style”, as they both called it, is the one setting the pace of globalisation, advancing in seven-league boots and entering even the most remote corners of the planet.

Technology, which has abolished distances, now allows a worker for Nike in Indonesia to have to work a hundred thousand years to earn what a Nike executive in the United States earns in a year.

It is the continuation of the colonial era, on an unprecedented scale. The poor of the world continue to serve their traditional function: they provide cheap hands and cheap products, though they now produce dolls, sports shoes, computers and high technology instruments apart from producing, as before, rubber, rice, coffee, sugar and other things cursed by the world market.

Since 1919, 183 international agreements have been signed regulating labour relations in the world. According to the International Labour Organisation, of these 183 agreements, France ratified 115, Norway 106, Germany 76 and the United States…fourteen. The country that spearheads the process of globalisation only obeys its own orders. That is how it guarantees sufficient impunity to its major corporations, sent out on the hunt for cheap labour and the conquest of territories that dirty industries can contaminate as they see fit. Paradoxically, this country that recognises no law other than the law of work outside the law is the one that now says there will be no option but to include ‘social clauses’ and ‘environmental protection clauses’ in free trade agreements. What would reality be without the advertising that masks it?

These clauses are mere tributes that vice pays to virtue under the heading of public relations, but the mere mention of labour rights makes the hair stand on end of the most fervent advocates of starvation wages, flexible working hours and free dismissal. On leaving the presidency of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo went on to sit on the board of the Union Pacific Corporation and the Procter and Gamble consortium, which operates in 140 countries. What is more, he heads a UN commission and broadcasts his thoughts in Forbes Magazine: in technocratese, he rages against the “imposition of homogeneous labour standards in the new trade agreements”. Translated, that means: let’s forget once and for all any international legislation that still protects workers. The retired president earns money by preaching slavery. But the main executive of General Electric says it more clearly: “To be competitive, you have to squeeze the lemons”. And it needs no explanation that he does not work as a lemon in the reality show of the world of our times.

Confronted with denunciations and protests, firms wash their hands: it wasn’t me. In post-modern industry, labour is no longer concentrated. That’s how it is everywhere, and not only in private activity. Subcontractors make three quarters of the car parts of Toyota. Out of every five Volkswagen workers in Brazil, only one is employed by the firm. Of the 81 Petrobras workers killed in labour accidents at the end of the 20th century, 66 were working for subcontractors that do not meet safety norms. Through three hundred subcontracting firms, China produces the half of all Barbie dolls for the girls of the world. In China there are unions, but they obey a state that in the name of socialism engages in disciplining the labour force. “We combat worker agitation and social instability in order to ensure a favourable climate for investors”, explained Bo Xilai, a leading official in the Chinese Communist Party.

Economic power is more monopolised than ever, but countries and people compete in what they can: let’s see who can offer more in exchange for less, let’s see who works double in exchange for half. Left by the roadside are the remains of the conquests wrenched through so many years of pain and struggle.

The maquiladora plants of Mexico, Central America and the Carribean, which are not called “sweat shops” for nothing, grow at a far more accelerated rate than industry as a whole. Eight out of ten new jobs in Argentina are “in the black”, without any legal protection. Nine out of every ten new jobs in the whole of Latin America belong to the “informal sector”, a euphemism for saying that workers are abandoned to God’s mercy. Will job stability and other worker rights soon become a subject for archaeologists? No more than souvenirs of an extinguished species?

In the looking glass world, freedom oppresses: the freedom of money demands workers who are inmates of the prison of fear, which is the greatest prison of all prisons. The god of the free market threatens and punishes; and any worker knows this well, wherever they are. The fear of unemployment, which allows employers to reduce their labour costs and multiply productivity, is, in today’s world, the most widespread source of anguish. Who is safe from the panic of being cast into the long queues of those who are looking for work? Who doesn’t fear becoming an ‘internal obstacle’, to use the words of the president of Coca-Cola, who explained the sacking of thousands of workers by saying “we have eliminated the internal obstacles”?

And while we are asking questions, the last one: faced with the globalisation of money, which divides the world into the conquerors and the conquered, can the struggle for the dignity of labour be internationalised? What a challenge.

A rare act of sanity

In 1998, France introduced the law that reduced the working week to thirty-five hours

Work less, live more: Thomas More had dreamed about this, in his Utopia, but five centuries had to pass so that a nation would finally dare to commit such an act of common sense.

At the end of the day, what are machines for, if it is not to reduce time for work and to widen our spaces for freedom? Why does technological progress have to regale us with unemployment and anguish?

Just the once, at least, there was a country that dared to defy so much senselessness.

But the sanity didn’t last long. The law of thirty-five hours died aged ten.

This unsafe world

Today, 28th of April, World Day for Safety in Work, it is worth warning that there is nothing less safe than work. Each day there are more and more workers who wake up, each day, wondering:

-How many of us will not be needed? Who will buy me?

Many lose work and many lose, while working, their lives: every fifteen seconds a worker dies, murdered by what they call workplace accidents.

Public insecurity is the favourite subject of politicians who unleash collective hysteria to win elections. Danger, danger, they proclaim: at every corner awaits a thief, a rapist, a murderer. But those politicians never denounce work as dangerous, and it’s dangerous to cross the street, because every twenty five seconds a pedestrian dies, murdered by what they call a traffic accident; and it’s dangerous to eat, because whoever is safe from hunger can fall prey to poisoning by chemical food; and it’s dangerous to breathe because in the cities, pure air is, like silence, a luxury item; and it’s also dangerous to be born, because every three seconds sees the death of a child who has not reached the age of five alive.


Maruja’s Story

Today, 30th of March, International Domestic Workers’ Day, it will do no harm to tell the brief story of a worker in one of the most downtrodden trades in the world.

Maruja was of no age.

Of her years beforehand, she said nothing. Of her years afterwards, she hoped for nothing.

She was not pretty, nor ugly, nor average.

When she walked she dragged her feet, clenching the duster, or the brush, or the ladle.

When awake, she sank her head between her shoulders.

When asleep, she sank her head between her knees.

When they spoke to her, she looked at the ground, like someone counting ants.

She had worked in other people’s houses as long as she could remember.

She had never left the city of Lima.

She bustled about, from house to house, but didn’t settle in any. Finally, she found a place where she was treated as if she was a person.

A few days later, she left.

She was becoming attached.



August 30th, Day of the Disappeared:

the dead without a grave,

the graves without a name,

the women and men whom terror swallowed up,

the babies who are or have been the spoils of war.

And also:

the native forests,

the stars at night in the cities,

the aroma of flowers,

the taste of fruit,

the letters written by hand,

the old cafés where there was time to waste time,

football on the street,

the right to walk,

the right to breathe,

secure jobs,

secure retirements,

homes without bars,

doors without a lock,

the sense of community

and common sense.

The origin of the world

The Spanish war had finished a few years earlier and the cross and the sword reigned over the ruins of the Republic.

One of the vanquished, an anarchist labourer, just out of prison, was looking for work. He moved heaven and earth in vain. There was no work for a red. Everyone frowned at him, shrugged their shoulders, and turned their back on him. There was no-one who would understand him, and no-one listened to him. Wine was the only friend he had left. At night-time, in front of empty plates, he would put up in silence with the reproaches of his pious wife, a woman who went to mass every day, whilst his son, a little boy, would recite the catechism.

A long time after, Josep Verdura, the son of that accursed labourer, told me about it.

He told me about it in Barcelona, when I arrived in exile.

He told me about it: he was a desperate child, who wanted to save his father from eternal damnation, but the deep atheist, who was very stubborn, didn’t listen to reason.

But dad –asked Josep, crying-. If God doesn’t exist, who made the world?

And the labourer, his head bowed, near in secret, said:


He said:

-Fool. The world was made by us, the builders.

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