An exposure of labor and violence: A May Day article

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Violence against labor is as old as capital dominating labor. The tool – violence – is older than the rise of capitalism. Capitalism has sharpened the tool: made it more threatening, made it more mischievous, and, at times, has made it appear non-violent.

A recent ILO report, Experience of Violence and Harassment at Work: A Global First Survey(Geneva: ILO, 2022, ISBN 9789220384923 (web PDF), said: “Violence and harassment in the world of work is a pervasive and harmful phenomenon, with profound and costly effects ranging from severe physical and mental health consequences to lost earnings and destroyed career paths to economic losses for workplaces and societies.”

The report is based on a survey – ILO-Lloyd’s Register Foundation-Gallup survey.

According to the report, the “survey is the first attempt to provide a global overview of people’s own experiences of violence and harassment at work. The results provide a first glance at the magnitude and frequency of violence and harassment at work, providing insights into the main forms of violence and harassment (that is, physical, psychological and sexual) and on the main barriers that prevent people from talking about it.”

“To fill this evidence gap and to advance understanding of and action against violence and harassment in the world of work,” the survey jointly carried out the first global exploratory exercise “to measure people’s own experiences of violence and harassment at work across the world.” This survey aimed to explore the prevalence and frequency of violence and harassment at work, including its main different forms – be it physical, psychological or sexual – and respondents’ experiences with disclosing such occurrences. The ultimate goal of the survey and the report “is to raise awareness on a long-standing and highly complex issue rooted in wider economic, societal and cultural contexts, including those surrounding the world of work and entrenched gender roles.”

Under the survey, “interviews were conducted in 2021 with nearly 125,000 individuals aged 15 years or older in 121 countries and territories using probability-based random sampling to ensure nationally representative data and results. However, the findings of this report focus exclusively on the 74,364 respondents who were in employment at the time of the interview.”

Regarding methodology, the report informs: “The survey is likely to have been influenced by a range of macroenvironmental factors (national politics, institutional norms, historic traditions or cultural norms) and by microenvironmental factors (for instance, the location of the interview or the presence of others during the interview), as well as by individuals’ willingness or reticence to reveal such information. For instance, some questions were not asked or were asked differently in a few countries due to political and cultural sensitivities”. The comments concerning the way the survey framed the questions themselves tell us the reality labor faces: plain facts can never be told, not even be asked, in certain circumstances. That means all environments don’t even allow labor to talk, or even to hear facts freely. There may be a political or cultural environment that represses the opportunity for labor to express itself.

However, the camp against labor can’t claim that “the survey focused and its findings stand on a small sample size, it represents a small size of population, or a small number of countries.” The camp against labor has to come up with similar survey to counter claims of violence against labor.

The report said: “Violence and harassment at work is a widespread phenomenon around the world, with more than one in five (22.8 per cent or 743 million) persons in employment having experienced at least one form of violence and harassment at work during their working life. Among people who had experienced violence and harassment at work, about one-third (31.8 per cent) said they had experienced more than one form, with 6.3 per cent having faced all three forms in their working life.” [Emphasis added]

The ILO report finds three forms of violence in working life:

[1] “Nearly one in ten (8.5 per cent or 277 million) persons in employment has experienced physical violence and harassment at work in their working life. Men were more likely than women to report experiencing physical violence and harassment.”

[2] “Psychological violence and harassment was the most common form of violence and harassment reported by both men and women, with nearly one in five (17.9 per cent or 583 million) people in employment experiencing it in their working life.”

[3] “One in fifteen (6.3 per cent or 205 million) people in employment has experienced sexual violence and harassment at work in their working life. Women were particularly exposed to sexual violence and harassment at work. The data around sexual violence and harassment demonstrate the largest gender difference by far (8.2 per cent of women compared to 5.0 per cent of men) among the three forms of violence and harassment.”

The summary of results of the survey includes:

[1] “Violence and harassment at work is also a recurrent and persistent phenomenon. More than three in five victims of violence and harassment at work said it has happened to them multiple times, and for the majority of them, the last incident took place within the last five years.”

[2] “The risk of experiencing violence and harassment at work is particularly pronounced across certain demographic groups. Youth, migrant, and wage and salaried women and men were more likely to face violence and harassment at work, and this can be particular true among women. For instance, survey results show that young women were twice as likely as young men to have experienced sexual violence and harassment, and migrant women were almost twice as likely as non‑migrant women to report sexual violence and harassment.”

[3] “Persons who have experienced discrimination at some point in their life on the basis of gender, disability status, nationality/ethnicity, skin colour and/or religion were more likely to have experienced violence and harassment at work than those who did not face such discrimination. Those facing gender-based discrimination have been particularly affected: Nearly five in ten people who have been victims of gender-based discrimination in their life have also faced violence and harassment at work, compared to two in ten of those who have not been discriminated against on the basis of gender.”

[4] “Talking about personal experiences of violence and harassment is still challenging. Only slightly more than half (54.4 per cent) of victims have shared their experience with someone, and often only after they have experienced more than one form of violence and harassment. People were also more likely to tell friends or family, rather than using other informal or formal channels.”

[5] “Multiple factors and barriers may prevent people from disclosing incidents of violence and harassment at work. Among survey respondents, ‘waste of time’ and ‘fear for their reputation’ were the most common barriers discouraging people from talking about their own experiences of violence and harassment at work.”

The facts that the ILO report exposes tell unequivocally the condition labor lives in in its working life – the time-period in which  labor sells, or to be factual, is compelled to sell, its labor power, that without which nothing will come out for the rich, for those who exploit the labor.

If the search for violence in labor’s life is not confined within the working life of labor, and is widened into labor’s entire life, the presence of violence in labor’s life is, no doubt, much more brutish, more in number, much in extent, more intense in force, more widespread. The reason behind this hostile reality is, in brief, the level of power, actually, no-power, of the labor – labor holds no power in a socio-economic-political-ideological reality controlled by exploiting interests.

This reality needs a brief elaboration:

[1] The social position labor occupies is, in real sense, nothing, a complete zero. Labor has no social position in a society with exploiting relationship, where the dominant power is the exploiting capital.

[2] Labor has no control, no say, no choice, nothing in an economic reality with exploiting relations. Full control of the economic reality, again, is by dominating capital. Labor has not a single word to say on this exploiting economic reality. Even, its bargaining capacity before it sells itself is mostly denied by an overpowering market. Whatever little space labor can make, if ever, is due it’s organizing power and its struggling force. That’s the reason behind capital’s all-out effort to coerce labor, bribe a part of labor-leadership, control labor’s organizations, and hinder labor’s initiatives to get organized. Thus, the over-presence of non-radical labor organizations, as these non-radical organizations don’t go for tearing down the chains of exploitation, which is a radical change in production relations, which is the only path to labor’s emancipation.

[3] The same reality, labor’s lack of voice and participation, prevails in the plane of politics, which is also controlled by exploiting interests. Politics is an area of life fully controlled by dominating capital. Whatever voice of labor is raised in politics is raised under the control of capital, and without questioning the fundamental question of dismantling the system of exploitation. Whatever participation of labor is shown is done to validate the rule of capital. Participation of all is impossible in an unequal political sphere. Mainstream scholarship doesn’t cite this fact, while mainstream media sells capital’s tales. Unawareness of the trampled, the working classes, is one of the powerful weapons that the mainstream uses to establish its claim – participation of all, which is a lie.

The major aspect that goes unnoticed is the narrow definition of violence, as the ILO report has done. Violence against labor is operated first of all by capital, as capital chains labor, as capital appropriates labor, as capital keeps labor tamed in an environment of fear and coercion. The reality in which labor is pushed into by capital is itself violent. It’s everywhere in labor’s life; it’s not confined to the workplace.

“[A]ctions”, writes Benjamin Roberts, “driven by capital, harm human life, brutalize communities, and reinforce oppressive hierarchies — forms of violence that make property damage pale in comparison.” [“Capital and violence”, Harvard Political Review, June 6, 2020,,extract%20long%20hours%20in%20exchange%20for%20simple%20survival.)

Benjamin Roberts adds: “If you believe that poverty is not violence, then I urge you to ask yourself what violence is.”

He further argues:

“Violence is the force of capital visited upon the people to create conditions of precarity. Capital can so easily plunge people into poverty, breaking them with jobs that extract long hours in exchange for simple survival. And poverty in turn brutalizes its inhabitants, dehumanizing them as they sacrifice their individuality to a faceless system that demands more cheap labor.”

The argument goes still further:

“Capitalism requires violence to maintain itself, abroad and at home.”

“The former [capital] reduces individuals to ‘human capital stock.’ It is painful to have nuance boiled away and to be accused of not caring if people live or die. But neither capitalism — nor the poverty it causes — cares about good intentions. Capitalism does not care whether people live.”

The market’s violent impact on the lives of the labor is undeniable today. Imperialist war’s impact on the lives of the working classes is also violent. Shall not impact of these be counted?

Then, there’s the use of violence against [1] unions genuinely organizing labor, and [2] initiatives to organize unions. It’s capital’s age-old mode of operation. Cinto Brandini and nine of his comrades were killed in 1345 in Florence. What was their sin? They tried to organize wool combers. That was very likely the first known killing of labor organizers. Years and centuries followed with experiences of labor massacres and killings in countries. Who can forget the Thibodaux Massacre (Louisiana, US, November 23, 1887), where the slaughter of the striking workers and their neighborhood went on for nearly three hours, with 60 dead? Howard Zinn tells about the Ludlow Massacre in A People’s History of the United States (Longman, London, 1980):

“[S]hortly after Woodrow Wilson took office there began in Colorado one of the [most] bitter and violent struggles between workers and corporate capital in the history of the country [US].

“This was the Colorado coal strike that began in September 1913 and culminated in the ‘Ludlow Massacre’ of April 1914.” Eleven thousand miners worked for the Colorado Fuel &Iron Corporation owned by the Rockefeller family. “Aroused by the murder of one of their organizers, they went on strike against low pay, dangerous conditions, and feudal domination of their lives in towns completely controlled by the mining companies. Mother Jones, at the time an organizer of the United Mine Workers, came into the area, fired up the miners with her oratory, and helped them in those critical first months of the strike, until she was arrested, kept in a dungeon like cell, and then forcibly expelled from the state.

“When the strike began, the miners were immediately evicted from their shacks in the mining town. Aided by the United Mine Workers Union, they set up tents in the nearby hills and carried on the strike, picketing from these tent colonies. The gunmen hired by the Rockefeller interests – Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency – using Gatling guns and rifles, raided the tent colonies. The death list of miners grew, but they hung on, drove back an armored train in a gun battle, fought to keep out strike breakers. With the miners resisting, refusing to give in, the mines not able to operate, the Colorado governor (referred to by a Rockefeller mine manager as ‘our little cowboy governor’) called out the National Guard, with the Rockefellers supplying the Guard’s wages.

“The miners at first thought the Guard was sent to protect them, and greeted its arrivals with flags and cheers. They soon found out the Guard was there to destroy the strike. The Guard brought strikebreakers in under cover of night, not telling them there was a strike. Guardsmen beat miners, arrested them by the hundreds, rode down with their horses parades of women in the streets […] And still the miners refused to give in. When they lasted through the cold winter of 1913-1914, it became clear that extraordinary measures would be needed to break the strike.

“In April 1914, two National Guard companies were stationed in the hills overlooking the largest tent colony of strikers, the one at Ludlow, housing a thousand men, women, children. On the morning of April 20, a machine gun attack began on the tents. The miners fired back. Their leader, a Greek named Lou Tikas, was lured up into the hills to discuss a truce, then shot to death by a company of National Guardsmen. The women and children dug pits beneath the tents to escape the gunfire. At dusk, the Guard moved down from the hills with torches, set fire to the tents, and the families fled into the hills, thirteen people were killed by gunfire.

“The following day, a telephone linesman going through the ruins of the Ludlow tent colony lifted an iron cot covering a pit in one of the tents and found the charred, twisted bodies of eleven children and two women. This became the Ludlow Massacre.”

Anti-union agencies began organizing violence against labor movement since late-19th-early 20th century. (Robert Michael Smith, From Blackjacks to Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, 2003) In the Third and Fourth World countries use of violence against the labor in the area of union and union organizing is more rampant, crude and forceful. The labor raises voice when law stands opposed to the labor’s rights; and, then, law executes its force against the labor to keep it in chains. Isn’t it violence against labor? These types of violence against labor should be considered while having a stocktaking of violence against labor.

It’s not the only violence against labor, the part of humanity that produces all essentials, resources, comforts and luxury for all parts of society, while they go hungry-half-fed-unattended during sufferings with diseases. Similar incidents of killings and massacres abound in many countries today. But, these aren’t told, aren’t interpreted. Yet, this – tell this incidents of killings of working people – is the need. It is an essential message to workers everywhere.

Capital, itself, is violent by its very existence, and as it expands, as it must or die, the violence must increase as well. While expanding, capital encroaches upon all types of space, beginning from geographical and ecological space to essentials of life and ideology, And in its this expansion campaign, as in militant campaigns, capital turns violent to chain all, to win over all, to engage all in its service. Market, market’s expansion, the free flow of capital and free transfer of profit, etc. take violent form whenever these encounter hindrance. This violence goes not only against the workers, but, against all in capital’s respective societies. It’s, therefore, essential to define violence from labor’s perspective, from the perspective of capital coercing and chaining labor.

This May Day, under the cloud of imperialist war and efforts to expand the imperialist war machine’s brute hands crossing oceans, from Europe to Asia, from the Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, requires as its essential task to oppose capital’s violence, oppose war-capital’s violent campaign against all of humanity, as the military campaigns are hurting all of the human comity from Ukraine to countries in Africa, hurting people in Cuba, who are striving to have a dignified life, but in exchange are experiencing merciless sanctions that have created acute fuel shortages in the island-country. The fuel shortage is so acute that Cuba has had to cancel its central May Day celebrations in Havana.

Yet, labor, the working people in countries, in factories and foundries, in mines and industrial agriculture fields, will pay homage to their heroes, to their sacrificing comrades, and redeem the dream for a dignified, joyful, happy life free from exploitation.

Farooque Chowdhury, writing from Dhaka, Bangladesh, thanks Fred Magdoff and Michael D. Yates for editing the article.


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