Image credit: Alina Grubnyak

In the introduction to one episode of All Who Labor, my project as a Duffy Fellow, I remarked that “workers are everywhere.” My guest discussed his perspective on the demonization of the fossil fuel industry, focusing on the jobs of petroleum workers rather than the climate crisis. Recognizing that my audience might bristle at a sentiment they view as minimizing global warming, I wanted to note that labor issues will inevitably collide with other political issues because, well, workers are everywhere. This sentiment extends far beyond political clashes. Understanding the objects around me as the fruit of labor has simultaneously put that omnipresence into focus and emphasized how deeply interwoven the human family is. 

Consider the device on which you’re reading this article: how did it get in your hands? This may have required more human interaction than you would have liked, involving a bit too much communication with customer service personnel. Alternatively, there’s a good chance that no human interaction was involved in your acquisition: you may have simply ordered it online and then arrived home one day to find that your device had been delivered. 

Someone drove to your home to drop it off, and before then, someone else may have flown it across an ocean. Others worked with machines to create it, to make the parts and put them together. Those workers first needed raw materials to compile. Metals and minerals, mined and transported—that happened because of human beings. Of course, at the very start of the process, a group of people put their minds together to design a piece of technology that would enable a stranger to access the wealth of information made available (by people) on the Internet. 

And that’s just the device itself. A host of other tools were involved in this process: the device on which you received the order confirmation email, the road on which the delivery person drove, the plane in which they flew, the machines that helped manufacture the phone and the buildings that host them, equipment for obtaining raw materials—these, too, exist because of human labor. Then there’s the labor of learning how to use equipment, which is made possible by the labor of those who teach. There’s also the labor of managing labor, at various stages in the process and at various levels. 

Image credit: Yiran Ding

Your reading of this article is brought to you by workers across the world (including me, without whose creative labor you would not have this article to read). When you hold this piece of complex technology, you hold the outcome of hours, weeks, years of work from who knows how many people. Workers dedicated their time and energy to a job, and in doing so, played a role in the process that ultimately brought this device into your possession. 

This is all linked to just one device. Looking up from your screen might be overwhelming as you face the sheer amount of human history contained within the objects around you. Can you see the strings that connect you to laborers around the world? There are so many that it might block the view of the objects themselves. They have names and families and lives as complicated as your own, and they have now, through their contribution, affected your life. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a Black suffragist and abolitionist, wrote that “[w]e are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” and she was absolutely correct. We literally construct and color the world around one another. And we need each other. I’ve been focusing on technology, but consider the lawmaking, infrastructure, transportation, and physical toil that goes into the food you eat and the water you drink. 

Harper continues, “society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.” Those workers that you’re bound up with—people with names and families and lives and human dignity—how were they treated as they worked? Did they experience harassment? Were they paid less than a living wage? Did they have to work rather than going to school? These are all real possibilities. What’s more, slavery did not just exist in Harper’s time: this system of exploitation continues today. Were any of the workers whose labor has improved your life victims of it?

It would be unreasonable to expect anyone to know all that. There are simply too many people, too many stories and experiences: scratching the surface could take a lifetime. That magnitude, though, may emphasize humanity’s interconnectedness. When you view the world through the lens of labor, you notice how much stuff there is, how the fruit of labor is everywhere: the physical world is flush with human dedication and creativity. And that’s just looking at the final products that take a physical form. 

When you view the world through the lens of labor, you notice how much stuff there is, how the fruit of labor is everywhere: the physical world is flush with human dedication and creativity.

If we are so interconnected, so interdependent, even if there are too many stories to know them all individually, there is still room—and arguably some obligation—to learn and stand in solidarity with those who are being exploited. You could learn about the realities around materials where unethical practices are a particular problem—such as with mica or palm oil—and inform your purchasing based on what you find. You can also rely on the research of others and simply look for a Fair Trade logo before you buy coffee or chocolate. One needn’t look exclusively to mining, farming, or harvesting to support workers. The year 2022 saw unionizing efforts at corporations like Starbucks and Amazon. Looking again to technology, 2022 saw a unionization effort at Apple, one which Apple pushed back against

In a union, employees recognize their interconnectedness, and work together for the betterment of the group as a whole. Likewise, seeing labor in the objects around us helps us see how interconnected we really are. What if we let this recognition move us to advocate for the betterment of the whole human family?

Anna Nowalk graduated from Fordham University in 2023 and she was a 2022-2023 Duffy Fellow. Nowalk is the host of All Who Labor.