International Worker’s Day, or May Day, is a national holiday in Colombia. Across the country, workers and unions march to celebrate workers’ rights, and the long struggle of workers all over the world for dignified working conditions, especially in the late 19th century: “Eight hours to work, eight hours to sleep, eight hours for what we will.” We owe our modern work week and the idea of benefits to these historic movements.
Of course, many people do not yet enjoy the same labour rights that I do; we need May Day to remember that we have not finished the work of organizing. In these photos, I try to highlight the workers of Colombia’s informal sector who do not enjoy stable employment or benefits like a May Day holiday. Instead, they are selling orange juice or performing street art for loose change alongside the May Day marchers.
That does not mean, however, that formal workers have an easy life. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to belong to an union. Among the marchers was a union from the Coca Cola bottling plant, representing the claims that the company paid paramilitary forces to intimidate, threaten and kill workers who were organizing. Chiquita also faces similar accusations. New documentation backs up worker claims that the banana giant also paid armed groups as security forces.
Organizing and marching is an act of courage. I may not fully agree with every revolutionary statement on display, but I am in full support of the right to speak and to work with dignity.
This poem sums up nicely the dreams of many of the workers of the world:
Imagine the Angels of Bread
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth; this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorum,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horsebackare not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
— Martín Espada