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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    Jim, suffering with depression, nevertheless made me coffee the other morning and invited me into a view of the world which he's been sharing of late. An epic, awesome and in many ways awful view - seen through the lens of Sebastiao Salgado and the photographs which make up the book Workers: Archaeology of the Industrial Age.

    It's a visual survey of the working lives of the many, in what Salgado rightly calls the Majority World. And the photos make clear just what hard, desperate work the majority endure: hand-cutting sugar cane in Cuba, disassembling ships with blowtorches and by hand on Bangladeshi beaches, mining coal for only twenty-two rupees ($1.30) per day in Dhanbad, India.

    Jim lent me the book to take home, and tonight I've been staring again at the barely-believable shots of the gold mine of Serra Pelada, Brazil. As Salgado says in his notes, 'Not since the building of pyramids by thousands of slaves, or the Klondike gold rush in Alaska, hs such an epic-scale human drama been witnessed: fifty thousand mud-soaked men digging for gold at Serra Pelada in the Brazilian state of Para.' The pictures are astonishing - contemplating the reality they portray is mind-blowing. How desperate (or full of hope) does a man have to be to spend his days scaling slippery ladders 1,310 feet high carrying loads of 130 pounds which may earn him just twenty cents (the average pay per sack).

    I'm revisiting these pictures after a day in Manchester at the CAP conference, in which the connections between the majority world and our world were made, helped by speakers from Cafod and Oxfam's UK Poverty Programme, and where work was often on the agenda. Just as people will travel vast distances to try to strike gold at Serra Pelada, here, too, migrant workers arrive in hope but find themselves exploited, abused, and impoverished... Here, too. It's that bit which is the hardest to comprehend, even harder than all which Salgado has brought to light.

    I left thinking that alongside the very valuable Poverty Hearings and Debt Hearings which various local CAP groups have hosted over the past decade, ought to now be Work Hearings, where migrants and others on or below the minimum wage can share their stories and awaken the rest of us to the true nature of work in the UK today.

    [More Workers gold mine pictures here]