Invisible Hands: Voices From the Global Economy is the latest title from Voice of Witness, a San Francisco-based nonprofit cofounded by Dave Eggers that uses oral history to highlight human rights crises. Voice of Witness won the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for Social Progress for its book series and education program. Curriculum for Invisible Hands can be found here.
Author and veteran Voice of Witness editor Peter Orner sat down with Invisible Hands’ editor Corinne Goria to talk about the book.
PETER ORNER: Among the many impressive things about Invisible Hands is the scope of the project. The book literally covers the globe. Could you talk about some of the logistical challenges of such a project?
CORINNE GORIA: Yes, the scope is immense, but not by our original design. I was hoping to interview people who make some of the things we touch every day—a cell phone, a pair of jeans, a laptop, a cup of coffee. I wanted to meet the producers personally, sit down and chat. But even this short list of goods would have taken me to Zambia, China, Mexico, Korea, Guatemala. Or brought the narrators here, to far-flung California. We didn’t have the budget for either. So, I relied heavily on long-distance communication.
I first spoke with academics, human and labor rights organizations, and other experts for general guidance. Those experts then directed me to others working in specific industries, or with specific communities, on the ground. And through those local labor or human rights organizations we got in touch with potential narrators. The challenge, at that point, was to find someone to conduct the interview.
Sometimes we had to settle for remote interviewing—by videoconference or cell phone, and other times we were able to find folks already involved or on the ground. In some cases, assistant editors that had worked on previous VOW books were well situated, and willing, to help with this one. David W. Hill—who I became friends with through working on your book, Underground America—happened to be living in Hong Kong when I made contact with the organization SACOM (Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior). He took over the lead there and quickly ended up in a strange situation—being tailed by an unmarked car when he interviewed a group of young electronics workers in China. These were young men working in the electrical appliance factory that supplied Walmart with toaster ovens, or in the iPhone factory in ShenZhen.
In other cases—like in Guatemala, California, North Carolina, Zambia—our assistant editors traveled to interview narrators in person.
ORNER: The book is divided into three large sectors of the global economy? Can you talk about why you organized the book this way?
GORIA: We (managing editor Luke Gerwe, executive editor mimi lok) actually had a really difficult time dividing up the book. We could have grouped narratives together by geography, or chronology, or by theme. Terri Judd, Kalpona Akter, Neftali Cuello, Li Wen, for example touch on some similar issues: earning decent wages, without preventable risk, having a right to organize, feeling like you have a voice and a stake in the life you lead at work. They discuss struggles for what might be considered traditional labor rights.
Clive Porabou, Suanu Bere Kingston and Sanjay Verma, on the other hand, are talking about what happens to the community outside of the factory walls, downstream from the mine. They might not only be disenfranchised from the way the factory is managed, but from the way the water, land and air around them is being managed.
Dividing the book by economic sector, as we ultimately did, allowed other connections to be drawn among narratives, like a shared history. In garment manufacturing, for example, with narratives from Mexico and Bangladesh, we can trace a line from a turning point in American labor rights—the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York—to conditions today. Looking at that industry, it’s easy to see that working conditions have dramatically improved in the U.S. Yet thousands are now perishing in fires at garment manufacturing plants in Bangladesh. We’ve outsourced the jobs and outsourced the risk and liability. Similarly with semiconductor manufacturing. Cancer clusters once in the Silicon Valley in the 1980s have moved to Korea today. A mining company that balked at negotiating with its workers in California also balked at negotiating with local residents in Bougainville, Papa New Guinea. In Bougainville, the conflict between the two resulted in a decades-long civil war.
Ultimately, I’m not sure we even needed the division. I think each of these narratives could easily stand on their own, more along the lines of the narratives in Studs Terkel’s Working. Either way, I think the stories are an entry point, and then require the reader to continue looking into some of the issues the narrators bring up.
ORNER: How did your own legal background influence the way you approached these difficult stories?
GORIA: A case begins with a declaration. An applicant for political asylum , for example, must recount often brutal, and painful, experiences in chronological, factual fashion. You try to keep the declarations to ‘just the facts’, including emotions only when they help prove some element of the claim.
With this book—and oral history in general I think—the process is similar. We conduct several interviews, using an interpreter if needed; we read over the transcripts, we ask questions for clarity. But with Invisible Hands, and Voice of Witness books in general, the interviewer is allowed latitude to follow the narrator’s natural voice. And to elicit details or emotional reflections that might not be considered relevant in the legal approach. This openness and personal detail allows the reader to ultimately become immersed in the narrative, and brings us that much closer to the narrator.
ORNER: Invisible Hands has an enormous breath, and yet I came away feeling so many connections among the very different people you interviewed. In a way the world became smaller, given all the economic interdependency you cover… Now that you’re all done (not that such work is ever done) what’s your own take, now that you can take a step back and see what you and your team have created?
GORIA: I do feel the world has been sewn together a bit closer than it was before. That Chambishi (Zambia) and Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) and Boron (California) are connected by industry, by company, by the struggle to be heard, and a struggle to survive.
Economic interdependency is a great way to put it. I guess I’ve learned from this that we are in fact in a closed circuit. Something we do here, in our small realm, affects what is happening there, in someone else’s realm—and vice versa.
ORNER: In your introduction, you talk about the origin of the collection being the simple desire to get to know the people who produce the things we use every day. How has your view of even the most simple consumer product become complicated by putting this book together?
GORIA: I have a greater appreciation for ‘things’! I see the work and energy that has gone into each of the millions of items for sale at a department store. And they are no longer ’things’—they are alive, imbued with the touch, the emotions, the voices of those who created them.
It can be overwhelming, I think, to recognize the human story – the sometimes very violent and painful story—involved in everything we use each day . But it’s also a bit of a relief. You finally get to acknowledge the origin of something, the complete history of something, that you were alienated from before.
ORNER: The narrators in Invisible Hands are especially courageous because their speaking out directly impacts their livelihood and their ability to feed their families. In many ways, this is what links these disparate people…What do you think gives them the strength to speak out in the face of such terrible possible consequences, loss of job, income, and, worse, possible violence and assassination?
GORIA: The narrators have different motivations for speaking out—which many of them explain in the book. I think Kalpona captures a common spirit, though, when she says in her foreword: “How do I want to live? Suffer in silence from the trauma I have faced and the stories I hear from workers every day? … If my story touches someone’s heart—maybe yours—if it lets another woman who has faced exploitation and repression feel that she is not alone, and even encourages her to speak up, then it is worth it.”
ORNER: Your personal connection to Kalpona Akter is established early on in, can you talk about how you got to know Ms. Akter and why her voice is so important to the book?
GORIA: I had first contacted ILRF (International Labor Rights Forum) about the book right at the project’s inception. The then-deputy director was discouraging when I spoke to her. She said, “I don’t think your project will work—people are not going to want to come out and talk. It’s too dangerous.” She paused and then said, “I’m sorry, maybe you caught me in a bad week. Two of our partners, labor activists in Bangladesh, were just arrested and no one has been able to make contact with them. ”
Kalpona Akter was one of those activists.
A year later, having since been released, Kalpona was touring the U.S. to speak at the Walmart shareholders’ meeting and at other local union meetings about the conditions of garment manufacturers in Bangladesh. Liana Foxvog from ILRF got in touch with me and I was given the opportunity to meet her in Los Angeles. I felt incredibly fortunate to meet Kalpona, an opportunity made even more special given what had happened a year earlier.
We ended up talking into the morning in her hotel room at LAX, just before she was to return to Bangladesh. She spoke of her childhood, sewing clothes in a factory next to a school in Dhaka. She spoke of her involvement with labor organizing, how it started with a demand for back pay, and how she then had to struggle to be heard by factory owners, and by her own husband, and how the two were connected. She talked about her imprisonment, and the torture of her colleagues. She talked about being a woman in her thirties, wanting to have children but needing to find a good partner, and needing to find the time amid her job as an activist for garment workers—a job that she had been recalled to by the garment workers. She talked about her nieces and nephew, who called her “Mom” and whom she loved as her own children and how difficult it was when they saw her taken away by police.
It was hard not to feel connected to Kalpona after that first interview. We had other interviews after that, and my admiration for her has just continued to grow.
ORNER: I was moved by so many other narratives, notably Albert Mwanaumo of Zambia. How did you find Mr. Mwanaumo, and what about his narrative drove you to pursue it?
GORIA: In the course of research, I had been told of the tensions rising in the copper mining industry there by Ching Kwan Lee, of UCLA. She suggested I speak with researchers from Cambridge University in the UK, also working on the issue. They referred me to Peter Sinkamba of Citizens for a Better Environment in Zambia, who then referred me to a local labor organizer, who ultimately referred us to mineworkers in the Chambishi copperbelt. But the challenge became—how would we conduct the interviews? Again I contacted Prof. Alastair Fraser from Cambridge who referred me to a friend and his brother, whom he’d met in Zambia—Luipa Mondoka. Luipa ended up taking multiple six-hour-long bus rides to meet Albert and other narrators in or near their homes in very rural parts of Chambishi.
Albert’s story is shocking. He was shot by his managers in the midst of a protest over wages. What led to the protests is one thing, but the reaction by the mine managers is difficult to comprehend. The Zambian labor secretary at one point referred to the workers and the mine management as “warring parties.” If foreign investment into a country is supposed to be a boon to local residents—creating jobs, investing in infrastructure, and all – how does one of those residents end up being shot by his manager? How does it end up as a war?
ORNER: Fausto Guzman’s story struck me as well. A vineyard worker who also sells Amway products after meeting a guy in a Walmart… Could you talk about his story and how it evolved over the course of multiple conversations?
GORIA: Alberto Reyes Morgan—who also worked on Underground America—was the interviewer and editor for Fausto’s narrative, and explained how his story developed. He said " The second time Fausto Guzmán and I spoke it was in his house, just as the first time, and afterwards he gave me a ride back into town in his van. He said he’d show me the grape fields that surrounded us and we’d chat some more. He drove me down the freeway, talked about the fields, and as we approached town he told me about his eldest son he hadn’t mentioned, a son of his that was killed in an accident on his way to him.
The danger implied in the journey his younger children had also risked to reach him became real. The backdrop for his story changed unexpectedly and suddenly with this new information. Our next two conversations would be like this. He’d gradually deepen my understanding of his story, his life, in unanticipated ways.
Our first conversation mainly consisted of attempting to understand the circumstances of his accident. Fausto’s first language is Triqui, a native tongue in the state of Oaxaca, so he would hesitant when speaking Spanish. He tends not to use past tense, and speaks mainly in the present tense. This complicated understanding the circumstances of his accident at the winery warehouse. As we spoke though, we rapidly seemed to understand each other more and more. Within our first conversation I understood that he’d been intoxicated by some fumes from an engine in a poorly ventilated warehouse. From that point on Fausto would help me clarify questions of some medical and legal aspects of his accident.
Though, as well as we understood each other, it was a moment of miscommunication that caused Fausto to begin telling me about his side job with Amway. He either misunderstood my question or I phrased it poorly. I’d never heard of Amway, so at the time of the interview I was highly confused as to what he was explaining. Not until later did I realize that the food and drink that he’d kindly served me as his guest were part of his product.
Some time transpired between our third and fourth conversations, more than a year, but it didn’t seem to matter, as Fausto seemed to speak even more candidly with me. I was already used to the particularities of his Spanish but it didn’t matter much since he seemed more at ease with the language than previously.
It’s in these talks that Fausto’s story deepened with meanings previously hidden. There was a good deal of understanding about his job and accident, and the condition of his health, but Fausto had not talked much about himself. There was more to his story, and what emerged from him speaking about life back home comes to represent him more wholly. Here we saw what Oaxaca meant to him. We saw a man who built his own house, twice. A man who knew his crops: sugar cane, and land: Paso de Aguila.
Fausto delved into a completely unexplored theme and spoke about the political turmoil and menace that the Triquis lived under. I had never heard any of this. I was another ignorant northerner completely unaware that the Triqui’s had declared themselves autonomous of the Mexican state and that the people essentially lived under caciques.
From understanding the tumultuous situation in Oaxaca, along with the needs of his family, the reasons that propelled his departure from his homeland become evident. Yet, Fausto also spoke to me in these same later conversations of yearning to return to Oaxaca. He gave unabashed glimpses into his life and though it sounds simple it is brave for a person to allow such dualities to spring forth from them. The reader "
ORNER: The book goes all over the world, but California emerges, in some ways, as a kind of epicenter? Can you talk about the role of California in your book and in the global economy…
GORIA: I guess it’s sort of natural for the narratives to revolve in some way around California, since that’s where I’m from and where Voice of Witness is based. California is also its own small—or not so small—version of the global economy. It’s the eighth or ninth largest economy in the world. Meaning, California as an American state has a larger economy than most countries in the world, including even Russia. As the epicenter of many industries—agriculture, film, technology—there could be many lessons to be learned about business and human rights here. Some might say California is a laboratory for experimental policies, practices, technologies and cultures later exported to the rest of the world. With mixed results, perhaps.
ORNER: Are there any narratives you are especially proud of… ones you thought would never work, but that came together…
GORIA: One of the most difficult interviews of the book was that of Hye-kyeong Han. She is one of dozens of young workers at Samsung who were diagnosed with very rare forms of cancer. Doctors studying the cluster believe it could be caused by unsafe working conditions at Samsung semiconductor facilities. Although Samsung conducted regular health monitoring of their workers, they refuse to allow the workers access to their own health records.
We not only needed to conduct the interview via web-conference, and enlist the help of an interpreter (I do not speak Korean), but Hye-kyeong was in the hospital at the time in Korea. The internet connection was spotty, and myself, the interpreter—who was conferenced in from another location in the U.S.—and Jeong-Ok Kong, the doctor who helped connect us with Hye-kyeong and who was with her during the interview, all had difficulty with our lines. And there was another challenge: Hye-kyeong had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and had been operated on. Her language motor skills were affected. So it was physically very difficult for her to speak. You will see that in her narrative we show Hye-kyeong’s mother picking up the story at times. She stepped in when Hye-kyeong got tired.
Despite all of the obstructions to the interview, though, when Hye-kyeong did speak, the emotion in her voice came through very clearly, very powerfully. When she spoke, it was like a door that swung open.
ORNER: Talk a bit about your work on Underground America, and how you got involved in oral history…
GORIA: I had been working in immigration law, and was still a Creative Writing student at San Francisco State University, and I remember you mentioned a collection of oral histories you had started to work on. You, very kindly, suggested it might be a nice opportunity to combine my writing interests with immigration law background.
With law, I am used to eliciting a declaration for a direct, immediate purpose—in order to buttress a claim for asylum, for example. But with Underground America you relied on a team of creative writers and, I think, wanted us to approach the project from the writers’ perspective. So you opened my eyes to how oral history can truly be an art.
And how oral history has a more intangible, spiritual—and therefore broader—purpose than in law. I remember Roberto—whom I interviewed for Underground America and who is also a friend—said how he felt so much lighter after he shared his story. He said he felt unburdened, clean. So I learned how, for both reader and narrator, the sharing of a story is very powerful.
ORNER: Invisible Hands challenges readers to get directly involved in speaking out for better labor conditions throughout the world, what specific things can people do?
GORIA: Some of the narrators do call for specific action. For Kalpona, safer work places, a better, living wage for garment workers in Bangladesh, is attainable. It would require a relatively miniscule investment of profits or even dividends from, for example, the Walton family, to make major change in the working conditions of thousands in Bangladesh.
For Sanjay, as well, there are concrete remedies. Clean up Bhopal and its water supply, take full responsibility for the disaster and fully compensate the community.
Other narratives, though, like Pournima’s and Bere’s, Clive’s and even Sung Huang’s, I think make us wonder about the very way the global economy is functioning, its effects on the environment, on humanity. It causes us to question, What is being gained, and by whom? What is being lost, and by whom?
Ultimately, the narratives in this book are complex, as are the issues they address. As a reader, one way to get involved might be to simply learn. Learn more about what—and who—is behind everything that we buy, everything that we use. Learn about your role in the supply chain.
And open up your own conversations. To quote Kalpona again: “Tell your own story. And take time to listen to workers that you encounter every day.”