Worker experiments in humanitarian politics

This post is part of a series linked to the workshop “Assessing the Anthropology of Humanitarianism: Ethnography, Impact, Critique”.


Over the last decade and a half, labor politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina has become humanitarianized. By humanitarianize I mean the increasingly common deployment of moral sentiments in worker actions and political campaigns, particularly the “emotions that direct our attention to the suffering of others and make us want to remedy them” (Fassin 2012: 1).  While moral sentiments were long part of syndicalism in socialist Bosnia, suffering was not one of them.  Such a shift in sentiments is a testament to the precarious position in which the workers find themselves and the new tactics this requires. In this short essay I draw upon my research with unemployed workers in the northern Bosnian city of Tuzla for what it can tell us about the relationship between labor politics, humanitarian reason, and mass publicity.

Most of the workers that I worked with came from companies that were once socially-owned mass employers, but which had been idled by debt, mismanagement, corruption, disinvestment, and other effects of state-run privatization. Thus while Tuzla has a nearly century-long history of syndical activism, recent worker struggles have been less about control over labor conditions or the profits of production.  Rather, workers agitate to restart production, to have the obligations of a socialist-era social contract fulfilled and thus to restore the work(er)-based model of human flourishing and emancipation that underwrites that contract.  As disemployed or idled workers, they are unable to use the tactic of withholding their labor, and this meant that the workers’ struggle has been marked by a spirit of tactical experimentation. Sometimes they were confrontational, blocking major transportation routes or clashing with the police outside government buildings.  At other times they presented themselves as miserable and suffering—even suicidal—subjects, staging hunger strikes or marching in protest for four days in the dead of winter.  In all cases, workers enacted a demand for care before a media public, ostensibly to instigate state action by embarrassing (or enraging) governmental authorities.

In my research I have been struck by the fact that workers usually failed to provoke the desired government reaction, but in so failing they also animated the (caring) actions of others, often in unpredictable but consequential ways. Take, for example, a letter written in desperation and published on a local web-based news portal. It detailed the suffering of protesting workers whose demands for years of unpaid salaries and social insurance contributions had been without effect.  Although the writer expected little to come from her letter, it caught the attention of some students who had recently occupied offices at the local university and were looking to expand their activism. In fairly quick order these activists gathered some other friends and university faculty, purchased some food, and visited the workers at their small tent encampment located at the entrance to their factory.  That first visit initiated a set of relationships that over time succeeded in making socioeconomic inequality in Tuzla a regular focus of local and national news reporting, turned the plight of these workers into an international story, and helped (re)establish these workers as relevant political subjects.

In another instance, a group of about 200 mostly middle-aged unemployed workers left Tuzla in late December 2014, setting out on foot for the state border. Union leaders claimed that it was neglect by the cantonal government that had triggered their exodus.  Over the course of four days, a political drama played out over the airwaves, with news channels reporting from alongside the marchers, then broadcasting statements from the government in Tuzla, and returning for commentary from union leaders on the road.  These reports were also filled with scenes of suffering and spontaneous acts of compassion. By undertaking this march, workers self-consciously placed themselves in positions of risk and vulnerability that proliferated participant roles of giving and receiving care.  By receiving care publicly—from fellow citizens along the road, Red Cross volunteers, individual municipal officials—they underscored both the legitimacy of their demand to be able to “live from their work,” and the illegitimacy of the cantonal government which refused to secure their capacity to do so.

On yet another occasion, the owner of a local web news portal caught a TV report which showed the strike leader at one factory confronting a government-appointed bankruptcy lawyer and demanding that he commit to not selling-off the factory’s assets but rather to restarting production. The portal owner told me that this image of defiance from an otherwise destitute worker inspired him to track down the strike leader, a woman he did not otherwise know, with an offer of support. He subsequently drew upon his social connections and social media networks to build a national media campaign that cost the workers nothing but which created enough publicity and demand for the factory’s products that it remained a viable company.

I want to emphasize two points that flow from these brief descriptions of worker actions and their unexpected effects. The first is that we need to revisit the role of the mass media to better understand the possibilities and limits of humanitarian worker politics.  Boltanski (1999) and Malkki (1996) have explored the role that images of “distant suffering” by cultural Others can play in shaping national and international responses to far-off disasters. Yet I would argue that images of suffering by fellow citizens is mediating a different set of relationships with distinct stakes.  The humanitarian politics of workers presupposes an evaluating public before whom government officials will feel sufficiently ashamed, embarrassed, or otherwise provoked to respond to worker demands. Hence the reliance on mass-mediated forms of publicity to conjure that public, and the necessity of staging events of suffering or confrontation that will gain that kind of attention.  For this reason most workers described and experienced media attention itself as a form of care (in the double sense of caring for workers by caring about them). Publicly creating and circulating images of worker suffering was risky, however, because there were multiple ways to interpret them.  Rather than take up the interpretive framework proposed by workers—that their suffering was an unacceptable indignity that obviously had to be rectified—it was also possible that observers would see suffering workers as just another social category of needy subjects, alongside war widows, wounded veterans, single mothers and other more typical “welfare cases.” One strike leader complained to me how often the workers’ struggle was publicly misrecognized as asking for money from the state, rather than demanding the right to work and to be paid for their labor.

This leads me to my second point, which proceeds from the recognition that these worker tactics usually failed to move the government in desired directions — restoring unpaid salaries and insurance contributions and re-starting production. However, as the above examples suggest, in so failing workers could animate the support of fellow citizens, often in unexpected and unpredictable ways.  This created openings to relations and collaborations that were improvisational and fugitive, sometimes as brief as handing a worker a piece of bread, or joining arms to march against police, or filming an advertisement to be circulated through social media.  No matter how fleeting, however, these relations and collaboration could produce novel forms of value and public events that renewed the political relevance of workers, sustained their struggle, and helped them to achieve real victories, both large and small.

Many of us are familiar with the political common sense that the structural forces that shape our lives, like capitalism or nationalism, are so difficult to disturb or overcome that it seems foolhardy to even try. Documenting improvised relations and unexpected victories, particularly those that are transitory, fleeting, and experimental, can move us away from this conviction and its attendant political pessimism.  Instead it can enliven our political imagination by allowing us to rethink what matters, what is possible and how things might be otherwise.


Boltanski, Luc. 1999. Distant Suffering. Morality, Media, and Politics. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2012. Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Malkki, Liisa H. 1996. “Speechless Emissaries. Refugees, Humanitarianism, Dehistoricization.” Cultural Anthropology. 11(3): 377-404.

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