Socialist Worker

Exposed! The reality of Britain at work

Photographs by nine of the world’s leading photographers emerged from a Magnum project to document contemporary British manufacturing. The exhibition of their work, Open for Business, is a fascinating look at the world of work, writes Lesley McGorrigan

Issue No. 2390

Trudi Madden is a canteen worker at the Siemens Congleton plant in Cheshire. The canteen supplies meals for its 500 employees.

Trudi Madden is a canteen worker at the Siemens Congleton plant in Cheshire. The canteen supplies meals for its 500 employees. (Pic: Alessandra Sanguinetti/magnum)


Anyone who believes that manufacturing or the British working class is dead should see this exhibition. It will set the record straight.

It shows workers making things and the clutter and “stuff going on” around them in their workplaces. 

Manufacturing may only account for about 8 percent of the workforce in Britain, but its proportion of output is far higher.   

In the environment section, a vast wave machine in the Orkneys thrashes the sea like a giant whale. Images of statuesque wind turbines contrast the modern with the ancient landscape of dry stone walls and grass beneath.

These shots feature just a few workers, almost dots against the vast structures. But you can’t avoid recognising that large numbers of workers have built them.

The next set of photos of the giant shop floor of BAE Systems Maritime resonated for me. This was formerly Vickers shipyard, at Barrow in Furness, near where I grew up.

The shipyard manufactures nuclear powered submarines. In the 1980s, when Vickers employed 12,000 workers, this working class town routinely elected pro-nuclear Tory MPs on a ticket of protecting “Trident” jobs. Labour, in those days, was opposed to nuclear proliferation. 

It takes no great leap of the imagination to see an alternative. The same vast shop floor, welders, engineers and steel workers at the Barrow shipyard could produce the wind turbines and wave machines in the previous set of photos. 

Jonas Bendiksen’s photographs are in the traditional industries that epitomised Bradford and Dewsbury’s eminence in the industrial revolution. These are shots of human labour involved in the various processes in producing carpet, from sorting and dyeing to spinning the wool.  

The protruding veins and biceps of a vest-clad man are clearly not from workouts at the gym. They are the result of his body as a machine repeatedly lifting vast quantities of dyed wool. This image of machinery and materials dominating the worker is a thread throughout the exhibition.

Safety

A close-up of three safety switches and cables enveloped in wool fibre makes you think about the air the workers are breathing in. Sophie Howarth, in an essay in the accompanying newspaper for the exhibition, reminds us that trade unions, politicians, whistleblowers and others contributed to the creation of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.  

The number of fatal injuries at work fell by 73 percent in the 20 years following that legislation. But an estimated 20,000 people still die each year as a result of injuries or illness sustained directly because of their work.  

Bruce Gilden’s portraits of eight workers from the Tate and Lyle sugar refinery and Vauxhall car plant in London allude to the stresses of work. The close-up shots depict furrowed brows and strained expressions.

The photographer, by creating mugshots, has separated the worker from the ubiquitous overall, allowing their individuality and characters to speak to us. 

at the Bombardier train production firm in Derby

At the Bombardier train production firm in Derby (Pic: Mark Power/Magnum)


Mark Power succeeds in illuminating the worker as a person by his use of light against the dark backdrop of the Nissan factory in Sunderland and Bombardier trains in Derby. 

These shots contrast with other factory scenes where the workers are dwarfed by the scale of production.  

In video interviews, one of the photographers reminds us that these are not the usual commercial shots commissioned by manufacturers. 

Look at the dust and steam in the Axminster carpet factory or the shot of a dirty white overall worn by a young Siemens worker. 

These contrast with the superficiality of the glossy ads we usually associate with these prestigious brands. 

This contrast is also apparent in the images of women workers at a hosiery factory in Ammanford, Wales.

These women, producing the finest cashmere socks worn by Prince Charles, appear to be working in a semi-makeshift environment. They stand over their machines with plug-in fans to control the heat of the factory floor.

A shot of four workers looking though cut-out holes in a large sheet of wood at Princess Yachts in Plymouth creates a metaphor for  workers alienated from the product they have created. It is something they will never own themselves. 

Stimulation

Peter Marlow’s photographs in the Jaguar car factory focus on steel and metal parts. The men in the metal foundry, camouflaged in goggles, gloves and helmets, seem almost anonymous. Marlow comments on the apparent lack of stimulation operating a multi-million pound machine all day long. 

The ratio of crates housing hundreds of car frames to the far smaller number of workers illustrates the increased productivity of workers as manufacturing has evolved. It’s also a clue to how powerful these groups of workers are when they withdraw their labour.

The exhibition shows the diversity of the workforce in Britain. Both men and women are players. The workers of south Asian origin in the Yorkshire woollen industries are portrayed.

And the names of the men featured in a tyre re-moulding workshop in Plymouth remind us of the contribution of eastern European workers to changing British industries.

The industrialisation of food production is illustrated in a small sausage factory and the Burts crisp factory. 

A portrait of a woman delicately making a model of Shaun the Sheep at Aardman Animations is a reminder that even our modern cultural industries rely on a manufacturing base.

This exhibition is proof that manufacturing is very much alive in Britain. It is well worth a visit and is housed in the excellent National Media Museum, which nearly got the chop under Tory cuts.   

The pictures are inspiring. They illustrate alienation, individuality, collectivity, skill, power, continuity and, above all, contrast and change.  

Throughout its history, capitalism has repeatedly restructured itself. Supermarkets are now the second biggest employer in Britain and over one million people work in call centres.

But workers’ labour will always remain the source of profit. This exhibition reminds us of the centrality of the working class to our world—and therefore our power to change it.

Open for Business is showing for free at the National Media Museum, Bradford, until 5 May, see openforbusiness.uk.com

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