ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P27)
Reconceptualising labour and dependency: beyond the working and non-working poor
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG91
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Katherine Smith (University of Manchester) email
  • Maia Green (University of Manchester) email
  • John Foster (University of Manchester) email

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Short Abstract

This panel seeks contributions that explore the ways in which labour and dependency are reconceptualised in the contemporary global political economy.

Long Abstract

This panel aims to reposition the critical purchase of dependency and labour as central aspects of the form and function of citizenship in the 21st-century. Recent anthropological interventions and ethnographic insights into poverty discuss from myriad angles how neoliberalism, the democratisation of knowledge, and notions of independence and self-management as active citizenship do not resonate with local perceptions of need or the responsibility of the state to its citizens. This is also resonant with ethnographies of development that question ideals of self-reliance in contexts where people value relations of dependence and collectivity. Anthropologists have attended to various relations of obligation, care and intimacies such as in kin ties that inform how people make life (and death) decisions in the face of destitution. From ethnographies of migrants, poor farmers, to the urban poor around the world, people engage in relational exchanges, moral traditions and self-management to imagine their futures and aspire for a better life. Therefore, perhaps a more useful starting point than a critique of neoliberalism is an examination of the creative and contested tensions between different ways of framing dependency and labour, and how these tensions are constitutive of the relative boundedness of entities as diverse as the unemployed, factory workers, landowners, to multinational corporations (cf. Martin 2015). This panel seeks contributions that explore the ways in which labour and dependency are reconceptualised in the contemporary global political economy.

Reference: Martin,K. 2015. Epilogue: Exchange and Corporate Forms Today. J. Kjaerulff (ed.) Flexible Capitalism: Exchange and Ambiguity at Work. Berghahn.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Between self-sufficiency and survival: the commodification of "volunteer" labour on organic farms in rural Portugal

Author: Sharan Kaur  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores how leftist and environmentalist activists from the north of Europe attempt to build alternative livelihoods through organic farms in rural Portugal, but in order to survive must exploit the new conditions of precarious labour which they themselves sought to escape.

Long Abstract

In both hegemonic and counterhegemonic arenas, voluntaristic and cooperative workplace relations are currently promoted as a salve to the spiralling costs of living and decreasing opportunities for social reproduction in the declining West. This paper problematises assumptions that the growing popularity of online casual labour agencies linking 'volunteers' and 'interns' with small enterprise owners around the world - such as WWOOF, WorkAway, and HelpX - inherently contributes to reformist or radical leftist visions of alternative, solidarity, social, or human economies. Instead it considers how the centralisation of "voluntary" labour to a primary form of social organisation in three organic and sustainable livelihood projects in rural Portugal comes to constitute a survival strategy for disenfranchised northern Europeans attempting to secure a meaningful existence under the new conditions. Specifically I explore how social relations between owners and 'volunteers' are marked by the "productivity, competition, and profitability demands of the hegemonic system" (Narotzky 2012: 247) whilst constantly seeking to exceed those constraints in efforts to prove that 'another world is possible'. I argue that the owners' experiments with commodification of 'voluntary' labour relations reveals a common tension between social ideals in the green scene and the economic realities of life in the margins. In doing so I underscore the need for further historically and politically situating notions of solidarity, voluntarism, and cooperation within the wider hegemonic context of flexible and affective modes of late capitalism.

When working class people don't get working class jobs: dignity, labour and value among Manchester's unemployed

Author: John Foster (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines actions and narratives of unemployed volunteers in terms of an anthropological theory of value and finds that, by mobilising pre-existing working values, these volunteers often act to their own detriment.

Long Abstract

This paper examines actions and narratives of unemployed volunteers in terms of an anthropological theory of value. After a brief introduction to the field of unemployment and employability in Manchester, I move on to re-count certain narratives espoused by unemployed people who volunteered in work clubs. These volunteers often framed their work in narratives of redemption and set them in opposition to both the sense of loss they felt due to their lack of work, and their frustration at new disciplinary mechanisms imposed upon them. Through their volunteering they were able to re-create a sense of personal value by helping others. Such narratives would appear to support an emerging notion of the reclamation of dignity through proclamations of the right to work. In analysing the values underlying this situation however, I attempt to move beyond such a perspective by suggesting that, though they appear to be socially minded and are set in opposition to a world of work which has ceased to function, these actions are everywhere conditioned by an imperative to acquire wage labour. Subsequently these means by which to re-create personal value ultimately end up in practices which support a ramping up of competitive conditions within the job-market while legitimising the widespread giving of free labour. In this situation I suggest that the activation of a value structure which equates dignity with labour is responsible not for salvation but for continued unemployed participation in and reproduction of a system which actively marginalises these people.

Reciprocal dependence in New Zealand's pacific seasonal worker programme: moral tensions between Ni-Vanuatu workers and their overseas employers

Author: Rachel E. Smith (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

Whilst some see temporary worker programmes as enabling development others criticise them for fostering dependency. Relations between Ni-Vanuatu workers and their employers in New Zealand’s Pacific seasonal worker programme have become materially and morally invested, but this has led to tensions.

Long Abstract

Whilst migration and remittances are currently being hailed as a means towards economic development, remittance economies have often been criticised for creating dependence (Binford 2003:308-309; Haas 2007:42-43). Despite the seemingly contingent and temporary nature of seasonal employment programmes there is, paradoxically, a tendency for employment relationships to be prolonged due to an apparent mutual dependency between employers and workers (Martin, Abella, and Kuptsch 2006:93). In this paper, I will discuss the perspectives and experiences of a rural Ni-Vanuatu community with a high degree of engagement in New Zealand's Pacific seasonal worker programme. Work engagements emerged from existing relations between islanders with New Zealand nationals, and Ni-Vanuatu villagers have been actively seeking out and cultivating relationships with potential employers. These relationships are deeply moralised, as employers increasingly accept a degree of responsibility in facilitating development in workers' home islands. My Ni-Vanuatu interlocutors often described these relationships in typically Melanesian relational terms as 'roads', implying mutual expectations and enduring obligations. But whilst employers and workers alike have become economically and morally invested in the continuation of the programme, these relationships have often become tense and ambivalent as employers find meeting workers' expectations is not always conducive to profitability, and workers struggle with the estrangement they experience in their subordination to a capitalist temporal labour regime. This paper draws on classic regional and anthropological theories of the gift and reciprocity to seek to understand the tenor of relations in these emergent conditions of reciprocal dependency and mutual expectation.

Poverty and dependency, or dependency and poverty? Living in the shadows of slavery (Kolda region, Southern Senegal)

Author: Alice Bellagamba (University of Milan-Bicocca)  email

Short Abstract

Historical and anthropological research carried out among people of slave ancestry in Southern Senegal helps to include the thorny issue of the legacies of slavery in contemporary anthropological discussions on the significance of dependency in the contemporary global economy.

Long Abstract

Research on post-slavery West African contexts has shown that the social condition of 'being a slave' did not necessarily end with the legal abolition of slavery in colonial times. Emancipation was real, of course. But in many cases slavery turned into a form of voluntary dependency that has spilled over generations: today, there are people that cultivate their reciprocal social and moral obligations as 'slaves' and 'masters'. Why do they allow this painful past to inhabit their present? Historical and anthropological research among people of slave ancestry in the Senegalese region of Kolda allows this paper to question the long term and changing connection between poverty and the kinds of relatedness, which stem from the local history of slavery. Labor obligations between 'slaves' and 'masters' ended in the late 1950s, but political, economic and social collaboration between the two social categories has been reinvented up to the present. Has poverty pushed people to bear the legacies of slavery or are these legacies among the causes of poverty? This thorny question is a good testing ground for contemporary anthropological discussions on the value of social obligations and the significance of dependency in the contemporary global economy.

"Humiliating the talking battery!": the modern sweatshop, call centre and workers' health

Author: Kwanwook Kim (Durham University)  email

Short Abstract

The research focuses on describing the lived experience of female call centre workers in South Korea in the era of Neoliberalism. I show how humiliation works to exploit call handlers and its effect on health, and a self-help form stretching exercise and its benefit.

Long Abstract

This was the research about the lived experience of female call centre workers in South Korea, so-called an Information Technology powerhouse. While the Neoliberalism had been extending since 1997 when the International Monetary Fund bailed out South Korea of Asian financial crisis, the call centre industry has been developing rapidly. At the moment, the call centre is represented as a modern sweatshop with 'low wage and intensive labours' and temporary workers. Throughout one and half a year fieldwork, I found that female call handlers suffered from humiliation by a manager, customer, and even colleagues. Their salaries were monthly determined, correlated to individual abilities to control one's humiliated emotion quicker than others. Some relieved themselves 1) by consuming cosmetics, etc. and recharging their emotion with chemicals like sweeties, alcohol, and cigarette (figuratively 'inbound' self-healing), 2) by humiliating or swearing others like other call handlers, shop assistants, friends, and family members ('outbound' self-healing). Ironically, both strategies were likely to destroy one's body and mind. In contrast, I found that in one call centre the female call handlers' self-help form exercise, called 'MOM-PYO-GI' (means 'Body Stretching' in Korean), stretching the body and laughing 'together', was very effective in healing them. It, at first, purposed to relieve muscle and joint pain by simple stretching, but it subsequently reduced psychological stress. Interestingly, the exercise club was inaugurated by the labour union of the call centre, and then it helped to sustain the labour union to protest the company's unfair treatment and improve the working environment.

She wore black: Syrian labour and gender on the streets of Beirut

Author: Elizabeth Saleh  email

Short Abstract

The paper explores the gendered contours of informal labour on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Since the start of the 2011 Syrian conflict, the increasing informalization of the economy suggests a potential reconfiguration of dependency in relations of Syrian migrant labours with Lebanese employers.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the gendered contours of informal labour of Syrian Turkmen women trading boxes of tissues and other services on the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the informal economy in Lebanon has increased substantially (ILO, 2013). This "informalization" of Lebanon's economy suggests a possible reconfiguration of dependency in the relations between Syrian migrant labour and their Lebanese employers. In the case of Syrian women selling of tissues for prices set by the buyer is often done so through reciprocities of charity. The willingness to forgo social boundaries deemed morally appropriate for gendered economic transactions on the streets is thus mediated through an understanding that these women's presence are a result of desperation due to their displacement from Syria. Despite of their vulnerability, the women, who are in fact mother and daughter, often engage in jokes with one another and also with some of the men who pass by. The joking relations are always laden with sexual innuendos and might be a way in which the women assert their right to share the streets with the men. Yet it is significant that relatively substantial donations of money made by certain regular male customers were not in exchange for tissues and were often given in conjunction with goods such as clothes and jewellery.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.