[Note: Вам повезло! Today I was stuck at home typing up archival notes and reading the news while I waited for an electrician to come fix the broken light in my corridor. So you get a somewhat random synthesis of these two tasks instead of more “lazy-blogging.”]
Violence and labor exploitation have been intertwined pervasive features of modern life. So we shouldn’t be so surprised to find evidence of these all over the news, though the curious thing is that they are either (a) not interpreted or (b) interpreted as aberrant to modern life—a sign of a holdover or recent retrogression. Today, I collected four separate, though arguably related news items on this theme, which I will chase with a few archival gems for reflection.
1. Earlier this week I caught the headline of Korean workers in the Moscow region being attacked by thirty local thugs with baseball bats and pipes. Now, the presence of Korean labor in Russia is nothing new, nor is the continuation of morons attacking those of “non-Slavic appearance,” as the news likes to put it. (By the way, this violence is being prosecuted as an ordinary attack, with no racial motivation. As part of their rationale, the police noted that refugees from the Caucasus joined in the attacks. This logic should be familiar to those following the police brutality cases in New York.)
But here’s what caught my attention in the RIAN article:
There are some 10,000 North Korean workers in Russia. The majority of them are employed in the country's Far East, where they are closely monitored by North Korean security agents.Right, so why are they being monitored by North Korean security agents? That took turning to the Moscow Times, which explained:
But the use of North Korean labor in Russia has a history of disturbing parallels with slavery… An Economic Development and Trade Ministry official interviewed at the time said Pyongyang was continuing a Soviet-era practice of servicing its debt to Russia by sending indentured servants to work for free in lumber camps across Siberia. The official, who asked not to be identified, said North Korea serviced some $50 million of its $3.8 billion debt this way in 2000.But, according to the MT, things are getting better:
A senior immigration official in the Far East city of Tynda said in 2003 that while North Korea's Labor Security Service still had a representative in every settlement, its agents no longer search for escapees, leaving that task to the Russians. North Koreans no longer burst into tears and beg not to be turned over to their employer when they are caught skipping work, the official said.So why isn’t the bigger story here the systemic violence of coerced labor, with the complicity of two governments?
Annually, there are over 125, 000 Sri Lankan women who travel to the Middle East as domestic workers. More than 90% of Sri Lankan women migrate overseas as domestic workers on a temporary contract. Often times, they are tricked into working for little pay or no pay at all, their passports are confiscated, they are forcibly confined, and denied any communication with the embassy, agents, and/or family, thus effectively holding them hostage in slave conditions… [According to HRW] “the physical abuse women reported included beatings, deliberate burning with hot irons, kicking, slapping, and hair-pulling.” …Then there is the sexual abuse. The agents know about this, because prior to arriving to a said country, they force women- sometimes without their knowledge- to take injectable contraception to avoid unwanted pregnancy which might arise from “problems” [rape] with employers.
I’m not going to bother with a “where’s the outrage?” part of this post. The problem, to me, seems that there is all too often outrage, and all too rare coherent analysis and action. Surely, organizations such as Human Rights Watch do incredibly important work in monitoring abuses, though the implied demand for state reform seems to almost always falls on deaf ears. Here, I am somewhat reminded of James W. Ford’s report to the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers on his attendance of 1931 International Labor Organization’s Conference on African Children in Geneva:
This conference was not in the interest of the children in Africa. It was organized to help extend imperialist exploitation and oppression in Africa—which is the cause of the unspeakable misery and suffering of the African peoples…None of the reporters spoke of the world economic crisis of capitalism that is causing untold misery and starvation among the people, nor of the brutal imperialist exploitation and oppression or forced labour, heavy taxation, etc. –brutal suppressions, all of which is exterminating the peoples of Africa by the hundreds of thousands.
But such a reliance on state-sponsorship came with certain dangers (one of them being that your sponsor might collapse, another that it might decide to stop caring), something that veteran Indian freedom fighter Virendranath Chattopadhyaya (second from right in the MTBE banner) was aware of as early as 1920, when he argued with Comintern representatives and fellow anti-colonialist M.N. Roy (first on the left in the banner) on the problems of centering Indian activity in Tashkent or Moscow. From Stockholm, he wrote to “the Indian comrades” in Tashkent, “Our revolutionary experience in different countries has taught us not to depend too much on one centre, but to found as many good centres as possible.” He later elaborated, “It is essential that there should be centres of Communist activity wherever there are colonies of Indian laborers, etc. We must send instructors to California, South Africa, East Africa, Batavia, etc.”
As might be expected, Borodin’s point of view won out, in the short-term and in the long run. But one can’t help but wonder what that broader world of “as many good centres as possible” would have looked like. It’s good fodder, I think, for those who might want to ponder the future of the post-Cold War global left(s) in light of all the breaking news of violence, militarism and exploitation.
With that, I'll leave this slightly disjointed post and let you mull it over.
[Coda: The electrician came. It was terrifying. While holding two wires together with his bare fingers, he asked for me to flip the switch to turn on the light. Uncertain that I heard him right, I asked, “You want to me to turn it on?” “Yeah, yeah, turn it on.” I feared that I was participating in some sort of assisted suicide, but encouraged by his insistent look, I hit the switch. And, вуала! One working light bulb, one living electrician. And a few celebratory sparks.
Apparently, my hesitation with Russian gave him the opportunity to ask after my nationality. I played the game I usually play, asking him first what his guess would be. Thus far I’ve gotten everything from Australian to North African to an amazingly accurate “I’d say mixed, maybe Indian?” from the shwarma guy at my Metro station, who later turned to his co-worker and yelled, “See, I told you!” The electrician went with “Yugoslavian, maybe.” When I said I was an American of Indian descent (not quite so cumbersome-sounding in Russian), he said I spoke Russian pretty well, considering. My language pride moment of the day: he thought I spoke like a Yugoslavian! And just last month they thought I spoke like I was from the Baltics, though another guy, thinking I was an Indian student in America, warned me that I had spent too much time in the States as I was starting to develop a bad American accent.]