15 December 2007

Making Connections--Violence and Labor Exploitation

[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?

2. Oops, make that seven governments condoning and/or promoting modern-day indenture, as one can add the nations listed in the Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lankan domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, commented on by Desi Italiana over at A Fine Imbalance. DI writes:

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.
3. Oh, but American readers, it’s not all so far away from home, as this week’s news about the cover-up of sexual violence committed against Halliburton employee Jamie Leigh Jones should remind us of the widespread horrifying violence and exploitation that makes up the everyday life of laboring for the US occupation force. The kind of stuff that would lead to the resignation of a veteran American construction foreman who oversaw migrant Asian laborers working on the new US Embassy, explaining, “I’ve never seen a project more fucked up. Every US labor law was broken.” How bad were things before he left? “Once when 17 workers climbed the wall of the construction site to escape, a State Department official helped round them up and put them in ‘virtual lockdown.’” Migrant workers forced into indenture, running to escape their worksites while the State rounds them up—sounds familiar, right?

4. Yet, it’s so much easier to think about violence as inexplicable distant disorder, as made clear by Africa Beat’s link to Mahmood Mamdani’s explanation of “why it's easier for sunny college kids to advocate the end of mass murder in Darfur than in Iraq, where we Americans are much more conscious that the situation has moral and political complexities--even if we can't exactly name them--not to mention our own complicity in their creation; or at least I naively cling to the hope that we have become aware of that much, even though it is certainly easier to wage a theoretical battle against a theoretical evil in lands that may as well be theoretical than it is to admit your own, very concrete sins.”

Quick and Dirty Archival Gems for Reflection

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.
[Dear theory-heads, did you see how he did that without even footnoting Hardt and Negri on NGOs and Empire? Crazy, huh?]

During the Twentieth Century, with its competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to demonstrate their virtues, such shameful reports had some chance of generating reform. Activists like Ford invested their work in Soviet-inspired Communism, while others, like Walter White of the NAACP, made their arguments as appeals to American virtues of freedom and equality. And, as an upsurge of recent scholarship argues, this created an effective dynamic of generating racial reform and aid to the decolonizing world.

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.”

Chatto also tried to get Indo-Caribbean laborers invited to an organizing conference for the Communist Party of India during a preliminary meeting in Berlin, pointing out to Comintern representative Mikhail Borodin, “In Westindien gibt es eine grosse Kolonie indischer Kulies.” Borodin was more interested in the triangle of the USSR, Britain, and India than some heady diasporic vision and responded curtly, “Ihre Position ist ganz und gar abhaengig vom Mutterlande. Der Zweck der Konferenz ist ein practischer.” (Note: see how easy it is to read Communist German!)

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.]


Sean Guillory said...

[Dear theory-heads, did you see how he did that without even footnoting Hardt and Negri on NGOs and Empire? Crazy, huh?]

Well, clearly his lefty crystal ball was on the fritz in those heady days of 1931. Shame, shame. Even if it was functioning, Ford might have scratched his head in dismay that H&N's subjects of history are the lowly informal affective laborers whose promised decent petite-bourgeois living was robbed by global capital. :)

Sean Guillory said...

Oh, and excellent post btw. And Chattopadhyaya's statement about “as many good centres as possible” is worth contemplating outside of a H&N paradigm of mobile nodes and networks. Thanks for sharing it.

I'm sadden to see that a quick Amazon search shows that none of Chattopadhyaya's writings are in print. Where would I find them?

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

Sean, thanks for the compliment. And for the jibe back!

Chatto's writings came in many languages (English, German, Bengali, Russian, Swedish) and many forums, many of them unpublished memos. The biography I linked to does a pretty good job in the bibliography, though I think it's a bit weak on representing Chatto's intellectual production in its depth and context. Frankly, I'm not sure where else to point you, though some literature may well exist in Bengali that I am not aware of. There is no collection of his writings in English that I am aware of. You may well just have to wait for chapter two of my diss (forthcoming, god knows when).

I do hope that maybe his biographer is working on a collection of documents, but I can't hold my breath. In the main, I think people pay to much attention to Roy and not enough to others like Chatto, though Sobhanlal Datta Gupta's recent work on the CPI and the Comintern corrects some of the CPI's own historiographical focuses, if gently.

As for Ford and his lefty crystal ball... my point, along with that of Robert Young's *Postcolonialism* (which disguises itself as a primer, but is really an amazing work), was more along the lines of getting postcolonialist folks to pay a little more attention to their anticolonialist heritage (see Young, or chapters 1-5 of my unwritten diss!). I'm a little (some would say a lot) reverential when it comes to the old Left(s). It's a weakness, I know.