Labor Struggles across Asian Capitalist Transformations
29-30th November 2021
University of Copenhagen (onsite and online)
Deadline for Abstracts: 1 August 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation of workers languishing under capitalist crisis more acute as ongoing neoliberal transformations have combined with authoritarian politics to further undermine livelihood and welfare provisions throughout the world. With South Asia and East Asia accounting for 47% of the global labor force according to ILO figures, this region is particularly vulnerable to economic fluctuations and its workers routinely bear the brunt of crises in local and global accumulation regimes. Not the least because of their cheap labor supply, populous Asian countries have in the past decades served as ‘the workshop of the world’ at the same time as regimes – from India to China to Indonesia – have significantly altered their regulations of capital-labor relations to adjust to changing regional and global hegemonies. Once again, the terms of global integration are in flux, and so too are the conditions under which labor is being reproduced, utilized, exploited, and mobilized.
In this two-day workshop, we invite scholars focusing on Asia to present ongoing work that speak to these issues of labor struggles with the aim of advancing our understanding of changing labor dynamics and to engage in a comparative dialogue across different national capital-labor compacts. In particular, we ask participants to contribute to one or more of the following four themes:
Deepening repression and novel precarities: The conditions under which Asian countries have integrated their economies to global supply chains and increased capital flows differ but they have all involved large-scale mobilization of the region’s current and potential labor force. They have also routinely involved a combination of state-supported dispossession in the countryside and fed on aspirations of new social groups to escape poverty and local power relations. These groups have forged novel identities as they have become the workers of rapidly industrializing zones. The labor-intense production facilities – in garments, shipping, fishing, electronics, construction – have often involved highly segmented labor subsumption and a spread of informalized relations of production. This have led to increased vulnerabilities and hardships for a majority of workers, intersecting with existing histories of gender, caste and ethnic discrimination. How have the current crisis altered these industrial relations? What novel forms of precarity and violence have been produced? How have industries reformed and how have both formal and informal labor configurations accommodated these reforms? How are states and state-like actors implicated in these shifts?
The politics of unions: The landscapes of labor politics register vast divergences between countries both concerning the spread of tripartite conflict resolution mechanisms and freedoms of association. Union politics is not free from sociocultural embeddedness in patriarchal hierarchies or from defending privileged ‘aristocratic’ labor groups against marginalized laborers, be they migrants, youth, minorities, or women. Unions are also regularly allied with regional political elites, giving rise to systematic corruption and conservative policies that pay little but lip-service to struggles for decent working conditions. But unions, despite the many different forms they take, are also collective undertakings that can provide a beacon for aspirational politics and serve to unite workers around shared goals.
Importantly, they build on more than a century of organized protection against punitive labor regimes worldwide, thus granting unions an impressive institutional legacy that can boost their authority and legitimacy across different settings. What has been the response of unions to the pandemic and to the mass layoffs that have ensued? Has COVID-19 changed their demands and have new unions formed to express altered lines of solidarity? Are older unions crumbling or will they emerge stronger? What new alliances between unions have formed and have these extended to the wider configurations of labor market institutions, including the national framework for addressing labor grievances? To what extent have the politics of unions been able to reflect the repression and precarities of Asian workers in the current conjuncture?
Other labor movements: In some countries and contexts alternative organizations – such as labor NGOs, local labor social movements, and local labor grassroots organizing – have emerged as the main defenders of the rights of informal labor. Their relationship to the classic unions varies and involves both instances of collaboration and quite oppositional relations as they often champion the cause of groups that have not been reached by the classic unions, including groups that feel let down by the unions. How have such organizations reacted to the present crisis and how successful have they been in defending the rights of informal laborers, both at local level and in wider national and transnational contexts?
Alternative mobilization: Workers, peasants, peripheral tribal communities, and other classes suffering under unfavorable integration into nationalist and neoliberal hegemonies have historically united in blocs of opposition that have taken a variety of political forms: secessionist movements, armed uprisings against local states, Marxist-inspired revolutions, oppositional parties, and targeted attacks and strikes that are unrelated to, or sometimes even oppose, local union structures. Such movements of collective mobilization are rarely specifically about labor issues, though these may form part of its assemblage of grievances, but they may nonetheless serve to advance the position of suppressed classes and thus directly or indirectly to empower labor. How can we connect the histories of these mobilizations to labor struggles? What are their points of convergence and where do they part? Which kinds of tactical or even strategical alliances might be developing as a result of the disruptions forged by pandemic politics? Are new groups of actors mobilizing and how should we read their politics considering the wider struggles against global labor exploitation?
Confronting capital: While laborers may suffer on several accounts – from local semi-feudal structures that still extract ‘corvee’ labor and keep lower classes in abject poverty, corrupt state officials that collude with regional elites, and indeed from non-caring or repressive states of whichever political persuasion – the global expansion of capitalism in the past decades has become by far the most
formidable power organizing and controlling economic relations in Asia and beyond. Yet, it is also a very multifarious form of power that seeps into every single sphere of life, all levels of state bureaucracy and international coordination, combining practices and knowledges to become part of our language, our ‘common sense’. As a result, long-term resistance to capital is deeply complicated even if confronting it in specific times and places have yielded momentary successes. How to think about labor struggles in an age of pandemics and their ability to contribute to a wider battle with capitalism itself? Where are new fault-lines of value extraction and labor exploitation emerging? What organizational forms do both extraction and opposition take? Who are the subjects of these struggles, what are its objects of contention? How are existing classes allied with these changes, what positions do states take? Across national compacts of market and society relation, what are the similarities and differences of the conditions for struggles, the groups and organizations driving them, and of the struggles themselves? And are international alliances possible?
With these themes, we hope to inspire contributors to think beyond their immediate region of expertise and to engage questions that transcend national borders and look forward to two days of inspiring debate.
August 1, 2021: Deadline for abstracts
November 19, 2021: Deadline for papers
The seminar will take place physically at the Department of Cross Cultural and Regional Studies, University of Copenhagen with simultaneous streaming and video-participation so as to allow for hybrid participation.
Participation is free and includes catering throughout the seminar
Economic compensation for travel and lodging for active participants will be covered in part or full depending on circumstances. Please state concrete needs for support along with the submitted abstract.
Submit abstracts and biographical note to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dan V. Hirslund, Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen
Jens Lerche, Reader in Agrarian and Labour Studies, SOAS, University of London
Bo Ærenlund Sørensen, Assistant Professor, University of Copenhagen