Sunday, August 21, 2016

Workers Militancy in the Developing World

Immanuel Ness of ROAR Magazine has written a striking portrait of the process of capital accumulation in the developing economies of what he calls the Global South and of the foreign direct investment (FDI) that is concentrated in special zones such as special enterprise zones (EPZs) where workers have few rights. He points out that “The modern global system of production and accumulation is shaped by the historical dependence of capitalism on global imperialism to expand profitability, and by more than 250 years of class struggles. A distinct feature of contemporary capitalism is the emergence of foreign capital investment in firms that directly exploit land, resources, technology and markets, but also low-wage labor employed in the export-production industries of the Global South.”

“Just like water, finance capital flows to the lowest level in the Global South. Profits are guaranteed through compliant national ruling classes that seek to keep wages down, prevent workers from organizing into unions, and frequently use armed police forces to put down unauthorized wildcat strikes.”
“Finance capital has become dominant over production decisions, on the basis of criteria that have largely regulated wages and working conditions. Finance capitalists profit by investing in contractors that pay workers the lowest wages (in other words, super-exploitation). Industrial contractors are subservient to foreign multinational investors: if they fail to meet profit expectations financiers withdraw support and shift to lower-cost producers. Even in the mining and petroleum industries, capital reinvests in new forms of extraction when labor costs rise and threaten profits. The threat of disinvestment compels producers to restructure their operations to lower costs and restore high levels of profitability.

Developing countries seek to attract foreign capital by establishing separate governmental regions and enclaves such as EPZs, following a model developed in Mexico and China in the 1980s, as a way of generating investment in manufacturing. In addition to private local producers, labor contractors and real estate firms, the primary beneficiaries of EPZs are multinational brands that provide specifications on production standards and designs for contractors. Profits are guaranteed by the lower production costs achieved through the great disparity between wages available in EPZs in the South, and those prevalent in the North. By setting the price of goods, in most cases multinational brands can in effect set low wage rates. Foreign brands typically maintain agreements with contractors in several countries and regions, which provide multiple production options in the event of labor disputes between contractors and workers.”
EPZs provide a government partnership to ensure the abundant availability of compliant low-wage labor to foreign export production firms. To achieve this objective EPZs must:
1. Draw in an oversupply of low-wage workers
2. Support the capacity of producers to exploit workers through the removal of labor regulations governing wages and working conditions
3. Promote a union-free environment to warrant continuity in low-wage labor and prevent the possibility of worker stoppages and strikes that potentially interrupt production.

“A primary characteristic of the EPZ is to establish an environment that promotes the development of infrastructure facilitating foreign investment in logistics, including regional and international transportation networks, energy and power grids, and that supports the development of social services and accommodation for a compliant labor force to work in the manufacturing industries. Police and security forces employed to guard against crime in EPZs are also, more importantly, used to prevent and impede worker mobilization and organizing against foreign firms in the Global South. The security apparatus in SEZs and in foreign firms includes surveillance and CCTV systems to monitor worker organizing and identify rank-and-file leaders…Arriving as newcomers in transient municipalities, most laborers have few social bonds with long-term residents, and more often are reliant on fellow workers from rural areas and family members who have accompanied them. As new residential zones, SEZs are typically isolated from the political and social arena, and provide workers with few social contacts outside the workplaces and living quarters. Although social isolation may preclude migrant worker contact with trade unions and community allies, it frequently creates stronger links with fellow factory workers, who are also exposed to continuous danger on the job and under threat from replacement by new workers. Marx's depiction of an alienated and estranged workforce in the nineteenth century can be applied to the condition of workers in the Global South today…”

He reveals some interesting and disturbing facts of the conditions that workers face. In India's industrial zones, the career of an industrial worker may not last more than five or six years, and by the age of 25 workers are considered old and replaceable.

“Hiring migrant workers is a corporate strategy to increase the size of the reserve army of labor and reduce wage rates. Migrant workers are preferred because as newcomers they are not organized into traditional trade unions, allowing employers to maintain authoritarian control over the workplace. The vast majority of workers in new industrial zones are young people from rural areas who are unfamiliar with their rights and typically isolated from other workers. As the dominant force in the workplace, employers can entirely control wage rates and the labor process: they can discipline workers with impunity by avoiding collective bargaining, seniority systems and formal grievance procedures; and they can relinquish social responsibility to workers while continuing to rely on the abundant reserve army that is unable to survive in rural areas, and so is desperate for any paid work….As a consequence of the oversupply of labor and the relatively short working lives of these migrant laborers, capital depends on informalization and job insecurity to rotate workers out of the system…. Living in new communities on the margins of major cities, migrant workers often lack the citizenship rights and residency privileges enjoyed by those living in the region and are officially documented and entitled to government services. Spouses and families are prohibited from joining workers; no formal education is provided for children; few rights to health care services exist outside the factory; casualization of the workforce allows employers to dismiss workers at will for any reason, and set permanent workers against an informal and temporary workforce; and young women are often subject to the highest level of exploitation as informal and temporary workers…”

Having stated the reality of the exploitation by world capitalism, Immanuel Ness does not neglect the  increasing expressions of workers’ resistance.

“In the mines and mills of the Global South, the disruptive and isolating working conditions that produce alienation and estrangement also activate militancy comparable to that, which has developed among low-wage undocumented migrant workers employed in major cities of the Global North…. The examples of China, India and South Africa reveal that industrial workers are engaged in direct action against institutionalized exploitation in various arenas, and are making demands that are reshaping traditional unions… While [tradional] unions are under attack by the state and capital, they are also losing their credibility with workers. Given the origin of unions within the political and legal frameworks of independence and anti-capitalist struggles, it remains an open question whether specific unions will survive and even perhaps thrive in the future”

[In China] ”….a growing number of cases, rank-and-file committees have been effective in advancing worker interests when local unions fail to represent their members.”
[In India] “…In response to the obstacles to joining existing unions, workers are forming independent unions to represent their interests.”
[In South Africa] “…NUMSA has joined forces with 17 other unions to form an independent federation of workers to fight against concessions and multinational corporations, which dominate the South African state.”

“In the South, newly proletarianized workers labor in factories, mines and plantations, typically with little or no job security, and in many cases are represented by unions that are unable to negotiate for contract or temporary labor. Meanwhile traditional trade unions, an inheritance of twentieth-century European and North American models, contribute to the marginalization of workers in the Global South, by supporting their incorporation into dominant bureaucratic state structures where at best union leaders are relegated to a subordinate and consultative position, and more typically they are ignored. Furthermore, traditional unions are committed to preserving and improving the wages and conditions covered by past agreements for a privileged few members, while ignoring the majority of workers who are not core members.”

“Workers can no longer rely on bureaucratic union leaders to defend them. Authentic worker struggles proceed from industrial workers themselves, who are both building independent unions and, where the workers' organizations they build are not officially recognized, challenging existing labor unions to represent their interests. It is the development of worker radicalism that will shape the form and survival of decaying traditional unions. In the absence of recognized unions, the results of these rank-and-file struggles are mixed—but the empirical evidence drawn from research in China, India and South Africa demonstrates that these movements are gaining traction and are achieving real wage gains and improvement in conditions. The evidence drawn from the Global South is that a profound movement is emerging among workers demanding action on grievances outside the system of established unions. Workers' movements are operating within the interstices of existing trade union structures, with or without the sanction of the unions. Rank-and-file workers in industries are forming independent associations and compelling existing unions to represent their interests.”