Report from the first Global Inequalities Research Group seminar on Tuesday 18th May 2021, on ‘Global Work, Global Labour’. This seminar was led by GIRG members Amarachi Amaugo, Pinar Dönmez, Adam Fishwick, and Merve Sancak.
This Global Inequalities Research Group seminar explored how we understand global inequalities mediated through work and labour. We focused on outlining some of the key conceptual underpinnings central to our own work and which could fruitfully generate overlaps with other research areas in the group, before developing the methodological implications of studying inequalities in global labour and avenues for a shared research ethic that could underpin the groups future collective project.
Here we summarise the presentation by the seminar leads and the subsequent discussion with members of the Global Inequalities Research Group.
- Conceptualising global inequalities in work and labour
We understand global inequalities as the inequalities between groups of workers – with an emphasis on the inequalities within global labour – or intra-labour inequalities – that helps to unsettle a homogenising view of work and labour and that re-centres intersectional inequalities that are gendered, racialised, and classed.
This is central to the work of Global Labour Studies, which offers an important starting point for de-centring approaches to labour studies that move us away from established, “northern” forms of labour and labour organising and towards the wider global experience / understanding of work and labour. Other important debates across labour studies that reflect this have also brought this out, including:
- Marcel van der Linden – global labour history and free waged labour
- Sandro Mezzadra – migration, labour and borders
- Tithi Bhattacharya, Alessandra Mezzadri – social reproduction
- Jamie Peck, Kendra Strauss – labour geographies, “social infrastructures”
- Maurizio Atzeni – beyond “trade union fetishism”
- Martin Arboleda- global interlinkages between mechanisms of extraction, finance and labour
Empirically, the shared emphasis of these bodies of work on work and global labour focuses attention on marginalisation and exploitation within and across global labour and working-class communities, tracing the lived experience of conditions across diverse geographies of work, the structuring conditions that (re)produce these conditions, and the forms of collective action and/or resistance that these engender.
The impact of the global pandemic has revealed a worsening of many of these conditions, but it is still unclear as to whether these are new or simply compounding existing axes of global inequality. Tracing the interconnectedness of structuring conditions of work and labour from global value chains and their impact on the possibilities of “decent work” can help us situate these changes, while also focusing our attention on the effects of shifting burdens of care work, heightening precarity / insecurity in and across sectors, and expansion of platform/digital/home working. This starts us from a historicised understanding of global labour, which explores histories of global labour in diverse geographies to assess continuities and ruptures.
We identify three cross-cutting areas of focus that speak the wider group:
- What are the multi-dimensional conditions of work / global labour today?
- What are the multi-dimensional structuring conditions of global capitalism and multilateral institutions that shape these conditions?
- How do these conditions engender and impinge on the diversity of forms of collective action?
In discussions with the wider group of these different areas, we understood that it was the shared violences and vulnerabilities, experienced at different scales and by workers and working-class communities in different ways, that speak across the research interests and focus of the group, providing key avenues for next steps.
- Methodology and ethics
Working on labour requires working with labour organisations, a combination of tracing emerging trends and identifying the needs of labour organisations / collectives at work to understand the contribution of research to these activities. Any underpinning research ethic of working on global labour requires cooperation with and centring of the marginalised voices of (and within) working class communities.
Co-creation – or co-research – is essential, therefore, as a driving element of research agendas, combining broader exploratory research with longer-term, in-depth engagement to elevate and inform struggles. This combines quantitative mapping / database construction of work conditions / experience / conflicts, with ethnographic approaches to lived experience of work and labour.
Examples of patterns of work / research, which model these kind of approaches can be drawn already from elsewhere: e.g. COES-OHL in Chile; ICDD in Kassel; Global Labour University, Wits; Emek Calismalari Toplulugu- Labour Studies Group and Yeni Emek Calismalari Ofisi- New Labour Studies Office in Turkey, Solidarity Economy Center in Hungary and the Institute for Social Solidarity in Romania (and others). Based on partnership with labour organisations in research and pedagogy, an emphasis on non-extractive research inquiry will be central to the approach.
Yet undertaking research on labour conditions, in particular, has unique challenges. Interviewing workers is difficult for a variety of reasons, the challenges of access workers (through their employers or trade unions, which then creates further issues) and the ethical questions regarding the interviews. Talking, too, to only organised labour groups can overlook some groups of workers. This links back to our focus on the diverse geographies of global labour, and the internal inequalities within and between groups of labour. The balance between access, over-privileging groups of workers, and avoiding an extractive mode of research inquiry is difficult. Finding alternative methods and using the examples above for this can be useful. An important contribution here – one to explore across the other themes too – would be addressing the questions: ‘How do we do the research on/with marginalised workers?’ and ‘What insights can we derive on the basis of our active learning from these diverse worker struggles in making sense of the exploitative conditions of work, knowledge production and labour struggles in our field of higher education?’
Methodological approaches can be drawn from the experience and practice of some of the research institutes and groups noted above – distanced forms of research, e.g., strike database construction, can be important for mapping labour agency, but struggle, at times, to draw out the unseen / hidden experiences; ethnographic / participatory methods bring closer to the everyday, but with risks of extractivism and challenges of access. Workers’ inquiry methods could be an important avenue to explore as an avenue to developing a militant form of co-research that elevates and informs the workers and working-class communities at the centre of our research.
In wider discussion with the group, moreover, the benefits of interdisciplinary methodological approaches, drawing on human geography and other related disciplines may be a fruitful avenue for building a non-extractive approach that allows us to research on and with marginalised groups of workers, and offering a starting point for considering and overlaps in building a collective approach for the group.
- Case Studies
The grid shows below broadly shows how we see this fit across our own different research experiences, with gaps and questions to discuss as a group.
|Multi-dimensional conditions of work||Structuring conditions of global capitalism and multilateral orgs.||Pathways for diverse forms of collective agency|
|Comparative methodological approaches to Latin American trade union activism||Identifying increasing “vulnerabilities” in changed conditions labour and life||Industrial policy, retrenchment of social policy, structural crises of production / productivity||Tracing multi-level collective action within and around unions – workplace and community activism|
|Austerity, repression, histories and contemporary manifestations of progressive politicisation in Turkey||Critical scholarship emerging on the classed, gendered, racialised character of exploitation and oppression Cases of education and tobacco workers||Recurring cycles of crisis, austerity and repression linked to IMF-WB programmes. Etatism -> ISI -> EOI||Prevalence and diversity of anti-austerity and anti-authoritarian labour agency since the late Ottoman and Republican era|
|Global production, national institutions, skill formation, and inclusive development in Mexico and Turkey||Inequality between workers with different levels of education||Governance in global value chains and national institutions and the state||Partisan politics as an alternative?|
|Cognitive methodological approaches to Workplace Bullying and Harassment||Gendered bullying in Africa, Asia and Middle East (6 Countries)||Cognitive interview data to unpack the lived experiences of marginalised groups.||There are weak institutions and law to protect these groups.|