Labour stripped down to bare essentials

A cover on migrant workers raises a lot more questions than we can hope to answer in a monthly magazine. But it is a worthy attempt nonetheless. We really need to discuss the issue more openly.

We are after all dealing with a human phenomenon, and the last time I looked, humans are more than mere economic beings.

The basic issue – given how little we can immediately do to alter global economic structures – is that of dignity. When conditions of labour are unfair and uncertain, the labourer and the employer, along with all others involved in the process, suffer a loss in human dignity.

Statistics will take us only so far. The indulgent thought that migrant workers need us more than we need them, and that they are but a temporary fixture in our social panorama, make us ignorant and nonchalant about their reality outside of the purely economic or legalistic.

For starters, are they migrants or are they workers? Well, the tough conditions to which their contracts bind them are revealing enough. They are after all labour pure and simple. Tellingly, the length of time they stay in Malaysia does not increase their legal rights, as it would if they were migrants.

The fact that most of them are lowly educated means at least two things. First, they are not always aware of their rights; in any case, their economic dependence makes the adoption of a recalcitrant attitude highly risky.

Second, their contact with the world within which they labour is – aside from the dulling experience of their long working day – simplified into keeping themselves sufficiently nourished, sufficiently healthy, and sufficiently rested.

What we see happening before our eyes is a new stage in global production. While governments imagine growth being driven by overspending and the unimaginable excesses of financial players throw real economies into free fall, labour is stripped down to its bare essentials.

Buying labour without taking on the social responsibilities that come with it was always an attractive option for global enterprises. In colonial times, for example, transporting labour to where it was needed made good economic sense. And so, where Malaya was concerned, indentured labourers were brought in from India to work in rubber estates. Labour was mobile but not detachable from social moorings the way it seems to be today.

The free trade zone idea puts a twist to the age-old dilemma of putting worker and work place together. Factories and productive resources are moved to where suitable labour is on attractive offer.

Today throughout Asia, mobility of labour has developed to the point where it is detached from its social moorings. They come, they labour unobtrusively, and they leave without a trace. The migrant worker is “labour” personified.

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