For over a decade now, the field of labour geography, or the analysis of how industrial relations are shaped by and in turn shape the spaces that they are played out in, has become an important one in understanding contemporary capitalist industrial and labour processes. Emerging from a critique of conventional economic geography, which does not address how labour shapes the geography of capitalism substantially, as also of traditional Marxist analyses of capitalism which assume that the power to shape the places that capital locates production in largely rests with capital, labour geography looks at labour and workers as possessing ways of shaping the geographies of their production and existence as well. This shaping of spaces through place-making, as it is referred to in the literature, by workers also influences the geography of capitalism.
Neethi’s book deals with the theme of globalization and labour, employing a labour geography perspective to understand labour control, conflict and response under a globalized regime in Kerala. She asks key questions in the book: Are national governments and organized labour powerless in the face of unfettered deregulation of capital and labour markets? How do workers function as social agents? How do local discourses of globalization play out? What are the spatial
elements that come into play in understanding labour control strategies and labour responses?
To address these, she presents four case studies, of garments, electronics, food processing and ports in Kerala, each differently yet significantly integrated with global production, to argue against an overarching metanarrative of globalization and to trace features of localized regimes of labour control as well as resistance by labour. She uses a geographically informed alternate perception towards studying work and employment
practices, i.e., a geographically sensitive account of social relations of work through capital and labour’s social orientation to space, through place consciousness and a focus on the local.
The case studies are presented in the background of a major paradox seen in the State of Kerala: high levels of social development, particularly of indicators relating to women in the fields of health and education on the one hand and the high rates of unemployment combined with the extremely low level of female labour force participation compared to other parts of the country. They are also set against the backdrop of high levels of unionization across all kinds of economic activity and this extending to the informal sector as well, including among women. In a chapter that focuses on the background to Kerala’s experience with labour mobilization and unionization following an introductory chapter that lays out the conceptual framework of labour geography that the author uses in the book, she argues that ‘…the state has been linked to society through a welfare pact that has in effect, within the limits of a capitalist economy, seen the dynamic institutionalization of working class interests’ (p. 39). Rural and urban wage earning classes were always politically incorporated through trade unions and various other formations like welfare boards, self help groups and the like. Further, she points out that in more recent times, the State has tried to ‘reverse’ past trends by making the State investment friendly, exemplified by the Economic Review in the year 2012 declaring it the most globalized State in the country.
The first three sectors that the author presents—apparel production in an export promotion park, electronics and home-based production of processed food, are dominated by women workers and hence throw light on labour control and resistance in gendered labour markets. The fourth is the case of privatization of the Cochin port, one of India’s major ports, laying out the idea of the port as a ‘place’ in the labour geography sense and hence focusing on the heterogeneity of the space as well as the different kinds of workers working in it. The cases are laid out in four chapters and then followed by a concluding chapter.
The arguments that are made by the author in laying out the case studies are several. First, that there are varieties of labour control strategies, beginning from the recruitment stage, that are employed, reflecting local histories and social norms within the overall context of globalization. For example, local moralities and institutions frame the attitude to the seeking of industrial employment outside the home by women workers. Allowing young girls to go out to work, for example, in apparel parks, is socially legitimized by community and religious institutions, subject to their being provided incentives like transport. The idea of the ‘good’ female worker is sought to be projected by such legitimization exercises and there can be seen community or local level publicization of opportunities and facilitation of employment by Grama Panchayats (in the case of apparel), local Churches (in the case of electronics) and other such institutions. This, interestingly, does not apply to home based employment which, as the vast literature that is available points out, is not acknowledged as work.
Second, in the case of apparel and the port, the spaces of work were clearly decreed as working spaces alone, disallowing union representation and political affiliations, reflecting the policies for outward orientation and incentives for ‘global’ production.
Third, women workers, despite being in very different industries in comparison to the Cochin port, do not passively accept the terms under which they are employed and employ both direct (in the case of apparel) and less direct (or everyday forms, as in home based food processing and electronics) forms of resistance to protest adverse working conditions. The author documents meticulously the way in which women apparel workers organized themselves into a collective and went on a nine-day strike to protest against their terms of employment, particularly internal transfers without informing them which they referred to as being ‘sold’ from one department to another by the management. She also points out the difficulties of organizing workers in new sectors and spaces by going into the specificities of the sectors in terms of their spatiality and local practices. In the Cochin port, on the other hand, varieties of trade union practices and strategies can be seen, ranging from strong trade unions affiliated to different political parties or formations, working in solidarity with each other, to linking up with international solidarity networks, demonstrating the strength as well as expanding geographical scales of worker organization.
The book brings out important dimensions, for the case of Kerala, even as David Harvey’s ‘spatial fix’ perspective would point to how capital shapes geographies of investment and production, how workers’ efforts in shaping their spatial landscape cannot be ignored. The specific local dimensions that shape workers’ own ‘spatial fixes’, as well as workers’ perception of spaces as places, where they consume, produce, socially reproduce, are brought out well. Local labour markets, she demonstrates, are highly varied and interact with specific kinds of production structures in determining outcomes for as well as responses by workers. It is an important
contribution to the labour studies literature in India, specifically because it employs a labour geography perspective which is less common for studies on Indian industry and labour.
Sumangala Damodaran is with the School
of Development Studies, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
Neethi’s book deals with the theme of globalization and labour, employing a labour geography perspective to understand labour control, conflict and response under a globalized regime in Kerala.
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Demonetisation: A Means to an End by Ramgopal Agarwala, a renowned economist, takes an incisive look at the events that led to demonetisation, the aftermath and the implications. Demonetisation was met
with extreme reactions and its results were multifaceted. Several months later, we are still questioning: Is it a disastrous blunder or a leap forward? He sifts through many irrelevant rants, a lot of politically motivated mud-slinging and asks the most important question: What now, what next?
Sage Publications, 2017, pp. 224, R359.00