Issue 39, Labour


To labour is a precondition of our existence in this contemporary world. Ever since the agricultural revolution, when we humans settled in place, hoarded possessions, and competed to acquire more resources, the amount of time we spend labouring as well as the degrees of social inequality have steadily and rapidly increased. Since the beginnings of civilisation, conditions of labour have fluctuated, usually worsening, while social disparities widened.

Industrialisation marked another turning point, facilitating a population explosion and further widening the gap between rich and poor. Conditions of our labouring worsened while the bourgeoisie kept their hands and homes clean. Capitalism worsened inequality and workers’ rights as the ruling elite traded profits for the rights and dignity of workers. This exploitation of workers led to the rise of labour movements to advocate for reforms, safety, minimum wage laws, and the right to collective bargaining via unions. Some of these were successful, others not.

However, the global expansion of capitalism, driven by colonialism and free trade, has further widened the gap. Colonisation and the exploitation and extraction of human and material resources have bolstered the power of the Global North while hobbling the Global South. Despite all the popular political rhetoric of pulling oneself up with one’s bootstrap or going from rags to riches, global inequality is not only perpetuated but appears to be baked into our global systems.

On the 135th anniversary of the designation of May Day, and 106 years since the Worker’s Revolution, the dream of attaining proportional representation for the working class in state power remains unfulfilled. Despite some past victories, the rise of neoliberalism threatens to return the conditions of labour to the Dickensian era, when workers had almost no rights, when the absence of labour laws meant 12-18 daily working hours, when there were no health benefits, and when children were either home alone or labouring in the factory. Viewed from a bird’s eye, these are indeed the conditions of some contemporary labourers.

There is no question that capitalism, with profits as its guiding compass, leads to exploitation. When not curtailed by laws, businesses pay lower wages to increase their profit margin, and companies move to countries to expand their wealth, making a killing from lax labour laws, unsafe conditions, and inhumane working hours. In capitalist societies, the ruling elite gains the most benefits from the labours of the working classes.

Meanwhile, the ruling class has excluded the working class from political representation and voice. Labour movements have become fragmented. Global networks have been irreparably broken, class solidarity has disappeared from the public conscience, and collectivism has given way to capitalist individualism as the guiding socio-political principle. Meaningful unionisation has had its back broken, and unions have been reimagined as part of the neoliberal machinery in the aftermath. Moreover, identity politics based on religion and race overrides unified struggle, and theories of non-violent protest are rendered obscured. Resistance is futile.

In many countries, the COVID-19 pandemic brought many work-related inequities to light, while also exacerbating them and creating new problems. For one thing, the category “essential” workers during the pandemic included not only medical staff but also people working in food service, typically a low paying position with meagre benefits. Essential workers were also at higher risk of becoming sick and disproportionately suffered from illness, especially in crowded homes with multiple generations. Meanwhile, office workers were more likely to work remotely. These differences relate not only to exposure to illness but also degrees of security and options that are distributed unevenly through society. Adding insult to injury, the politicisation of the pandemic in the U.S. resulted in a significant shortage of teachers, who were often in the crossfires of debates. The labours of teachers were and are still not favoured.

In the twenty-first century, new forms of labour exploitation have emerged, such as the gig economy and modern slavery. Human trafficking and sex trafficking, frequently in the news, have alarmed the public about new forms of slavery. Immigrants and undocumented workers, some of whom are subjected to trafficking as children or women, face systemic barriers and exploitation due to their precarious legal status, although their labours benefit employers who are eager to hire for less wages. The historical exploitation of Black workers persists in many areas of the world, although the U.S. has found new ways to continue extracting free labour from African American citizens. These practices exploit vulnerable populations and circumvent traditional labour regulations.

The intersection of race, gender, and class compounds the challenges faced by labourers. Women workers are disproportionately affected by unequal pay and discrimination. Household work and child raising, both of which are “free” labour, continue to be predominantly in women’s domain, and women continue to be in lower-paid service-oriented positions, such as teaching and nursing. Women’s earnings, therefore, lag far behind men, especially when domestic labour is considered. As illustrated by one of our authors, LGBTQ+ workers also face barriers, which intersect with their gender and sexuality in revealing ways.

Articles in this issue address many challenges facing contemporary workers, taking a broad lens to consider the labour of journalists, migrants, prisoners, garment workers, educators, and humanitarian volunteers. Authors write about forced labour in Eritrea, changing conditions for workers in China and Japan, the widespread exploitation of Black labour in the U.S. criminal justice system, labour conditions of North Korean workers dispatched overseas, child domestic labour in Bangladesh, and the caravans of desperate migrant workers leaving Indian cities for distant villages during the pandemic shutdown. The issue begins with a provocative article critiquing post-colonialism and its assumptions about rural workers.

As we commemorate the struggles of labourers on May Day, we need to confront the systemic inequalities that persist in our society. This issue of Shuddhashar aims to shed light on the complexities of labour exploitation in the twenty-first century and spark dialogue on how to create a more just and equitable world for all workers.

Climate Refugees or Labour Migrants? Climate Reductive Translations of Migration from Coastal Bangladesh

Shrimp-induced migration, riverbank erosion and waterlogging are various environmental factors contributing to choices to migrate in Bangladesh, but to reframe these movements as ‘climate-induced’ would erase the political and socio-economic context in which these processes are embedded.

Preeti Urang’s Death is Not a ‘Tragedy’: How the Privileged Class Enables Violence Against Child Domestic Workers

When a child is forced to leave their family home to become a live-in servant at a stranger’s home, when middle-class families exploit the impoverished class by employing live-in child servants, we as a society are complicit in causing harm. And we must stop defining such incidents with the vague and impersonal terms of ‘tragic’ and ‘unfortunate.

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