How Globalisation Has Diluted Workers’ Rights

This reading list looks at how globalisation has changed the relations of production.

Think about the number of apps that we have on our phones today. How many of them serve the function of a middle-man between ourselves and a product or  service? How many new levels of exploitation have been introduced to the chain of production because there are more claimants to the profit? Whether it is Swiggy, or Uber or Amazon, at the bottom of the production line is the driver, the delivery person or the worker. With a change in the nature of what now qualifies as a “product,” and with the growth of platform economies, there has been a corresponding change in who can identify as a worker.

Therefore, there has been a considerable shift in the nature and constitution of the working class itself, where the lines are no longer as clearly drawn between labour and capital when industrial capitalism was at a nascent stage. So, when Uber drivers in India, who are sold employment in the guise of entrepreneurship begin to go on strike here because of falling incomes, there is little incentive for Uber’s United States’ office management to actually listen to their complaints. Eventually, it is these bottom-tier workers   who lose in the race to maximise profits because the separation between them and the managerial class of the companies run into several tiers spread across geographies.

In Karl Marx’s original formulation, the exploitation of the working class could be located in the relations of production, that is, the social relationships between the elements necessary for the production process. Within the capitalist structure, the relationship between the entrepreneur/capitalist and the workers is inherently unequal. The continuity of capitalism as a system of production is dependent on the constant renewal of these relations of production between labour and capital.

Working class movements have historically tried to alter or reform these relations where workers are alienated from the means of production, and from their own labour.  Hard-won rights, such as the eight-hour work day, were meant to dilute some of the absolute control that the entrepreneurial class had exerted over the working class and their labour during the early days of industrial capitalism.  

Since then, capitalism has grown and spread across the world and its structures have undergone a number of changes. With the digital age, production is no longer restricted to tangible things, and consequently, the process of production is now vastly different from what it used to be. Therefore, one would expect that there would be some changes in the relations of production as well. But, have these changes in the relations of production benefited the working class today?

This reading list evaluates this question.

1) Globalisation as an Inevitability

Before the process of industrial production can begin, the entrepreneur has to decide how much to produce. If production was calculated based on need, then it would defeat the accumulative ethos of capitalism, because, at some point, if one produces endlessly, there will be a glut that will saturate the domestic market and bring down prices. Consequently, Marx surmised that globalisation, though he never used the term, is both a presupposition and an outcome in the natural course of capitalistic development. As Paresh Chattopadyay explains, the constant generation of a surplus is central to the growth of capitalism, which necessitates external trade.

It is only the external trade which develops the true nature of value of the surplus product while the external trade develops the labour contained in the surplus product as social labour which is represented in an infinite series of different use values and in reality lends sense to abstract wealth. It is only the external trade, the development of market into world market, which develops money into world money and the abstract labour into social labour.

2) Late to the Race

Workers are alienated from their own labour under capitalism. But in the early stages of capitalism, the worker, the entrepreneur and the means of production could still be located in the same geographical space, and under the same legal regime. Present-day relations of production have developed from increasing and extreme specialisation in the process of production. This has enabled the production process to be spread across borders. So, as Prabhat Patnaik outlines in his article, an important aspect of the new relations of production is the dimension between those countries that hold capital and are able to exploit cheap labour in other countries.

Capitalism brings about a shrinking of the home market because it impoverishes the masses through increasing labour productivity which displaces labour-power and by gradually depriving the peasants of their resources. Any nation which sets out on capitalist development must sooner or later face these contradictions inherent in capitalism. Access to foreign markets is a means of overcoming these contradictions, but if a nation sets out late on the path of capitalism, then its access to foreign markets is blocked and it can only witness the worst aspects of capitalism.

3) Political Disempowerment

The added degree of separation of labour means that workers' movements will eventually get diluted with increasing geographical specialisation. Li Xing discusses how important returning to the Manifesto is at this juncture, when the infiltration of capitalism in societies is disempowering the working class not only economically, but also politically. Capital remains concentrated in the hands of developed nations, who, because of historical conditions, are able to affect the social and political fabric of previously colonised nations, precisely because they control the capital.

The shift is threatening and disciplining labour not only in the developing world but also western industrial nations where the old social movements such as trade unions and peasant movements have suffered setbacks under the impact of globalisation. The weakening of labour movements is precisely the result of the changing structure of production from a traditional clientele of manual industrial production to a production which is being restructured on a world scale. The structural power of financial and productive capital in the new global order has weakened the power of western trade unions and streng- thened that of capital.

4) Towards a Political Crisis

Through a case study of industrial workers in the jute mills of Kolkata, Nandini Gooptu argued that changing notions of work adversely affect political processes, since working class movements are necessarily political in nature. Gooptu found that the working class in Kolkata interpreted their experience of unemployment and “casualisation” as a political crisis that led them to lose faith in democratic politics because they believed that it was unrepresentative. Instead, they began to build their politics around short-term personal gains within institutions, which had the overall effect of taking away from a robust democractic political culture.  

Technology and business now dominate public imagination as the sources of both individual social mobility and national economic growth. The economic importance of manual and industrial work has been devalued, and the role of labour has also been undermined as a constituency in democratic, party politics or as a major presence in left wing politics. These normative shifts have implications for work, not only in the small and shrinking “formal” or “organised” sector, but also in the wider economy. As the experience and meanings of work change under globalisation, so do social consciousness and political subjectivity of workers, variously affecting relations of community, class, gender and generation; political and social norms; ideas about difference and hierarchy; conceptions of the state, democracy and citizenship.

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