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Producing Worker-Subjects for Global Capital

Producing Worker-Subjects for Global Capital M Vijayabaskar Changes in labour markets and labour processes are arguably among the most critical of the many socio-economic processes that globalisation transforms and engenders. The increasing spatial dispersal of production processes and the domineering influence of lead firms that orchestrate such dispersal prompt questions about the quality of work and employment generated and implications for socio-economic equity in low-income countries. Anthropologists of globalisation contend that rather than a mere diffusion of global work and employment practices, the outcomes are highly mediated. The articulation of local agencies and institutions with the global produces new forms of work practices, controls, negotiations and importantly, new identities based on globalised work and consumption. Ethnographers of global work like Carla Freeman, Leslie Salzinger and Aihwa Ong, for instance, have produced extremely interesting narratives on how the new forms of work and control regimes intersect with the local to produce new subjectivities, forms of resistance and control. In India, the software and information technology-enabled services (ITES) sector has been the global face of its economic confidence. Employing large numbers of middle class professionals at high salary levels and contributing substantially to exports, the sector

Producing Worker-Subjects for Global Capital

M Vijayabaskar

C
hanges in labour markets and labour processes are arguably among the most critical of the many socio-economic processes that globalisation transforms and engenders. The increasing spatial dispersal of production processes and the domineering influence of lead firms that orchestrate such dispersal prompt questions about the quality of work and employment generated and implications for socio-economic equity in low-income countries. Anthropologists of globalisation contend that rather than a mere diffusion of global work and employment practices, the outcomes are highly mediated. The articulation of local agencies and institutions with the global produces new forms of work practices, controls, negotiations and importantly, new identities based on globalised work and consumption. Ethnographers of global work like Carla Freeman, Leslie Salzinger and Aihwa Ong, for instance, have produced extremely interesting narratives on how the new forms of work and control regimes intersect with the local to produce new subjectivities, forms of resistance and control.

In India, the software and information technology-enabled services (ITES) sector has been the global face of its economic confidence. Employing large numbers of middle class professionals at high salary levels and contributing substantially to exports, the sector’s influence on the economy goes much beyond its contribution to foreign exchange earnings. The rise of new kinds of entrepreneurs, a perceived affirmation of the role of merit in success and rise of new consumption practices have all added to the hype around its success.

The volume under review, based on a selection of papers presented at an international conference, makes a definite break with the more “economistic” readings of IT-enabled growth processes in

book review

In an Outpost of the Global Economy: Work and Workers in India’s Information Technology Industry edited by Carol Upadhya and A R Vasavi

(New Delhi: Routledge), 2008; pp 283, Rs 650.

India. As the papers take us through the “hidden abode of production” of services and the labour process changes it entails, they simultaneously speak to the new and growing body of literature on the makings of a “global” workforce. Importantly, some of the papers clearly map how new cultural identities are forged through globalised work. By focusing on cultural tools deplo yed to secure consent for what apparently is highly intense work, the book highlights the ideational flows between the realms of consumption and production. Rather than portraying workers as passive recipients of management ideologies, many papers in the volume also stress the spaces open to workers to resist such coercive techniques.

New Source of Alienation?

Following a lucid introduction by the editors, Sanjukta Mukherjee’s piece, based on ethnographic work among software professionals in Bangalore, draws parallels between work alienation in the software services sector and traditional factory work. She however asserts that the alienation in software work is constituted differently through bodily practices and through new sources and assumes new forms. The fragmentation of work process, rationalisation of production processes, and the fact that most workers do not have any control over or knowledge about the final product remind us of a lienated work in industrial factories. Further, the lack of job security and performance-based salary systems pits one worker against the other preventing the formation of horizontal alliances across

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workers. She also goes onto identify what she perceives as a new source of alienation

– that arising from gendering of work in the software sector. This move, however, does not quite work as she does not explicate how this gendering of work can push

the Marxist theory of alienation in new directions. While her discussions of the gendering of work, the intersections of class with gender and the rise of new cultural mores are by themselves interesting, they do not add up to a coherent narrative of “gendered alienation”.

Marisa D’Mello and Sandeep Sahay use the growing socio logical literature on m obilities to reflect upon the mobilities generated in the context of ITES work. They locate their work in a theoretical frame that recog nises the processes through which globalisation valorises place, and distance themselves from under standings of globalisation as a process of erasures of pla ces. They argue that space in itself embodies different scales of relatedness and is constituted through such inter-scalar relations. In this context, how do we make sense of mobilities experienced by wor kers in firms c atering to global clients? Focu sing on workers in a Mumbai-based ITES firm catering to several clients across the world, the authors distinguish three axes along which mobilities are transformed and played out; social, existential and geographical mobilities. (By existential mobilities, they refer to the shifting “innerscapes” of workers due to anxieties and desires within and outside the realms of work.)

They map the exclusivity of the new work spaces in contrast to spaces they traverse in their daily commutes to work, but also point out how the work spaces are structured to give a sense of place through displays of personal faiths, beliefs and relationships. The discussion on the rise of new standards of consumption and the d esires to move and work onsite are particularly interesting. While workers desire the “exposure” they get through onsite travel apart from the higher incomes, the authors also point out that such experiences are invariably accompanied by a sense of yearning for values and relationships that they have left behind. E xistential mobilities are co-produced by

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not only such geographical mobilities but also arise due to insecurities of e mployment in this sector.

Process of ‘Entanglement’

At least three papers emphasise what Vasavi refers to as the process of “entanglement”, in which each agency ranging from the individual worker to the global corporate negotiate their respective agendas through the process of globalisation. Carol Upadhya maps the process of how the global software worker is constructed discursively and how such constructions are mobilised within regimes of control in the workplace. Such use of cultural instruments, she points out, can however, never be totalising. There is enough room for the workers to draw upon similar resources to resist and critique such practices of control. She argues that while anthropological studies of globalised work point to the mediating role of cultural mores, the role of formal management routines and practices are seldom taken on board.

The globalisation of the workforce has forced management literature to reckon with cultural differences, which has led to the production of “theories” and categories that are increasingly deployed in the new workplaces. A number of devices deve loped based on such literature Upadhya argues, allows for multiculturalism but tends to a ffirm a single normative global work culture. There are, therefore, two contradictory tendencies at work in the new management literature. One reinforces cultural differences and another seeks to erase such differences to produce the global worker. With the use of extremely illuminating d etails from training manuals and ethnographies of training programmes, she points out how such constructions tend to “inferioirise” local cultures. She also argues convincingly that it is the work pressures and the pressures to compete with the g lobal counter parts in the west that forces them into certain behavioural patterns. “Slogging”, working for longer number of hours are all required to cope with having to work across two time zones. But these are then used discursively to construct worker types that need reform!

Sonali Sathaye’s paper too treads on similar grounds, and uses ethnographic tools to understand the shaping of e motional labour through corporate training programmes. Once again, she points out how quantification and categorisation of selves are used to identify trajectories along which employees need to move to appro ximate “‘proper” selves. Importantly, she links the rise of corporate training to its validation through construction of its “scientificity”. Trainers call upon experiments and statistics to substantiate their statements on personality types and other such claims to knowledge which enables them to “recode emotions in the language of socio and psychobiology”.

Importantly, both the papers locate the corporate shaping of selves in the larger process of contemporary organisational change marked by claims to flatter structures and more room for individual selfactualisation as compared to more traditional bureaucratic forms. Though there tends to be a collapse of software services and ITES in discourses on work in the new economy, there are significant differences in the nature of work, employment and modes of control. A R Vasavi highlights the process of construction of youth, an important but much less studied aspect of globalised labour, in the ITES sector. “Youth” is not a natural life cycle phenomenon, but socially constituted through a range of institutions including organisations, media, the market and the state. The ITES sector youth are made available both as workers in and as consumers of the global economy. Once again she affirms the relationship between training, constitution of youth selves and modes of consumption. Recasting of work as a lifestyle statement allows for such discursive construction of youth. She also relates the rise of new forms of sociality and an accompanying ethos of consumption to the decline of sociality within the workplace due to intensive work regimes.

New Spaces for Women

Chris Fuller and Haripriya Narasimhan try to answer the old question of how women’s participation in work empowers them in the context of the new economy. Elsewhere, studies have highlighted the ability of globalised work to generate more working opportunities for women, albeit exploitative, but opening up new spaces for affirmation. Taking a cue from such studies, the paper, through the narratives of working women professionals in a software firm in Chennai, shows how women use these spaces to reconfigure gender r elations outside the workplace. To some, working longer hours and earning more incomes helps them negotiate better w ithin the household. In a few cases, the burden of cooking has come down as well. However, they concede that since childcare continues to be the prime responsibility of women, it does affect their career choices and equality within the workplace. Nevertheless, globalisation does open up new spaces for women. A lack of reference to existing literature on the relationship between women’s paid employment and “empowerment” mars their paper. In what ways does the relationship significantly a lter in the case of their employment in the IT sector is left unclear.

Deskilling Hypothesis

Vignesvara Ilavarasan too contributes to the ongoing debates on whether the diffusion of new information and communication techno logies and rise of new service sectors lead to deskilling of work. In contrast to the secular deskilling hypothesis, some believe that the new technologies tend to buck the trend of “deskilling”

o bserved in the case of traditional industries as they can libe rate workers from routine tasks and enable them to participate in non-routine work that involves individual judgment, problem-solving and creativity. This debate has generated empirical evidence on both sides, particularly in the context of the software development process.

Mobilising evidence from a detailed survey of workers in two software firms in Bangalore, Ilavarasan argues that there is less task fragmentation in the Indian software services sector, with most employees doing a mix of conception and execution tasks, but of highly varying proportions across different job levels. There is also less social differentiation across jobs unlike the west with most workers coming from the upper castes. Workers also tend to have similar pre-entry qualifications. They, however, have little leeway in choosing the projects that they would like to work on given the short lead times and the multiple clients that firms cater to. Ilavarasan therefore concurs with the proposition of

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“ideological proletarianisation” without being backed by technical proletarianisation. Had he placed the labour process in the Indian software service firms as a node in the larger network of software d evelopment in the client firm, he could have pushed his analyses in other interesting directions.

Bureaucratic Control

There are overlaps between the themes that Babu Remesh explores in the context of work controls in the call centre industry

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and Vasavi’s paper, but Remesh emphasises the continued use of traditional methods of bureaucratic control. This is particularly important given the accent placed by most of the other papers on new modes of eliciting consent. He however argues that traditional forms of control do have limits when applied to a customer-oriented service sector. He then highlights the insecure nature of employment in this sector which tends to be masked by coding work in this sector as “fun”. Also, individualisation of incentives and intense controls

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prevents the formation of any collective action to resist such exploitative practices.

Overall, the papers use a diverse range of sources and methods like films, training manuals, media reports and advertisements that expands the scope of source materials conventionally used in labour studies. The book is undeniably a valuable addition to not only studies of transformation of work in India, but importantly to the growing literature on global workforces.

Email: vijaybas@gmail.com

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