Breman, Jan ‘Outcast Labour In Asia: Circulation and Informalization of the Workforce at the Bottom of the Economy

9780198066323_450 (bw)Oxford University Press, 2010

Where do the come from, and why? This question has troubled me since I started working with the families of those killed in the Ali Enterprises garment factory fire some three months ago. In Karachi’s slums like Orangi Town, Baldia Town and Lyari live a few million people who have drifted into the city over the last few decades to find work. What are they fleeing? What compels them to stay in these neighborhoods – riddled as they are with crime, violence and death? What forces them to accept lives of incredible fragility and uncertainty, of back-breaking work, inhuman hours and unsustainable pay? Where did all these people come from and what policies or social structures make them available to the labor-intensive industries of the country?

Jan Breman’s book is a starting point for me to explore these questions. He has spent most of his life in South Asia looking at labor migration, and the rural underclass that moves back and forth between the village and the city. His work examines the policies and priorities that have created this class of informal labour and made it available in the service of the development, and more recently, the neo-liberal economic regimes in the region. He was among the first people I remember who spoke explicitly about the connections between land ownership arrangements and bonded labor in Pakistan. His essay in a recent issue of The New Left Review, titled ‘The Undercities of Karachi’ was an amazing read with passages such as this:

It would be a mistake to think that the farmers in Sindh had been impoverished by the flooding. Their misery is caused by the agrarian regime in which they have often been locked from one generation to the next. Their subjugation is legitimated by a cruel form of bookkeeping, administered by the landlord or his bailiff, in which receipts, expenditures and an exorbitant interest for pending receivables are accounted in ways calculated to confound the largely illiterate sharecroppers. The jagirdars do not invest in their property to enhance its productivity but content themselves with taking as large a portion as possible of what the sharecroppers produce; conversely, the haris know they will not themselves profit from any attempts to improve efficiency. The sharecropping system here is not only a form of superexploitation, but maintains an agrarian regime that has harmful effects in a general economic sense. The landlords’ political lobby remains as powerful as ever, and there is no sign of the thoroughgoing land reform that is so urgently called for.

Bonded labor will be an important subject in my work. This, along with the garment factory workers, is the basis for my exploration and discussion about issues of structural injustice, and my attempt to broaden our understanding of the aims of a just legal system. But Breman is one of the few who is able to make a direct link between the impoverished, miserable, fragile lives of those struggling in the city’s slums, and the social and economic arrangements that deprive them of options, and force them into servitude of one form or another.

Incidently, Jan Breman has done a lovely little book with an Indian photographer by the name of Ravi Agarwal. I had not heard of this photographer but it was a pleasure to see his work complementing that of a serious economist / sociologist. The book Down And Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism  consists of essays by Breman and the photography of Agarwal.

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