Research Findings

Why invisible bondage is crucial for neoliberal development to thrive


October 13, 2022

Many connect ‘unfree labor’ with slavery. This view, however, makes other forms of ‘unfreedom,’ where labor is prevented from entering or exiting labor markets on their own, escape scrutiny.

Based on ethnographic research conducted among Sri Lanka’s female global factory workers, my new work demonstrates that even when women are not forced to join or stay within contractor labor pools, they remain unfree due to cultural and emotional bonds that restrict their mobility.

Focusing on the intricate ways such invisible bonds are produced, I shed light on the contradictions of global capitalism: specifically, the promise of freedom versus the reality of complex forms of coercion. Instead of the promised social independence, women encounter newer forms of control and discipline that seek to make them obedient workers of global assembly lines.

The particular structure of contemporary global production, where large orders must be filled quickly, puts tremendous pressure on local subcontracting factories to retain a loyal workforce. This has led to factories using contractors to recruit and retain workers. Analyzing the ways Sri Lanka’s contracted workers’ entry into work and mobility gets shaped by a loosely arranged coalition of patriarchal agents demonstrates how compulsive emotional conditions, which I term “invisible bondage,” are produced. While the degree of compulsion varies depending on the context, such invisible controls, I argue, are in fact essential for neoliberal capitalism to thrive.

According to Tom Brass, the unfree worker is unable to commodify his or her own labor power. In the Sri Lankan context, unfreedom is not connected to contractors ‘owning’ women, but rather to cultural forms of coercion exerted upon women and the emotional bondages these engender.Such bondage is produced through a patriarchal coalition of labor contractors, parents, and factory managers that has come into being recently to counter the moral anxieties stirred by the relative social independence the earlier generation of global factory workers who entered wage work independently.

Previous generations of women who migrated to urban Free Trade Zones (FTZ) from rural areas developed new senses of selves leading to their transgressing dominant notions of what it is to be a good woman. Labor contractors exploited the resultant moral panic by promising rural parents that they would provide paternalistic care and protection to their daughters while in urban FTZs.

Such concerns were influenced by media discourses about rural young women getting corrupted and victimized by unscrupulous men in and around urban FTZs. FTZ employment is stigmatized; being contracted by someone respected in the village provides for a layer of monitoring and allows families to emphasize daughters’ non-sullied reputations when trying to arrange marriages. Women who entered FTZ employment independently have indeed had difficulty contracting sought-after marriages. Thus some parents even get their daughters to leave factories they had joined on their own and re-enter via contractors, so they could use that to burnish the daughters’ reputation when arranging marriages.

Emotional Bondage

Contractors actively encourage familial relationships, fan fears of the city and outsiders, and emphasize the need to stick together, thus creating emotional bonds that women, who are placed at junior kin positions (younger sister; daughter), find difficult to break. Such cultural and emotional forms of bondage do not fit economic definitions of bonded labor, yet are no less difficult to break free from. I have closely followed and interviewed four labor contractors over six years (2012-2018) and interviewed eighty-five contracted workers. All contractors have promised the women’s parents that they will provide secure accommodation, close monitoring and paternalistic care.

None of the contractors claimed job-finding fees or a percentage of workers’ salary. This may indicate the absence of direct economic exploitation.

However, they utilized kinship and local loyalties to pressure women to remain with them. One contracted worker told me: “I wanted to join a different factory, but Sajith Aiya (elder brother) became very upset and sobbed while reminding me how good he has been to me. All of us present started crying and promised him that we would never leave his care.” Veena, a worker contracted by Bappa (who only brought female relatives) said, “I can leave, but that means my family will have to give up kinship relations with him.”

In addition to these overt incidents of emotional blackmail, contractors’ everyday paternalistic care stimulates affection, respect and, among some, deep devotion. Some workers described the FTZ from their contractor’s viewpoint—as a space full of dangers that mandated careful guidance. Such influence bound the workers to labor contractors as in other bonded labor situations, yet remained more or less invisible.

Invisible losses

The adverse impact of entering FTZ work via contractors was best understood in contrast to the earlier generation of workers who entered independently. Contractors place their workers in factory and contractor-owned/contracted boarding houses and regulate their leisure time by allowing them to only participate in pre-approved activities. This precludes women from experiencing urban public spaces, which while difficult also helps them develop street smart skills and social networks. The patriarchal arrangements more or less ensure that the contracted workers will return to their villages equipped only with monetary savings.

This contrasts with the skills and networks most non-contracted women workers develop due to freer mobility and social associations, which has in fact helped them become successful entrepreneurs upon returning to their villages.

Furthermore, labor-contractor related disciplinary regimes affect worker agency and resistance in two ways. First, not having the space to associate freely with other workers makes it difficult for new workers to develop the forms of proletariat and feminist consciousness that the non-contracted workers did. Second, this controlled group of workers weakens other workers’ bargaining power as the factories can easily use them to counteract strikers.

More alarmingly, some of the contractors move their workers from factory to factory to increase their own income without regard to wage/benefit losses for workers. For instance, when Sajith supplies a group of workers to a factory he gets paid Rs. 7000-12000 per head. After a few months, he gets workers from each factory to quit and go home. He eventually forms a new group to be delivered to another factory. Because of harsh working conditions workers like these breaks and have not analyzed how such breaks adversely affect their Employees Provident Fund and Employees Trust Fund savings and the factory gratuity payments.

Conclusion

Studies show that unfree labor is especially found in outsourced manufacturing within global supply chains. Sri Lankan workers entering global factory work via contractors are not overtly forced to join contractor labor pools, but their entry and time at FTZ factories are shaped by a coalition of patriarchal agents. This arrangement addresses the labor shortages that factories currently experience, even as it addresses the moral panic aroused by the social independence of the previous generation of female workers who entered factories on their own. This coalition highlights how patriarchal forces collaborate to contain young women attaining social empowerment.

Yet, rather than seeing contracted workers as victims who are always forced, my research explores nuances of negotiated arrangements, and structures of living and working to show how women and men in developing countries try to navigate employment practices within global production networks.

Read more

Sandya Hewamanne. “Invisible bondage: Mobility and compulsion within Sri Lanka’s global assembly line production” in Ethnography 2021.

image: author’s own image

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