Invisible labour: Tales from the undercity

Sujatha Fernandes, University of Sydney: 

Karl Marx expected that the great cities of the future would industrialise in the same ways as Manchester and Berlin. The high modernist architect Le Corbusier sought to design cities as workshops for production to house the industrial working classes. Yet the contemporary city has been marked by deindustrialisation, slum growth, and the rise of low wage, invisible labour. Rapid urban growth and migration, structural adjustment, currency devaluation, and the withdrawal of state services has led to a failure of the modernist vision. Today’s postmodern cities are home to increasingly large undercities, characterised by surplus migrant populations engaged in unskilled, low wage work with few job protections or security. In this talk, I turn to artistic depictions of invisible labourers to understand what the new global informal working class looks like. What can fictional stories tell us about the parameters of everyday life for migrant workers, their consciousness and strategies for survival? What kind of insights can they offer us for our methods, the strategies we use to carry out research on invisible groups like migrant workers? Are the problems of invisible labour simply a by-product of successful societies or are they part of a broader strategic transfer of wealth from poor to rich? What kinds of futures are possible and what can we do to help bring alternative futures about?

The growth of low wage, informal migrant labour as a key engine for global cities is a troubling phenomenon that we must see as part of a broader shift away from modernist utopias of successful cities that provided housing and basic needs for a stable and well remunerated class of workers. The portion of low wage migrant workers in Australian cities has not reached the vast numbers of other cities like New York, LA, or London, due to a strict monitoring of entrants along with a lack of contiguous borders. But these numbers are increasing even in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, especially through categories like the student visa and 457 guest worker visa. And in general, today’s workers are more likely to be casually employed or seen as independent contractors without benefits or job security (think Uber, for example). Migrant workers live transnational lives, responsible for the reproduction not only of their own labour power but of entire extended families back in their home countries. My examination of migrant worker films and novels shows these different worlds that they straddle – home and host country, poor and elite spaces, spheres of work and domesticity – and the ways that migrant workers negotiate between these to make a living. I explore the tropes and myths that keep migrant workers engaged in back-breaking and exploitative work, such as the American Dream, the idea of upward social mobility and the meritocratic economy. But at the same time, the daily experiences of migrant workers can also provide the grounds from which these myths are challenged, and workers can engage in collective action.

The study of contemporary films and novels on migrant workers can offer lessons for us as sociologists who do research on marginal groups like migrant workers. Often the challenge of accessing migrant worker interiority has led social scientists to focus either on survey research and targeted interviews, or provide a hyper-theorised or structural account that reduces the human being at the centre of it all to a trope or a mere cog. Instead, novels and films can point to some ways of doing a truly multi-sited ethnography, where we can examine the different spheres of transnational lives and experiences. They point out ways of doing collaborative ethnography, where workers are a crucial part of the research process itself.

 

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