The thing about work that stands out most, reading through enthusiastic future forecasts on the one hand and stories of worker distress after the Sriperumbudur Nokia manufacturing plant closure on the other, is how one context obscures the political arrangements that make work possible, whereas the other brings them to light. Work is after all always at base a political arrangement: some sort of transaction with the state that delivers jobs and a promise of the good life to its publics. Perhaps it is that euphoric accounts about the changing workplaces of the future are (naturally?) more concerned with projecting the future, rather than with the mechanics of how to get there. Or that the projected futures of work seem so de-politicized—and that is, in fact, their allure—that the realities of political undergirdings are obscured.
Nokia’s presence in the Sriperumbudur SEZ, at any rate, owed to the then ruling DMK’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) courtship of the Finnish phone manufacturer, and its success in outbidding other Indian states vying for Nokia business with quite unparalleled monetary and infrastructural incentives. The headiness of that political victory is not to be discounted, for Nokia’s component manufacturers soon joined the SEZ, and Nokia was held up as a symbol of industrialization in Tamil Nadu: along with Hyundai and Saint-Gobain Glass, one of ‘the three pillars of Sriperumbudur.’ The government’s objectives, per the 2006 SEZ act, included the generation of economic activity, employment creation, and infrastructure development. To this end, too, the DMK’s Vallthu Kattuvom Thittam or the ‘We Live’ recruitment scheme aided Nokia’s own initiatives to identify new employees. Companies in the SEZ had been improbably classified as ‘public utilities,’ ostensibly in order to ensure promised infrastructural incentives like water and continuous electricity supply – services glaringly unavailable and not-promised to local communities – but also specifically to ‘curb labor indiscipline’ within the SEZ. The very terms of the arrangement with Nokia, then, specified both the need for employment creation and for labor to be controlled in a terrific concession to the company’s ultimate authority in managing its workers. The needs and rights of workers were concealed by the very eagerness of the neoliberal state to assert its prowess.
The SEZ’s protection from ‘labor indiscipline’ began to give way in 2009, however, to emerging details of Nokia’s heavy reliance on contract labor in every possible non-manufacturing job (contract labor is banned in the manufacturing sector), the resulting job insecurity, several issues over low wages–and later, serious risks to worker safety in the face of Nokia’s much-vaunted world-class safety systems. In the negotiations for a new set of political arrangements to protect workers, once again the government was involved: the LPF (Labor Progressive Foundation) which negotiated on behalf of workers in 2009 is politically attached to the DMK. Union leaders now explicitly invoked not so much the formal terms of agreement, but their underlying spirit: Nokia’s ‘mission’ as the government presented it and as even Union leaders understood it was as much to make money as to create and later to assure jobs to several thousands of unemployed youth who comprised the ruling party’s electoral base. In exchange for the almost unconscionable monetary incentives and other allowances made for Nokia, which sapped the state of some Rs. 645 crores (roughly $117 million) and returned poor profits besides, it was then the company’s moral obligation to live up to its promises rather than, as one community activist put it, ‘shed[ing] more and more of their responsibilities and expect[ing] the government to house, feed, bathe and deliver the workers to them!’ The status of work shifts therefore from an exuberant celebration of the state’s capability to deliver promising foreign MNC jobs to its electorate, and later to a political insistence on labor as a set of social relationships that demand reciprocity. Either way, it remains at base a political arrangement with the state.
There are then two ideas of work which present themselves: work-as-consumption and work-as-political arrangement. Each is discrete, a means of navigating towards some more-or-less attractive ‘horizon of hope‘; each is a combination of ‘norms, dispositions, practices, and histories [which] frame the good life as a landscape of discernible ends’; each mode of work then gestures to ‘practical paths to the achievement of these ends’ (Appadurai, Future as Cultural Fact, 292). But these forms of work are not equal. They link imaginations with material realities in entirely different ways, and they exist uneasily together: here cooperative, there antagonistic. The young men and women who everyday donned white anti-electrostatic aprons and shoe covers at the Nokia factory in Sriperumbudur came from impoverished and rural socio-economic backgrounds with only uneven access to state resources and benefits, and work futures framed only by the possibilities of development. For them, work at the Nokia plant was inherently a political arrangement brokered by the state—but one which made room for the MNC to deliver both the material and symbolic things the developmentalist state had failed to provide: prestige, recognition, consumer goods, better access to medical care, better capacities to help family, even water and food. The state in this way represented a failed aspirational framework, as much as it made political arrangements for structures of consumption to manifest. When those, too, failed in the end, the open link between what futures could be imagined and what presents could be materially procured was broken, too.
Political arrangements exist in there here and now, not on some far-future horizon. One does not participate in a union-organized strike or petition the nearest low-level government bureaucrat for access to housing or healthcare or building maintenance because of what the future ultimately might deliver, but in search of immediate certainties, solutions to pressing needs. Elections are coming to Pondicherry this May, for instance, and we see the carts with political party pennant-tagged consumer goods making rounds through the neighbourhoods: a blender or a pressure cooker for your support and my moral obligation to act as political broker. It appears at times that in such a world there is no fantasy future, only a sort of nearish-term pragmatics and transactional calculus, the basic infrastructure on which capacities to aspire might be built.
My last post in this series will be a bit of an experiment in writing and thinking, connecting the fantasies that do circulate with the pragmatics and realities of these local environments.
[Some parts of this post are part of a longer argument developed for an essay soon to appear in the journal ephemera special issue on the “Consumption of Work and the Work of Consumption,” and are presented here in modified form with grateful thanks. A much earlier version of this and the previous post were presented in a 2014 SCA panel on “Finding, Organizing, and Liberating work” organized by Melissa Cefkin. Grateful thanks to Melissa for the initial prompt to write, and to Ilana Gershon for much encouragement along the way.]