8 Minutes To Read

Border Capitalism, Disrupted: Precarity and Struggle in a Southeast Asian Industrial Zone by Stephen Campbell. Cornell University Press, 2018. 206 Pages.

8 Minutes To Read

Courtney T. Wittekind reviews Stephen Campbell’s account of migrant labor in Thailand.

Image courtesy of Cornell University Press.

In his astute book on the industrial zone of Mae Sot, along Thailand’s border with Burma/Myanmar, Stephen Campbell pairs detailed ethnography with reflections on themes of “flexibilization,” “precarious labor,” and “working-class struggle”— themes central to transformations in northwest Thailand’s labor regime. Yet, as Campbell’s analysis makes clear throughout the book, Mae Sot is not merely a particular case of the “flexible” employment and production regimes increasingly observed globally; Mae Sot also raises its own unique contradictions and paradoxes, which Campbell usefully draws attention to throughout the book. Why, for instance, might migrants going to great lengths to pursue employment legally be rendered illegal? Or, as revealed in a case of labor organizing Campbell describes in detail: why might governmental institutions and non-governmental partners— ostensibly working to protect migrant workers— endorse a contract that set a daily wage lower than Thailand’s legal minimum?

These paradoxes, among others, surface throughout Campbell’s text, emerging as the driving force behind the case studies he presents. They also explain his emphasis on the border as a technology of rule, with the precarity of Mae Sot’s migrant workers linked conceptually to a set of spatialized regulatory practices. Specifically, Campbell argues that Mae Sot’s emergence as an “innovative site of border capitalism” (7) depends decisively upon proximity to two borders: 1) the geopolitical border dividing Thailand and Myanmar; and, 2) an internal border, encircling Mae Sot, at which migrants’ onward travel was restricted. These two borders, he argues, explain why migrants’ wages, working conditions, and opportunities for mobility remain inadequate. Trapped in an industrial zone, migrants are fixed as a pool of low-wage workers, whose sheer numbers render them vulnerable to the abuses of both employers and authorities.

This dynamic, which lies at the center of Campbell’s theorization of “border capitalism,” is the focus of the beginning of the book. The introduction and first chapter (Producing the Border) provide an in-depth look at the economic transformations in Myanmar that propelled migrants across the border and into Mae Sot, and the legal and political regimes that awaited them there. For those working in Mae Sot’s refugee- and migrant-focused organizations, this chapter should be considered required reading. It provides a pre-history, in a sense, to the relatively recent refugee and migrant influxes, described by others. Also foundational to an understanding of Mae Sot’s current status is the second chapter (Capitalist Recuperation) which provides a similarly rich historical account of the emergence of export-oriented industrialization in Thailand, as punctuated by concurrent labor struggles. Crucial here is Campbell’s proposal of a “dialectic between increased workers struggles and government efforts to contain industrial unrest” (38). This dynamic, he argues, has produced an oscillation between periods when organized labor was fiercely repressed and, conversely, periods of popular mobilization and relative accommodation.

While the first two chapters foreground the Thai-Burma border as an organizational mechanism in the text (with the first chapter largely focused on causes of migration in Myanmar, and the second, on conditions in Thailand) attention to this geopolitical border seems, at times, limited— its significance assumed, rather than interrogated. The struggles Campbell describes take return to Myanmar as one of a number of possible outcomes— with “return” cast both negatively, as in threats of deportation, and positively, as in the case of workers who “return home,” rejecting demanding factory conditions (as did Ko Latt, a central character in chapter six). However, this past (and potentially future) movement to/from Myanmar is not described ethnographically. Workers’ memories of a life before Mae Sot, or visions of a later life in Myanmar, are left largely unaddressed, as are the strategic choices they make in moving between refugee camps, home villages in Myanmar, and Thailand’s factories (choices to which Campbell alludes). In this, despite Campbell’s stated commitment to a spatial analysis of borders, the book ultimately depicts the nation-state border as a looming specter rather than a concrete entity along and across which migrants’ spatial praxis might take place.

When it comes to Mae Sot’s border with central Thailand, however, Campbell provides illuminating ethnographic case studies revealing just what it means to live as a migrant in Mae Sot. It is in this discussion (found in chapter three, Mobility Struggles) that the book shines. Narrating Mae Sot’s migrant workers’ efforts to manage Thailand’s ever-changing migrant labor policies, Campbell leads the reader in-and-out of the office of a Thai “manpower” company, to-and-from District checkpoints, and back-and-forth from safe houses, immigration offices, and detention cells. Here, he offers an intimate account of the effects of “an ongoing struggle over the mobility of Myanmar migrants” (81)— the waiting they must endure under the constant threat of detention, as well as the actions they take in an effort to better their situations. The latter of these— migrants’ utilization of smugglers, bribes, transfer documents, and various forms of registration and legalization— are given particular weight in Campbell’s narrative for what he calls their “disruptive power.” Such actions are powerful, in his view, because rather than being mere responses to pre-existing regulations, they actively produce them, “catalyzing transformations in the regulatory geography” of Mae Sot (71).

While less explicitly centered as one of the “borders” central to Campbell’s analysis, a third border— between “the workplace” and “the world beyond the factory wall” (13)— takes on particular significance in the remaining chapters. In the fourth chapter (Coercive Policing), Campbell builds upon literature on “the precarious worker,” proposing that dynamics at the point of production— low wages, unsafe conditions, and unreliable contracts, to name a few— cannot be analyzed in isolation. Instead, they must be considered in connection to the “relations of power that migrants confront outside the workplace” (85), seeing that it is precisely these relations of power— the extortion, coercive policing, and discrimination faced by migrants— that enable their exploitation as workers. Ethnographically rich while also theoretically sophisticated, Campbell’s fourth chapter provides a much-needed expansion of conventional accounts of precarity, demonstrating links between abuse in Mae Sot’s streets, its eventual systemization, and its relation to similar practices inside the city’s factories.

Yet, what emerges as a strength in the second half of the book— Campbell’s foregrounding of the mutually reinforcing relationship between the legal exploitation of workers in the workplace and migrants in the border region— is a weakness elsewhere, eliding other ways we might understand migrants’ and workers’ varying ability to endure the precarity Campbell highlights. Gender, in particular, is rarely attended to as a significant factor in differing experiences with the Thai police, even as Campbell’s own interlocutors point to the unique dangers women might face if forced to live outside the factories’ dormitories (144). A few pages are given to the gendered politics visible in workforce organizing (151), with Campbell noting the outsized role of men in an industry where women made up 80% of the workforce. Yet, that this gendered experience within the workplace was not paired with a similar treatment of gender as a factor outside the workplace seems antithetical to Campbell’s stated interest— that is, to break down the divide between exploitative dynamics “inside” and “outside” of the factory.

In a similar manner, a fuller description of the class distinctions internal to Mae Sot’s migrant community might further elevate Campbell’s valuable analysis of border dynamics, particularly given that his own ethnographic examples point to notable hierarchies within the categories of “migrant” and “worker.” Among “migrants,” for example, we hear about the dramatically different employment opportunities available to those with greater financial resources and therefore greater mobility. The effects of coercive policing also exist on a spectrum, with extortion weighing most heavily on certain groups. Well-connected, Thai-speaking migrants, for instance, seem to be able to lesson or avoid fines and jail time (as May’s intervention shows in chapter four), while Campbell notes that the poorest and most vulnerable of migrants— the elderly, the infirm, those working as waste collectors—are not subject to police extortion of abuse, perhaps because they have little to offer. Amongst “workers,” there seem to be exceptions, too, with line supervisors and translators, for example, ambiguously positioned— better paid and with more benefits than others (a point Campbell acknowledges). A tension between those workers able to pay for housing in the rental market, and those unable to do so (or those especially concerned with security, such as women) is also mentioned. While only a few examples, these marked differences between groups of “migrants” and “workers” make the treatment of social class at the conclusion of chapter four— which finds a “class habitus” emergent amongst migrants, one expressed uniformly in a shared antagonistic disposition—seem lacking, developed only dualistically in encounters between migrants and police.

Narratives of class fragmentation and re-composition, of organization and conflict— as featured in chapters five (Class Recomposition) and six (Organizing under Flexibilization)— do offer an opportunity for a more nuanced treatment of the tensions between categories of workers. In these chapters, Campbell acknowledges that it is precisely cleavages within the category of “worker” that management seizes upon in attempting to assert greater control. The example of the piece-rate system— where workers are paid according to the number of pieces produced— demonstrated his argument. While piece-rates might encourage competition between workers, it also paradoxically encourages worker solidarity, “as a common grievance around which to coalesce in struggle” (113). This contradictory function of workplace differentiation under flexible production regimes, in encouraging a “double movement” of both fragmentation and recomposition, is the focus of chapter five. Through a focus on this “double movement,” Campbell argues that new forms of solidarity are emergent amongst Thailand’s working-class— forms of solidarity that a narrow focus on unionization discounts. Yet, in emphasizing the formal divisions legible to management (such as wage differences), gaps associated with identities more salient outside the factory walls— those associated with gender, ethnicity, and religion, mentioned in passing— remain largely unaddressed. It may be that such differences are overcome by the processes Campbell describes, but that such a claim was beyond the scope of Campbell’s research—if so, this might be productively studied as a follow-up to this book.

The final chapter of Border Capitalism, Disrupted presents an extended description of the 2012-2013 organization of workers in Mae Sot’s Supafine Fashion Factory. Narrating this case, alongside a historical shift toward non-disruptive, bureaucratic solutions to worker grievances, in chapter six, Campbell describes factory workers’ increased precarity, and their efforts to remedy that condition. Perhaps most illuminating is the extended reflection on a paradox presented earlier: that, in Mae Sot (a site of both “border capitalism” and of countless organizations and NGOs), precarity was often not rectified by the presence of such entities. Instead, actors from local organizations as well as Thailand’s official Labor Protection Office played an ambiguous role in such struggles, with workers’ efforts sometimes supported, but often appropriated by employers, officials and NGOs alike. How such struggles play out, and the “politics of precarity” they produce, is illuminated in this final chapter.

Stephen Campbell’s Border Capitalism, Disrupted, insightfully describes Mae Sot as a space where a novel regulative “bordering” process has produced a site uniquely ordered for global capitalism. His carefully-reasoned argument is introduced in the title of the book: that the production of two borders has enabled now “legal” appropriation and exploitation of a fixed migrant population. This argument is one that holds relevance not only to those studying labor or working in the broader subfield of the anthropology of work. His theorization of “border capitalism” also constitutes a productive challenge to more conventional studies of borders and frontiers, in that, for Campbell, borders zones (and the relations they contain) are always produced in and through struggle. As reactive measures to workers’ practices— spatial and otherwise— border capitalist formations and the laws that support their emergence, are defined as reactive, built and rebuilt in response to threats of unrest. In this, Campbell forwards perhaps his most valuable intervention, recasting migrant workers as political actors in their own right, actors actively creating a new “politics of precarity” within and beyond official institutions and structures. For those we meet in Campbell’s book, an otherwise disparate spectrum of everyday struggles over mobility, registration, policing, and wages might offer transformative potential— potential overlooked by generalizing narratives of “precarity” and of formal worker organization and unionization, alike.

Courtney T. Wittekind is currently a PhD student in Social Anthropology at Harvard University. She completed a M.Phil at the University of Oxford where she studied as a member of St Antony’s College and Rhodes Scholar. Her current research centers on questions of transition, place, and the unseen in Myanmar’s Shan State.