Today around half of global trade goes through global supply chains. Whether participation in global value chains offers more opportunities or more risks for countries in the Global South is intensely debated. The optimistic views on the possibilities of development through economic upgrading, in other words through climbing up the chain to higher-value activities, have become popular, especially in international financial organisations. The critics, on the other hand, have documented how global value chains constitute a new form of economic imperialism as they enable the transfer of value from the Global South to the Global North and create poverty through the intensification of worker exploitation. If we focus on the everyday practices of work in the workplace at the bottom of global supply chains, can we say more about their social and economic implications? My recent research on the cashew industry in Mozambique shows that the cashew factories are sites where colonial relations are reproduced currently.
Lack of dignity for the worker in the cashew industry
Assessing whether the cashew value chain is a vector for the perpetuation of colonial relations was not one of the objectives of my original research project, which was aimed at studying the organisation of work in the cashew industry using a feminist social reproduction lens. But, while interviewing workers, an interesting and concerning aspect emerged. Workers repeatedly told us that they were treated with no respect and dignity in the factory. One worker described the work in the factory as a form of slavery. As remarks along these lines repeatedly came up in several individual interviews, it became clear that the lack of respect was not only a further aggravation of very poor working conditions on the whole, it was a crucial dimension of the workers’ experience of wage work in the cashew industry. The accounts of workers indicated that this aspect required more attention. Through engagement with the literature on coloniality and racial capitalism, and further conversations with workers, factory managers, trade unionists and government officials in the field, the exploration of the workers’ experience of being deprived of human dignity led to three main findings.
The workplace at the bottom of the global supply chain
To start with, it is necessary to understand the nature of the workplace at the bottom of global supply chains. What is this workplace? In simple terms, the bottom, or origin, of global commodity chains is a site of materialization of global-local interrelations. The point of encounter between foreign investors and local workers is often the workplace, in the form of a farm or a factory. Further, the workplace does not have discrete boundaries – it can be defined as ‘fuzzy’. There are two main reasons for this. First, the wage alone is not sufficient to make a living; in the Mozambican cashew industry, many workers are compelled to engage with other forms of remunerated work in parallel to wage work in the factory. Second, the imperatives of social reproduction shape how workers engage with wage work. For example, many women working in the cashew industry skip some days of work in the factory to catch up with domestic work. At the bottom of global supply chains, workers pursue multiple forms of productive and reproductive work due to an economic model based on low wages and the absence of public provision.
Gendered and racialized exploitation instrumental to capital accumulation
The notion of the fuzzy workplace sheds light on the historical conditions that make specific forms of gendered and racialized exploitation instrumental to capital accumulation. For this reason, another important aspect to consider is the differentiation of the workforce. The factory workers in the cashew industry are classes of labour differentiated by gender, age, education, ethnicity, and migration status. Their material conditions of life and work are shaped by these dimensions of differentiation, as these are also used by the employers to organise work and enact ‘divide and rule’ strategies of labour control. For example, women – who are the majority of workers in the cashew industry – are concentrated in sectors where pay depends on meeting daily production targets, with the effect of extending the length of the working day and often resulting in wages below the sectoral minimum for having failed to attain the production targets.
Foreign managers exacerbate the perpetuation of colonial relations
Finally, the encounter of foreign managers – often with little experience of managing people – and local labourers in the workplace is a breeding ground for racism and the perpetuation of colonial relations. Workers are deprived of human dignity through the employers’ wilful ignorance to understand, let alone cater for, workers’ needs and concerns. In essence, the Mozambican worker is constructed as being able to cope with harsh working conditions. The deprivation of humanity and dignity is not simply an unpleasant dimension of working in a factory at the bottom of global supply chains, but a central mechanism that ensures workers can continue to receive low wages and work in poor working conditions. It perpetuates and reinforces the power imbalances between bosses and workers, between (foreign) investors and African classes of labour, with significant implications for the reproduction of racist, sexist and colonial relations through the workplace. This is an important aspect to consider when examining work in global supply chains and one that exposes the interconnections between economic, social and cultural relations.
This isn’t just in the cashew industry
Having conducted research in Mozambique since 2010, it must be said that the daily reproduction of colonial relations is not limited to the cashew industry. However, it is clear that the cashew global chain – as many other global commodity chains – offers an opportunity for the encounter of foreign capital, often from the former coloniser, and local labour, with detrimental economic and socio-cultural implications. The exploration of everyday practices needs to be accompanied by research on the long-term macro-dynamics of trade and investment. Especially in light of the critique of the ‘African rising’ narrative, based on the observation that economic growth in the African continent in the early 2000s has remained colonial in nature, and recent research highlighting the long-lasting effects of European colonisation through the continuity in exports between the 20th and 21st century.
A longer version of the research on the cashew industry in Mozambique can be found in a paper that was published in the special issue on ‘Race, Difference and Power: Recursions of Coloniality in Work and Organizations’ in Gender, Work and Organization. The special issue is guest-edited by Pasi Ahonen, Mrinalini Greedharry, Marjana Johansson, Jennifer Johnson and rashné limki.
Dr Sara Stevano is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at SOAS University of London.