Ethnography of labour chains

Convenors: Domenico Perrotta (University of Bergamo) & Devi Sacchetto (University of Padova)

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One can start from a crumbling shack occupied by seasonal farmworkers in one of the rural areas of the Mediterranean, and arrive, via the packinghouses or the canning plants, to the retailing giants in one of the main European cities. Or else, one can start from the branded laptop with which we work on a daily basis back to an enormous factory where electronics are produced and to the dormitories provided to its workers. One can keep on moving to the miners who extract coltan, the essential raw material for the electronics industry. Is it possible for social scientists to study these connections, these chains, with ethnographic methodologies?

Over the past twenty years, the expansion of the global production systems and of transnational mobility has deeply transformed the forms of labour and the ways of life of the people involved in them. Globalization has appeared to be not a unique and holistic process, but rather a multiplier of different labour situations. Production is articulated among a number of countries and is characterized by processes of standardization as well as strong differentiation. The construction of production chains localized in different areas gives ample space to management to adopt different labour conditions within and outside the workplace. Along these chains of the global economy, an intense process of fragmentation of the forms of labour has spread, whose main feature is the increasing casualization of labour-power. The traditional trade unions, which were already declining, found themselves under pressure. On the other hand, precarious workers have tried new strategies of organization, which remain in most cases territorially limited.

The literature on the so-called global value chains and global production networks has grown substantially over the last years; nonetheless, topics such as workplace relations and individual and collective agency of workers within these chains have remained understudied.

In fact, in order to analyse these transformations, new fieldwork methodologies and a new sociological imagination are required. For example, we aim to discuss how to extend the ethnographic study of one productive site to other links in the chain, to the whole production networks and to the forms of government of the workforce. This panel welcomes ethnographically grounded papers focused on the diverse working and living conditions as well as on social and labour conflicts within the global production chains. Presentations based upon collective research projects are particularly appreciated. Possible topics include but are not limited to:

  • intersectionality at work: the role of gender, nationality and skin colour in the productive processes
  • forms of casualization and informalization of labour
  • externalization, subcontracting and delocalization processes
  • the relationships between production and reproduction processes
  • global production networks and forms of resistance on the workplace
  • union strategies and new forms of labour organization
  • forms of government of global labour chains, among State authorities, supranational bodies, power-unbalanced business relationships, and labour market regulations
  • ethnographers in the labour chains

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