Review of: Silvia Vignato and Matteo Carlo Alcano, Eds., Searching for Work: Small-Scale Mobility and Unskilled Labor in Southeast Asia

By Joe Buckley

This edited volume, a result of a European Commission-funded research project on ‘Integration in Southeast Asia: Trajectories of Inclusion, Dynamics of Exclusion (SEATIDE)’, contains an introduction and seven other chapters exploring issues related to the fact that ‘Industrial employment has grown rapidly [in Southeast Asia] but wages have remained low and working conditions unattractive’ (p. 251), to quote Pietro Masina in the final chapter.

The introduction, by Silva Vignato, focuses on some common themes found throughout the book: mobility, precarity, gender. Following that, there is a chapter on Laos, by Vanina Boute, about how the expansion of wage labour has changed perceptions of what constitutes ‘labour’ or ‘employment’. There are then three chapters on Indonesia. The first, by Giacomo Tabacco, examines the lives of migrant labour in Aceh’s mines. Silvia Vignato’s chapter also focuses on Aceh, looking at the gendered precariousness of young women migrant workers in the region. The final Indonesia-focused chapter, by Matteo Carlo Alcano, explores the ‘invisibility’ and ‘non-movement’ of construction workers in Surabaya, East Java. Concepcion Lagos’ chapter then looks at how small-scale footwear producers survive in Marikina City, ‘the Shoe Capital of the Philippines’. A chapter on Vietnam by Michela Cerimele explores how officially formal female migrant workers in Hanoi’s Thang Long Industrial Park are made ‘in fact, informal’ through their working and living conditions. Pietro Masina’s concluding chapter takes a more macro political economy perspective, arguing that Southeast Asia is stuck in an ‘uneven development trap’ in which low wages and poor working conditions have become essential to attract international capital, and where opportunities for social and economic upgrading are few.

As can be seen, the various chapters are diverse, covering a wide variety of different topics from different perspectives which do not particularly gel together. This is by no means a criticism; it is an inherent feature of edited volumes such as this one. Indeed, it is more of a positive, as each reader will take different things from the book depending on their interests and the lens through which they are reading it. Taken as a whole, we are presented with a fascinating mosaic of the varied lives of different groups of mobile (or sometimes immobile) unskilled labourers throughout Southeast Asia.

Nevertheless, there is a distinct feeling that something is missing from the volume. Explorations of ways in which low-skilled migrant labour organise among themselves to resist exploitation are almost entirely absent. We are given insights into various situations of people who find themselves at the sharp end of global capitalism, subsumed under it but very much on the periphery of it. Their lives are tough and precarious. Yet capitalist development is, to a large extent, driven by antagonistic class relations; struggles between classes with opposing interests. In this sense, the book only presents half the picture, the half in which subordinate classes are exploited. To be sure, a number of the chapters also focus on the agency of labourers, looking at how they seek out employment opportunities and resilience strategies they use to survive and ameliorate their conditions. I find it hard to believe, though, that there is no more explicit resistance.

We can take the case which I know best—Vietnam—as an example. Cerimele’s chapter on how female migrant workers in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hanoi are technically formal but ‘in fact, informal’ is a brilliant and clever argument with lots to recommend it. Yet focusing entirely on the precarity and vulnerability of these workers misses the fact that Vietnam has had literally thousands of wildcat strikes (self-organised by workers rather than unions) over the past few decades, which have had substantial success in improving workers’ pay and conditions. This form of resistance has grown out of the ‘in fact, informal’ living and working conditions which female migrant workers find themselves in. A discussion along these lines would have been welcome, but is absent.

Despite this, Searching for Work provides absorbing snapshots of what life is like for low and unskilled precarious labour in Southeast Asia today. It will be of interest and value to students and scholars of development, gender, migration, and labour.