A review of the 2018 book by Stephen Campbell, published by Cornell University Press.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a period of heightened insecurity in the lives of many. But Stephen Campbell’s fascinating new account of life and work in Thailand’s Mae Sot Special Economic Zone captures the heightened insecurities that undocumented migrants face at all times. Drawing on the tenets of operaismo (workerism), a strand of political theory formulated by radical Italian workers during the 1960s, Campbell situates the struggles of his worker-interlocutors as a driving force behind both the production of Mae Sot as a “dynamic social space” (p. 11) and capitalist restructuring more broadly. Rejecting a narrow understanding of collective struggles at the point of production, Campbell demonstrates how labor unrest and worker mobility can disrupt capital accumulation and influence state regulation of migration, giving rise to new forms of labor politics. His argument is supported by rich ethnographic evidence from twenty months of fieldwork, including firsthand accounts of his experiences with local bureaucracy and the detention of his visiting in-laws by the Thai police.
The first chapter of Border Capitalism, Disrupted situates the post–World War II emergence of Mae Sot as an industrialized zone in Thailand. According to Campbell, the Thai state used infrastructure projects as a counterinsurgency measure against communist groups near the Myanmar border, while also paving the way for the zone’s industrialization. The 1962 coup in Myanmar, popular uprisings in 1988 against the Burmese regime, and steady increases in absolute poverty led to a significant number of refugees and migrants crossing into Thailand starting in the 1980s.
The book’s second chapter analyses the trajectory of migrant labor regulation in Mae Sot and frames it as a response to struggles of both Thai and Burmese workers. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997 and protests by unionized Thai workers led to deregulation and flexibilization in the labor market, with many factories moving to this border district to take advantage of a less-expensive undocumented workforce. Using a framework of “regulatory assemblages” (p. 50), Campbell argues against the narrative of a state that is singularly in control; in Thailand, regulatory geographies are instead (re)assembled by various parties with competing interests, such as the state, private employers, passport offices, NGOs, and the government’s Labor Protection Office. Campbell employs the concept of capitalist recuperation to document the appropriation of workers’ struggles by these various “consent-seeking industrial relations mechanisms” (p. 49).
In the third chapter, the role of bordering as a technology of rule emerges, not only at the Thai-Burmese border but also at the boundary between the Mae Sot Special Economic Zone and the surrounding Tak Province. The struggles of migrants moving from low-paying jobs in Mae Sot to higher-paying ones in Bangkok are exacerbated by their undocumented status. The owners of border factories prefer to restrict the movements of these workers in order to keep wages lower; curiously, though, the Thai state does not take active measures to constrain their mobility. This creates contradictions that result in various institutions—the police, large employers, companies that “help” migrants procure to passports and other documents at exorbitant costs, as well as the Labour Protection Office—all simultaneously pursuing their own interests. Challenging the state-centric framework of zoning technologies (see Ong 2006), Campbell analyzes the role of workers as they enact a “spatial praxis” (p. 62), whereby their mobility itself engenders changes in the economic landscape.
Campbell proceeds to show the challenges that migrant workers face in encounters with Thailand’s notorious passport companies, as they try to acquire the documentation that will allow them to move to more prosperous areas of the country. In one telling incident, a group of migrants is stopped by the highway police, for—unbeknownst to them—the law had suddenly been changed such that it was now illegal for them to travel beyond Mae Sot. In response, migrants resort to both legal and extra-legal measures, which include approaching the Labor Protection Office directly, paying bribes to police at checkpoints, and even hiring human smugglers. This use of multiple tactics is illustrated by the experience of a migrant couple, Ma Oo and Ko James; the former is able to bribe her way to Bangkok, while the latter has to rely on a smuggling outfit. Another hopeful migrant, Ko Sein—who has secured employment in Bangkok and successfully applied for documentation—is informed that his passport is available for pickup, but only in the faraway city of Chiang Mai. Thus, the legal document that is rightfully his can only be accessed by traveling illegally to obtain it.
In the book’s fourth chapter, Campbell discusses the predicament of workers outside of their workplaces, as migrants in a country that racializes them as “evil and aggressive” (p. 84). Unable to afford documentation fees, which cost more than a year’s wages, migrants resort to paying bribes to police officers in order to survive. Yet this places them in a relationship of superexploitation (see Heyman 1998), as their undocumented status deprives them of better wages and benefits and keeps them vulnerable to extortion. This state of heightened insecurity prompts one, Ko Min, to reflect that “[Burmese] workers are ATMs for the [Thai] police” (p. 83). In another example, Campbell recounts how Ko Sein is arrested on false charges, as police officers try to extort money from him before the Thai New Year festivities. Despite Campbell’s wife showing the police that Ko Sein possesses the proper documents, she nonetheless must pay 400 baht (US$13) to secure his release and that of another worker.
In the fifth chapter, Campbell introduces the concept of “everyday recomposition” (p. 112), which complements that of everyday resistance (see Scott 1985) to offer insight into the (re)making of the working classes in the global South. The neoliberal restructuring that Thailand has experienced beginning in the 1980s is shown to have “unintended socially constitutive effects” (p. 111), as Campbell’s worker-interlocutors recompose themselves under the single identity of Burmese migrants and downplay preexisting ethnic and kinship tensions in their country of origin. The dormitories where the workers are housed, in true operaista fashion, have become spaces for socialization, with weddings, festivals, and communal cooking taking place on the factory premises. This translates into more cooperative relationships on the shop floor, with workers deceiving managers to protect each other.
In the book’s sixth chapter, Campbell presents a case study of the pseudonymous Supafine Fashion garment factory, which exposes the challenges that undocumented migrant workers face in organizing themselves. In the absence of a right to unionize, workers must resort to extra-legal methods, such as striking for two days and then working for another in order to avoid severe sanctions—which they impressively accomplish without any institutionalized hierarchy. Nonetheless, Campbell points out how women take a back seat in political discussions despite significantly outnumbering men, with only male workers going to negotiations with employers. The dramatic strikes documented in this chapter resulted in higher wages for a year, but also led to the firing of the workers’ main organizer as well as eighty-seven others. Even as this was only a temporary and partial win, Campbell still sees in it a potential framework for future organizing.
By shifting our analytical attention from the precarity of work to the precarity of workers and by connecting their subordination as migrants with the exploitation they face as workers, Campbell offers an insightful way to examine migrant labor markets such as that of Thailand’s Mae Sot Special Economic Zone. In the spirit of operaismo, his acknowledgement of workers’ agency beyond resistance and its relationship with emerging social recompositions is a timely contribution to understanding changing workplace identities in situations where segmented or racialized labor markets have emerged as a result of conflict or inequality.
Overall, this book will be of interest to those studying migration, governance, and labor from the vantage points of anthropology, sociology, political economy, or development. Campbell’s operaismo-inspired linkage of migrant and workers’ struggles will offer a template to other scholars studying similar situations not only in the global South but also the North, whose citizens—in the era of COVID-19—might, at long last, be acknowledging all of the essential labor performed by documented and undocumented immigrants.
Heyman, Josiah. 1998. “State Effects on Labor Exploitation: The INS and Undocumented Immigrants at the Mexico-United States Border.” Critique of Anthropology 18(2): 157–80.
Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.