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The Asiafication of New Zealand production.

datePosted on 16:04, November 13th, 2012 by Pablo

Reports that New Zealanders are working longer hours with more responsibilities and little if any overtime pay, are less unionized and more casualized (part time) than any time before in the country’s modern history suggests that not only has the national model of accumulation changed. It suggests that the labor market and labor process have fundamentally changed as well. The trend towards increased exploitation of human labor as an input commodity, added to an increasing lack of employer concern for the social costs imposed on workers by super-explotation and the long-term nurturing of employees as productive assets, is reminiscent of something that Marx wrote about a long time ago: the Asiatic mode of production.

I have written about the Asiatic mode of production before on this site, differentiating it from Oriental despotism and referring to my observations about Singapore when I lived there in recent years. The core of the model centers on an abundance of cheap and easily replaced human labor. This labor is used instead of machines or other labor saving devices because it costs less in terms of initial investment and long-term maintenance, although it is less efficient in terms of productive output generated by individual laborers. The labor market is dominated by employer “flexibility” in hiring and firing and setting wages, working terms and conditions. Workers are treated as expendable commodities, not as assets. In Singapore this was done via the importation of foreign labor from the sub-continent and Southeast Asia (not to be confused with the foreign “talent,” mostly Anglo-Saxon, that is imported to staff corporate upper management in the island state).

In New Zealand it is accomplished by maintaining unemployment rates at sufficiently high levels so as to have a labor surplus in semi-skilled and unskilled, middle to lower income, mostly youth and entry-level  positions. Creation of lower minimum wage sub-categories (such as the youth wage) and lowering wage requirements for casual or part time work reduces labor input costs. Dropping of social welfare benefits forces people into the job market out of necessity rather than choice, adding to the numbers of the unemployed seeking work. Loosening of the regulatory environment in which most workers work gives them less legal grounds for grievance across a range of issues, from workplace safety to wages.

The combination of factors allow for the easy replacement of semi-skilled and unskilled labor (and in some instances, skilled workers such as academics), which increases the employment uncertainty and precariousness of the work force. That makes employees malleable to employer demands for more wage restraint, more task assignments, more productive output per employee and hence more working hours with little extra pay or benefits. For employees in a labor market characterized by work scarcity, loose regulations and employment precariousness, increasingly onerous jobs are not easy to give up (tragically, Pike River comes to mind). On the other hand, for employers it is a take it or leave it proposition. If workers want better pay or conditions, they can look elsewhere.

The deliberate undermining of collective bargaining by successive National governments (which the Fifth Labour government did not fully restore) and the decreasing role of unions in the labor process plays into this scenario. Less means of collective defense in the face of of the labor market shifts described above leads to atomization of the work force into a mass of uncoordinated and stratified individual opportunity seekers. As the opportunistic ethos takes hold and replaces the collective solidarity ties of previous generations, it reinforces the Asiafication trend.

An important aspect of the trend is immigration demographics. Since New Zealand is labor poor it must import foreign workers in order to grow. The historical use of unskilled Pacifika labor in New Zealand is well known. But what is interesting in recent years is the turn to Asian sources for all types of labor, most of it semi-skilled and skilled. Regardless of specific provenance, Asian immigrants are much less familiar with Western labor market rights and responsibilities and in fact are eminently susceptible to the labor process conditions outlined in the Asiafication model. Moreover, where working class benefits have accrued in Asia, much of that has been done via strong collective action (such as in South Korea) and/or via paternalistic state policies (such as in Singapore). In New Zealand neither of those factors have obtained in recent decades.

The increasingly non-Western immigration demographic appears to be easing the consolidation of the Asiafication trend. New Asian immigrants, schooled in authoritarian modes of production at home, arrive in New Zealand eager to work, relatively ignorant of their rights and less inclined to complain about employment terms and working conditions. To these can be added immigrants from Central Asia and the Middle East, who also have come from mostly authoritarian and highly stratified societies where workers know their place in the social hierarchy and where the concept of collective and individual rights is narrowly construed.

This mass of new arrivals, to include the first generation born and raised in New Zealand, add highly motivated opportunity seekers into the labor market mix. Although some may be refused work because of racism or difficulty with language, the larger trend is to increase competition for the relatively scare available jobs and in doing so lower the overall wage bill. That leads to more income inequality between workers as producers of value and the managerial consumers of their commodified labor.

Another way of looking at the issue is in terms of consent. Over the years Western workers have seen their material threshold of consent, which is the general expectation of fair treatment in the workplace and fair remuneration for providing their labor services, institutionalized in labor law and labor market practices. It includes access to collective representation and bargaining and state enforcement of workplace health, safety and other basic standards for working conditions and pay. What the Asiafication process does is lower worker’s expectations of “fair” treatment in the labor process, which in turn lowers their overall material threshold of consent. Reinforced by institutional and structural shifts that are reproduced over time, this further subordinates the salaried classes to the logics of capital as defined by investors and asset owners.

Asiafication also shows workers their “proper” place. After years of contesting capitalist domination of the political and economic system via party competition reinforced by union collective action in an effort to level the socio-economic playing field, Asiafication helps restore the overt social hierarchies that underpin the capitalist class system and which were camouflaged by design in democratic welfare states.

For employers (as sellers of cheapened labor, value added products), the result of Asiafication is lower price outputs across the board (be it in services, manufacturing or primary good-derived exports). That makes them competitive in the global market of production, service and exchange.

The result for workers is a vicious circle in the social division of labor as well as in production: a labor market created by an economic and political decision-making elite who see modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production as the wave of the future and something to emulate (however hard that is to do under democratic conditions), coupled with an increasingly non-Western immigration demographic that is historically familiar with the “flexible” labor market dynamics inherent in that model and its contemporary applications and which does not necessarily see the Asiatic mode of production, including intense social stratification and opportunistic individualism, as a bad thing. Under such conditions the race to the bottom begins in earnest.

It should also be noted that the Asiafication of New Zealand production facilitates the increasingly Asian focus of New Zealand trade and investment strategy. The push to increase investment in and trade with Asian and other non-Western countries has its domestic complement in the alterations to local labor market conditions. Asian investors who otherwise might be put off by Western labor market standards and regulations can now see something more familiar in the New Zealand labor market, which is becoming more akin to what they are used to in their home countries. That eases the way for the inward flow of non-Western capital into New Zealand’s productive apparatus, something that contractually reinforces local commitment to the Asiaification model.

I am not a labor economist or sociologist, much less an expert on immigration. I am sure that there are exceptions to the trend. The knowledge economy may still be around and centers of productive excellence perhaps abound. It is clear that the welfare state labor market model is kaput. It is equally clear that there are significant variations in Asian and other non-Western labor market standards that argue against making gross generalizations. Even so, there is a discernible trend at play when it comes to New Zealand’s labor market, and that trend derives from or at least resembles modern variants of the labor market typology associated with the larger structural model known as the Asiatic mode of production.

It also seems to me that there is something amiss about a purported liberal democracy that so energetically pursues a model of accumulation that at its core is dependent on a highly exploitative labor process in which material short-term gains for employers is emphasized over the long-term employment security and welfare of workers. After all, the rewards of the former accrue to the few, even if there is some trickle down to the masses. But the long-term stability of democratic society depends on having relatively contented working and middle classes who invest in their jobs not only for immediate gain (or relief), but to help secure the next generation’s material well-being. If that is no longer feasible due to the conditions of production, then something will have to give.

Absent an authoritarian regression along the lines seen in certain Asian political economic models (which would have to include major changes in the basic socialization mechanisms of the citizenry, be they new immigrants or not), it seems to me that the Asiafication of New Zealand production will become untenable over the long-run. Long term disenchantment with economic exploitation turns opportunity seekers into the politically disillusioned, and it is the politically disillusioned who, however apathetic at first, eventually agitate the most for substantive change. Under competitive electoral conditions that means that the politically disillusioned become a potential support base for reform-mongerers and the parties that best represent them.

In summary, I believe that the current Asiafication of New Zealand production is a short-term, market elite-driven solution to a perceived problem of competitiveness that is not sustainable even with the changing national demographic based on non-Western immigration trends. I believe so because I do not think that the elites of New Zealand are prepared or inclined to engage in the authoritarian measures required to impose a new social division of labor consonant with modern variants of the Asiatic mode of production. Absent the will or the way to add Orientalism to the equation, there will be an inevitable political backlash to the Asiafication model that will see its undoing in favor of a labor market that is less exploitative and more attuned to long-term social gains rather than short term business profit.

It will be a good day when that happens. I just hope that it happens in my life time.