Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Managing Diverse Commodities? from Factory Fodder to Business Asset

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Managing Diverse Commodities? from Factory Fodder to Business Asset

Article excerpt


The debate about whether labour is a commodity can be traced back to the writings of Adam Smith (1776). It has been an enduring one. Those who subscribe to a neoclassical perspective on economics argue in the affirmative (Dicken 2004: 140). Those who reject the view that labour can be reduced to something that can be bought and sold (Nelson 1995) interpret the former view as dubious if not 'malicious' (New York Times 1916: 10). It is not our intention to engage with this debate directly. Rather, we start from the premise that labour does fundamentally differ 'from real commodities because it is embodied in living, conscious human beings and because human activity (work) is an irreducible, ubiquitous feature of human existence and social life' (Storper and Walker 1989: 155). This view has been extremely influential on bodies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the United Nations (UN) whose Conventions have affected the laws and policies of many nations. Yet, despite this, the neoclassical perspective has survived in a range of scholarly and business contexts (Sjaastad 1962; Todaro 1968; Borjas 1990). This article traces how both perspectives have been deployed in order to demonstrate their influence over the way migrant workers1 have been, and continue to be, viewed and treated in Australia. This approach will throw light on the way that representations of migrant workers commodify their labour power, cultural knowledge and linguistic skills.

The article begins by providing an historical overview of ILO and UN principles and conventions, which have promoted the notion that labour cannot and should not be reduced to a commodity and it considers Australia's responses to them. We then turn our attention to how migrants to this country have been viewed and treated through an exploration of two different representations of their labour, one historic and one from more recent times. In this regard we refer to the rhetoric used to describe migrants who came to Australia in the decades after World War Two as 'factory fodder' and the more recent rhetoric associated with Diversity Management (DM), which construes those migrant employees who possess cultural knowledge and multilingual skills as 'business assets'. Both representations, we argue, treat migrants as commodities. By foregrounding their labour power or knowledge or skills, both render invisible the bearers of these attributes and in doing so also deny their agency.

In keeping with our foundational premise, we challenge such disembodiment. By drawing on a number of historical examples we demonstrate that migrant workers differ from commodities not only because they are living beings who engage in work but also by virtue of their resistance to working conditions and management strategies that treat them as if they were commodities. Further, by examining migrant workers in one specific organisation and that organisation's approach to its migrant employees from the 1950s to the present, we show that the management of cultural differences does not succeed in the long-term without reference to migrant workers as agents. As a corollary, we implicitly dispute the assumption that migrant workers' cultural knowledge and multi-lingual skills can be reduced to resources and assets solely for the benefit of business in the era of post-colonial globalisation.

'Labour is Not a Commodity': Origins and Impacts

The proposition that labour is not a commodity was central to an Address presented by Irish economist, John Kells Ingram before the British Trade Union Congress in 1880. Subsequently it informed the views of trade union leaders and progressive intellectuals in the United Kingdom, the USA and Australia, including such notables as Edward J. Phelan, Samuel Gompers, William Edward Hearn and H. B. Higgins (O'Higgins 1997). Its impact was, however, far more widespread and enduring predominantly because of its incorporation in Article 427 of the Treaty of Versailles and also as the first principle of the ILO, which was created under Article 387 in 1919 in order to promote its objectives. …

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