Building discussion around infrastructural labour and livelihoods

By: Alejandro De Coss and Kathleen Stokes

** Many thanks to participants in our session. While we have endeavoured to capture key points, we also appreciate this summary should not be taken to not reflect everyone’s views. **

On April 18th, 2018, scholars from around the UK met for the symposium “Infrastructures for Troubled Times”. Hosted by the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics & Responsible Futures at the University of Brighton, the event sought to challenge and question the apparent neutrality of infrastructures, understanding them as “increasingly complex, multi-scalar and interconnected, affecting and effected by climate change, patterns of global economic debt, financial management and resource extraction/use.”

As part of this symposium, we organised a session on “infrastructural labour and livelihoods” which stemmed from the perspective that human work and labour is necessary to the development, repair, and maintenance of infrastructures. Despite this, we find that labour is rarely explored in depth in contemporary debates around infrastructure’s role in shaping social and material worlds. Our session wanted to question the role of human labour in developing and maintaining infrastructures, and understand how such contributions are perceived and valued – particularly as speculation of technological automation and mass labour redundancy increases.

Starting from the position that human labour matters, and that its relations with infrastructure are highly differentiated across scale and place, we went on to explore the relations between infrastructure, labour, and livelihoods. The session focused on gathering a shared literature that speaks to this triple relation, and on formulating questions that can lead to further research agendas. Ultimately, our intention was to spark a more politicized study of infrastructural processes and their relation to labour and livelihoods. Below we summarize some of the key points from the session. We hope this can inform subsequent scholarly discussion in the year to come.

Key points from the session: Theorising and researching infrastructures, labour and livelihoods

The session started with a collective mapping of specific problems related to the question of infrastructures, labour, and livelihoods. We touched upon the key conceptual notions like ‘people as infrastructure’ (Simone, 2004); the relation between labour and the operation of infrastructures; the issue of infrastructural grabs; the relation between surplus labour and accumulation regimes, including the question of uneven development and colonialism, and; the relation between infrastructure, citizenships, and rights claims. The diversity of topics mentioned points to the centrality of labour in understanding infrastructure, but also to the ways in which these relations are differentiated not only by space, time, and scale, but also through particular historical trajectories.

The issue of infrastructural labour and livelihoods also touches upon theoretical and ontological questions. In particular, labour brings to the fore diverse Marxist perspectives, and also postcolonial approaches to this issue. The group discussed whether differentiating labour and work as concepts might point to different relations not only with infrastructure, but also with the state, private actors, and others. We also discussed the need to consider migrant labour, indentured labour, and slavery, and to make their specific dynamics central to the unpacking of the relations between infrastructure and labour.

The case of women’s labour was explored in more depth. Women serve fundamental roles in urban contexts, beyond questions of social reproduction. By focusing on the gendered characteristic of the notion of ‘people as infrastructure’, questions of how women sustain cities at a basic level of functioning become central. This labour includes economic, health, sanitation, and social aspects. An example of this can be the feminisation of labour in waste infrastructures, which use disposable gendered labour to operate. In the case of Nepal, this work is systematically undervalued, yet central to sustaining cities and urban ecologies. As the basis of the city and its functioning, gendered labour can be thought of as a kind of incremental labour, upon which municipalities build their work, while it remains invisible as ‘grey labour’ or simply care.

We also questioned the role of the state the exploitation of infrastructural labour. This shed light on several processes, such as exploitative strategies which ensure infrastructural maintenance while cutting down costs. We questioned what might compel public workers to work under such conditions. We suggested that affect could be a way to mobilise this cheap, precarious labour – particularly in precarious labour markets. By claiming that the work performed is valuable, labour becomes entangled with the promises of infrastructure. If this is the case, then what kinds of promises can be made to sustain these labour regimes? Conversely, how might these promises become entangled with threats, not only regarding one’s labour but also towards the viability and materialisation of infrastructures projects? This led to reflections on both colonial and nation building processes. When researched through the relation of labour and infrastructures, such processes appear as rather fragile arrangements.

The session also addressed infrastructural labour and livelihoods beyond the state. We discussed the different ways in which livelihoods might relate to infrastructural labour. We asked how the specific forms of infrastructural labour might rely on broader social relations, and questioned how these wider sets of relations might be kept together. For example, how does precarity relate to everyday life of infrastructural workers? We discussed the case of Singapore, where these relations are organised through intermediaries, or agents, in such a way that the state can elude its responsibility for workers in state-run infrastructures. Elsewhere, the labour precarity might be related to other aspects of livelihoods, like the case of many cities in India, where informal labourers employed in the management of diverse infrastructures, are often propertyless.

Running through these different conversational points, we encountered a preoccupation with the ways in which labour, and its relation to infrastructure, is frequently invisible. This is yet another area of potential discussion. How are different forms of infrastructural labour made invisible? What does being made invisible tell us about different infrastructural projects and processes? What kinds of hierarchies might be built, sustained, or subverted when labour is obfuscated or hidden? How do gender, race, caste, and class intersect with the question of infrastructure labour, and livelihoods?

Next steps

Using this session as a starting point, participants are now looking for ways to carry this conversation forward, and consider some of these questions in further depth. We are looking to create subsequent forums and opportunities for scholars interested in infrastructural labour and livelihoods to discuss ideas, work together, and develop this area of scholarship further. If you are interested in joining this conversation, sharing ideas and information with session participants, or have recommendations of other groups or scholars to approach, please get in touch with us:

Kathleen Stokes – @KathleenStokes, or kathleen(dot)stokes(at)manchester(dot)ac(dot)uk

Alejandro De Coss – @AlexDeCoss, or j(dot)de(hyphen)coss(hyphen)corzo(at)lse(dot)uk