Posted by: wegamind | October 19, 2011

Post P&P – Migrant Labour

Moderator Blog Post by: Jennifer Lee Johnson

Both papers discussed in this panel examined the daily temporalities and yearly seasonalities generated through and by migrant labor regimes and human and non-human migrant laborers in islands contexts.  The movements, meanings and materialities generated through the circulation of workers and ideas about how best to organize workscapes provided by our authors and their texts generated a lively discussion around the ability of ‘traditional’ historical methods and creative narrative forms to provide more satisfying accounts of particular events and phenomena.

We began with Gregory Rosenthal’s piece “Life and Labor in a Seabird Colony: Hawaiian Guano Workers, 1857-1870.”  Gregory’s piece playfully seeks to speak for birds and men who together co-created islands environs of guano work in the mid-late 19th century in the equatorial central pacific ocean.  Despite the difficulties inherent in providing credible accounts of avian and native Hawaiian subalterns alike, Gregory’s history ‘from the mounds’ (of shit), encouraged participants to consider how birds, entrepreneurs and laborers both influenced and were influenced by shifting temporalities, seasons and representations of their work in media sources.   Here, native Hawaiian conceptions of bodily well-being and the suitability of guano work and working conditions first seemed to resonate well with life on these small islands – or at least guano workers sought to depict that they were very capable of maintaining well-being in these new locales to their contemporaries back home.  Soon after, however, the demand for guano under mercantilist capitalism quickly undermined the suitability of guano work, and life on these small islands in general for young men who labored with birds in the absence of sufficient nutrition, leisure and control over working conditions.  Tough, as we know from contemporary efforts to preserve these ‘pristine’ islands of feces, the work of these men has long been forgotten.

Next up, Naomi Alisa Clanitsky’s shared her paper, “Locating Seasonal Migrant Cultural Formations in Central Otago.” Naomi’s piece examined the contemporary ambitions of a small group of seasonally migrant men from Vanuatu, as they worked in the fruit orchards of Southern New Zealand, and worked through music to maintain connections to home (and each other), while forging new connections to New Zealand citizens.  Linking contemporary migration patterns to broader historical demands and flows of labor, Naomi reminds us that the legacies of colonialism continue to be inflected in contemporary migratory labor regimes – though the people, places and literal fruits of labor may have shifted.  Central to Naomi’s analysis of the oral career histories from a small group of these migrant men is the seasonal nature of the labor regime that circumscribes their work, where several month contracts ensure that migrant workers are able to satisfy heightened labor demands at harvest time in New Zealand, but unable to make claims to New Zealand citizenship.

Interestingly, both papers provide glimpses of the (perhaps) timeless temporality of an individual’s own seasonal transformation from youth to adult – and the needs of migrant workers to be able to return home as productive and moral members of society.  Migrant workers on guano islands provided accounts of their varied their ambitions, successes and challenges (through their harvesting of accumulated guano) in vernacular newspapers, just as Vanuatu’s migrant men provided similar accounts their oral history testimonies (both spoken, and sung).  Both pieces provide an opportunity to give voice to this (probably) universal transformation that helps explain why young men (in both cases) might travel so far from the comforts of home to work with birds, fruit trees, and variously oppressive labor regimes in hopes of bringing more comfort back home.   Both too are good to think with about the less obvious, but maybe no less influential demands that those who do not migrate may place on workers across the various seasons and times of one’s life – and how one’s seasonal absence and return may also shape and be shaped by social and environmental transformations far from worksites, but very close to home.


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