Putting-out’s return

Informalization and differential subsumption in Thailand’s garment sector

in Focaal
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Abstract

This article engages Karl Marx’s account of labor’s historical subsumption to capital through an analysis of informalization in Thailand’s garment sector. In a historicist reading of Marx, the transition from formal to real subsumption, as in the shift from home-based putting-out work to factory-based wage labor, is unidirectional. The late twentieth-century proliferation of forms of labor that are but “formally subsumed” to capital challenges this linear narrative. Informalization in Thailand’s garment sector has entailed a shift from the real subsumption of factory-based wage labor to forms of home-based putting-out work subsumed “merely formally” to capital. Consequently, a nonhistoricist reading of Marx’s subsumption analytic remains relevant for understanding tensions within contemporary forms of putting-out work. Attention, as well, to the role of class struggle in mediating capitalist development reveals consistent logics in putting-out’s historical decline and its contemporary resurgence.

Sitting on the wood floor of her porch with legs crossed, Ma Phyu leaned over a pair of dark green trousers she had grabbed from among others that sat in a pile beside her.1 Between the thumb and index finger of her left hand, she pinched and pulled taut a loose thread extending from a stitch along the waistline. Then, using small, one-piece sewing scissors, she snipped the thread close to the seam. This was a motion she would repeat hundreds of times today; on other days she would reach the thousands.

The trousers in Ma Phyu’s hands, and in the pile on her floor, were part of a larger order that was being cut and sewn at a small “home factory” near where she lived, as well as at a handful of other similar factories in the area. For trimming the excess thread left trailing from the seams of one pair of trousers, Ma Phyu would be paid one baht. In this way, she had, under the current order of trousers, been earning a daily wage of between US $1.00 and $3.00, depending on the number of units delivered to her home on a given day.2 When I visited Ma Phyu on this Sunday afternoon, her two eldest children, aged 12 and 14, had not yet sat down to join her in this work. They would, however, do so shortly, as they did most Saturdays and Sundays, as well as during the week after returning home from the local migrant school they attended.

Ma Phyu’s home, along with the factory where the trousers were sewn, was located in a largely agricultural area outside Mae Sot, an industrial zone on the Myanmar border in northwest Thailand. Ma Phyu’s husband, a Myanmar migrant like herself, was employed as a seasonal agricultural laborer—most recently being paid a day rate to spray pesticides on corn fields near their home.

This trimming of threads in which Ma Phyu was engaged, along with thousands of other migrants in the Mae Sot area, is one of several local forms of paid labor known in Burmese as apyin alote (outside work). In English, this type of labor arrangement is commonly known as the putting-out system. Among Myanmar migrants in Mae Sot, this work is considered “outside” because, despite being a stage of industrial garment manufacture, its locus of work—typically a migrant’s home—is external to the factory wherein the other stages of production are carried out. Sewn garments are “put out” for finishing—here thread trimming—to the homes of migrants living around the factory.

When properly historicized, Ma Phyu’s labor of trimming loose threads off a pair of trousers gains analytical significance for theorizing contemporary changes in global capitalism. Before the latter half of the 1990s, putting-out work was not employed to any significant degree in Thailand’s garment sector. The reasons for the subsequent change in production practices are something I deal with at length in this article.

When the scale of historical comparison is extended further, the expansion of putting-out work in Thailand’s garment sector raises a number of additional questions pertinent to the analysis of capitalist development. These arise from Karl Marx’s use of the rise and decline of the putting-out system in England’s early modern textile industry to analyze the historical emergence of industrial capitalism and to mark the shift from the “merely formal” to “real” subsumption of labor under capital. Operating under conditions of formal, but not yet real subsumption, the putting-out system of England’s early modern textile industry did not yet entail, Marx ([1867] 1976: 1021) argued, a fully realized capitalist mode of production. The full realization of the capitalist mode of production would have to wait until the formally subsumed putting-out system of home-based production gave way to the really subsumed system of factory-based wage labor. One way to read Marx here would be see this shift in forms of subsumption as historically unidirectional.

What then to make of the late twentieth-century proliferation of putting-out work, not just in Thailand but at many sites of industrial production around the world? What distinctions might usefully be made between the putting-out system employed in England’s textile industry from the fifteenth to the mid-nineteenth century, and the putting-out arrangements currently used in the garment and textile industries of the contemporary global South? Does the present return of putting-out work signal a transition from real back to “merely formal” subsumption? And how might a theoretical understanding of forms of subsumption aid in conceptualizing contemporary processes of labor informalization?

In the present article, I engage these questions through an analysis of putting-out work among Myanmar migrants employed in the garment sector at the Mae Sot industrial zone, where I conducted 20 months of fieldwork between 2011 and 2013. In theorizing the place of putting-out work in contemporary capitalist development, I wish to highlight two aspects of putting-out’s recent expansion in Thailand. First, putting-out in Mae Sot exemplifies capitalism’s contemporary heterogeneity—a heterogeneity that incorporates various relations of exploitation outside of formal wage labor. This is a heterogeneity whose significance has been previously highlighted in feminist (Charusheela 2010; Gibson-Graham 1996; Tsing 2009) and postcolonial (Chakrabarty 2000; Mezzadra 2011; Sanyal 2007; Spivak 2014) critiques of singular and homogenizing narratives of capitalist development. Second, the return of putting-out work in Thailand’s garment sector can be read as a capitalist response to the gains achieved by Thai and Myanmar workers in prior labor struggles and to the ongoing threat of such struggles in the present. My analysis here follows a methodology derived from Italian operaismo (workerism), wherein the catalysts of capitalist development are sought within antecedent and ongoing working-class struggles.

Combined, these two aspects of putting-out’s contemporary expansion in Thailand highlight the place of class struggle in the dynamics of capitalism’s perpetually unfolding heterogeneity, the present trajectories of which are now commonly understood as processes of informalization. This observation lends itself to an appreciation of developmental parallels, rather than contradictory logics, between putting-out’s decline in early modern England and its resurgence in late twentieth-century global industrial production.

The rise and decline of putting-out work in early modern England

By the fifteenth century, the “great days” of England’s independent craft guilds had come to an end (Braudel 1982: 315). Though influential guilds of weavers and other textile trades persisted, they were soon eclipsed by merchant capitalists procuring cheaper, semifinished wares from independent peasant producers. Unlike guilds, peasants whose textile production was limited to seasonal cottage industry were able to keep production costs down by employing unpaid family labor, engaging in longer work hours despite decreasing marginal returns (self-exploitation), and subsidizing household consumption with domestically produced agriculture. Initially acting as “buyer-uppers” of peasant textiles, the growing trend was for merchants to “put out” raw materials to peasant producers and assign them tasks of “minute specialization” in the production process, thereby realizing greater profits as coordinators of a new division of labor (Marglin 1974: 70). In this manner, the putting-out system came to dominate England’s textile industry from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century the putting-out system had “virtually disappeared” in Great Britain (97).

The decline of England’s putting-out system and the shift to mechanized factory production was a process that began in the latter half of the eighteenth century. And it was this shift, with specific reference to England’s textile industry, that Marx ([1867] 1976) drew on to analyze the historical emergence of the capitalist mode of production—an analysis laid out in his post-humously published “Results of the Immediate Process of Production.” As Marx framed it, the transition from independent peasant production to the putting-out system to factory production entailed a progressive subsumption of labor to capital—formal at first, and then real.

Peasant labor, explained Marx ([1867] 1976: 1020), became formally subsumed to capital as the peasant producer—formerly free to sell her wares on the market—became dependent on the merchant putter-outer for her income, which she now obtained through the sale of her labor power. This subsumption was “merely formal” because the merchant capitalist did not yet intervene to alter the production process—through mechanization, for example. Instead, with formal subsumption, “capital subsumes the labor process as it finds it, that is to say, it takes over an existing labor process, developed by different and more archaic modes of production” (1021). It was for this reason—the continuation of handicraft production methods—that merchant capitalists as putter-outers could realize profit only as absolute surplus value and thus could only obtain increased profits through an extension of hours worked.

It was only when the site of production shifted from the home to the factory, and ownership of the means of production from the peasant to the capitalist, that the subsumption of labor to capital became real. With the concentration of workers under a single roof, no longer possessing means of production, and laboring under direct managerial supervision, the capitalist employer was able to directly intervene in the production process, introducing mechanization and further subdividing the labor process. In this way, the (now industrial, formerly merchant) capitalist was able to raise the rate of profit by increasing relative surplus value through technological change—moving, for example, from hand looms to power looms. For Marx, then, the progression of forms of subsumption, entailing a shift from absolute to relative surplus value, was motivated by the capitalist’s drive for increased accumulation ([1867] 1976: 1037–1038).

Among the obstacles to greater capital accumulation under the putting-out system, which the factory system was meant to overcome, was the persistent “indiscipline” of peasant producers—their “drunkenness, embezzlement of yarn and so on,” as E. P. Thompson (1963: 358) put it. The putting-out system, with its (albeit limited) element of worker control, had since its inception been beset by pilfering of materials and erratic pace, as peasants who supported their consumption with domestic agriculture tended to take on supplemental putting-out work inconsistently. In this context, the factory system, Stephen Marglin (1974: 94) has argued, was a tactic aimed at putting an end to “dishonesty” and “laziness” in the workforce. It is thus in the struggle over workers’ “indiscipline” that Marglin locates a key dynamic pushing forward England’s shift to factory production. Targeting increased rates of profit, merchant capitalists developed the factory system as means to assert greater control over the workforce, becoming industrial capitalists in the process.

The late twentieth-century return of putting-out work

If such were the advantages (to capitalists) of the factory system over putting-out work, it raises the question of why there has been such a global proliferation of putting-out work since the late twentieth century. Why have capitalist employers, such as those operating in Thailand’s garment sector, come to see putting-out as advantageous over factory employment, with the latter’s greater potential for direct supervision over workers and direct control over the labor process? For Thailand, at least, the answer lies, I suggest, in the achievements the country’s workers made in antecedent labor struggles.

During the period of rapid expansion in Thailand’s garment sector, from the mid-1980s to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the industry initially made little use of putting-out work. Anthropologists who conducted fieldwork in the garment sector at this time—specifically, Mary Beth Mills (1999a) and Piya Pangsapa (2007)—made no mention of the practice. That putting-out work was little employed in this sector throughout most of the precrisis period is supported by a study of garment and weaving industries in northern Thailand, included in a 1998 World Bank publication on rural development in East Asia. Akihiko Ohno and Benja Jirapatpimol, who co-authored the publication’s Thailand case study, noted that, as of the mid-1990s, the “large garment factories of Thailand have recently begun to move gradually toward reliance on putting out part or all of the production process to small workshops in villages.” Hypothesizing the reasons for this expansion of putting-out work, Ohno and Jirapatpimol argued that in Thailand’s garment sector, putting-out provided “a device for [garment firms] to overcome difficulties in labor management” (1998: 136). Clarifying what they meant by such “difficulties,” Ohno and Jirapatpimol explained that “although the creation of a disciplined workforce is imperative for successful factory management, newly recruited workers from traditional societies offer tenacious resistance to factory organization … this leads to counterproductive behavior among workers, such as high turnover, absenteeism, lack of work discipline, and low morale” (135).

It was in this context of workers’ “counterproductive behavior” that the “informal” methods of labor control made possible by the putting-out system had advantages over the “formal” methods enforced at large, legally registered factories (135). Among the advantageous methods of “informal” labor control made possible by the putting-out system was the ease with which workers could be dismissed. According to the manager of a large, Chiang Mai-based garment factory interviewed by Ohno and Jirapatpimol, putting-out enabled his firm to reduce costs associated with labor management. Specifically, the manager stated that “in modern factories, labor protection laws make dismissals difficult. The factory can achieve greater flexibility by dividing its workforce into core and peripheral groups. The rural [putting-out] industries are useful as buffers that absorb fluctuations” (143).

Such an expansion of flexible employment practices as means to bypass profit-eroding labor laws is neither surprising nor unique to Thailand. The question remains, however, of why “difficulties in labor management” and employment inflexibility had become a such a concern for Thai garment factory employers at this specific moment—in the years leading up the 1997 crisis.

Ohno and Jirapatpimol conducted their research at the tail end of Thailand’s decade of unprecedented economic growth from 1987 to 1996, which ceased only with the onset of the 1997 crisis. It was during these boom years that garment and textile manufacturing grew to become the country’s largest export sector. The industry was at this time concentrated at factories in Bangkok and other central Thai provinces, with workers overwhelmingly women from the country’s poorer northeast region. In line with a broader trend of union expansion in Thailand, garment and textile workers established 28 new unions during the ten years of economic growth leading up to 1997 (Thai Labor Database n.d.). The institutional framework delimiting workers’ formal organizing at this time was set by Thailand’s 1975 Labor Relations Act, a legal document promulgated to contain the widespread industrial unrest that had erupted following the country’s 1973 popular uprising (Brown 2004: 95). While the law continued to channel workers’ struggles into restrictive bureaucratic procedures, Thai garment workers became increasingly emboldened from the late 1980s onward to employ the law to press their claims (Mills 1999b: 177). As labor struggles across manufacturing sectors were carried out within a constricting labor market, the broader Thai workforce was able to achieve an 8 percent annual increase in real wages from 1990 through to 1996 (Pasuk and Baker 1998: 96).

Against this historical backdrop of labor organizing and wage increases in Thailand’s garment sector, the timing of employers’ push for greater employment flexibility begins to make sense. Employment flexibilization in Thailand began during the country’s 1987–1996 boom years but rapidly intensified following the 1997 crisis (Hewison and Woradul 2013). Within the garment industry, postcrisis flexibilization measures included mass layoffs of Thai women workers—effectively dissolving many fledgling unions; a widespread shift from day-rate to piece-rate wages; a relocation of capital from central Thailand to less regulated border provinces (Piya 2007: 130–166); increased employment of foreign migrants, whose non-Thai citizenship rendered them legally prohibited from establishing unions; and an expanded use of putting-out work. In the context of postcrisis Thailand, this flexibilization shift was “not just a strategy to reduce costs,” argue Kevin Hewison and Woradul Tularak (2013: 462), “but a powerful means to limit the capacity of workers to collectively organize to improve their conditions.” The result was a significant decline in union density, bringing this figure down to the current rate of less than 4 percent of the country’s total workforce (Deyo 2012: 143).

This flexibilization of labor in Thailand’s garment sector, of which putting-out is a part, is comparable to other late twentieth-century shifts in employment relations implemented elsewhere—shifts that, though varied, have come to be understood within a common rubric of neoliberalization. In North Atlantic contexts, David Harvey (1989: 147) sees the flexibilization of labor as a capitalist response to the “rigidities” that characterized the earlier Fordist labor-management compact. In countries of the global South, flexibilization has in various ways worked against the relatively protected status of formal workers under the paternalism of postcolonial development states. Hence, as an outcome of late twentieth-century labor flexibilization, employment and livelihood insecurity among migrant garment workers in Mae Sot parallels global patterns of growing socio-economic precarity (Campbell 2016).

At present, the putting-out system is by no means unique to Thailand. Across the global North and South, practices of putting-out work have been introduced into a range of industries. These include shoe manufacturing in rural Spain (Smith and Narotzky 2006); circuit board assembly in Silicon Valley (Ong 2003: 263); textile, automobile, and electronics manufacturing in Japan (Itoh and Tanimoto 1998: 63–66); and lace making in Andhra Pradesh (Mies 1982). In Asian contexts, the expansion of putting-out work has overwhelmingly employed women in home-based production as part of labor-market flexibilization, whereby “fringe benefits formerly enjoyed by fixed-wage workers are taken away” (Custers 2012: 196).

Central to my analysis of putting-out’s expansion in Thailand’s garment sector, beyond its temporal locus within the country’s flexibilization shift, is the extent to which the practice emerged as a capitalist response to the gains achieved by Thai garment workers in the years leading up to the 1997 crisis. This particular historicization allows us to see the primacy of workers’ struggles in catalyzing transformations in capitalist development. This line of analysis emerges from a methodology derived from Italian operaismo, wherein the maneuvers of capital are read as reactions to the threats to accumulation and managerial prerogative posed by working-class struggle. Mario Tronti (1964) laid this out as follows:

We too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. At the level of socially developed capital, capitalist development becomes subordinated to working-class struggles; it follows behind them, and they set the pace to which the political mechanisms of capital’s own reproduction must be tuned.

It was, then, the gains made by Thai garment workers (in unionized job security, improvements in working conditions, and wage increases) that motivated the flexibilization measures imposed by Thai garment firms. Putting-out’s expansion in Thailand needs to be seen in this light. Indeed, informalization, in Thailand as elsewhere, only makes sense against a prior movement of formalization—an expansion, that is, of legal labor protections. Such regulatory formalization is itself a reaction (often recuperatively so) by government agents facing situations of intensifying labor unrest.

Dynamics of putting-out work in Mae Sot

Alongside his regular employment in the packing department of the K2 garment factory, Ko Zaw held additional responsibilities delivering garments for thread trimming to migrants living in the factory’s adjacent, or occasionally more distant, neighborhoods. As Ko Zaw explained it to me, the manager of K2 would hire some 15 to 30 apyin (outside) workers on an ad hoc basis to do this trimming work. These “outside” workers supplemented the 130 or so migrants employed within K2, who lived in the factory’s onsite dormitory.

For those outside workers residing close enough, Ko Zaw would simply strap bundled garments onto the rear rack of a factory bicycle and peddle them out for delivery to the small cement row houses wherein most of these migrants resided. Where the number of available migrants in the adjacent neighborhoods was insufficient, Ko Zaw would load bundled garments onto a factory truck and accompany the Chinese factory manager to deliver the garments to other, more distant migrant households, from where they would be retrieved later that day, or early the next. In this way, when orders were large, the manager would hire 30 or so migrants for trimming work, but when orders were smaller the manager would hire as few as 15. And if there was only a very small quantity of garments needing trimming, such work would be done by the “QC” (quality control) employed inside the factory. Due to this ad hoc character, migrants commonly referred to putting-out work as kyaban alote (casual work), with all the implications of uncertain, inconsistent employment that this term carries in English.

Employment relations between outside workers and the factory employer were, Ko Zaw explained, taya mawin (informal). For new hires, migrants who had previously done this work would recommend to the manager (through Ko Zaw) their friends and family members who were interested in acquiring such employment. The informal and ad hoc employment arrangements in use at K2—as at all Mae Sot factories employing putting-out work—gave the employer flexibility to adjust workforce numbers in response to changing production orders, which were always unstable. There was no commitment to long-term employment for outside workers—but then, neither was there, in practice, any such commitment for those employed in-house. The latter group did have a legal right (under section 118 of Thailand’s 1998 Labor Protection Act) to severance in cases of dismissal, but this was only infrequently obtained by Mae Sot-based migrants—typically with legal aid from migrant support organizations. Putting-out work in Mae Sot is thus informal in the sense that it lies de jure outside the parameters of legal employment protections, including Thailand’s national minimum wage. But so too, for the largely undocumented migrant workforce laboring within factories, employment is also largely informal, if only de facto, due to scant enforcement of labor laws and barriers to accessing effective legal redress. Tellingly, migrants employed within factories fail, near ubiquitously, to obtain the legal minimum in wages and working conditions; in 2013, day rates well below half the 300 baht per day minimum wage were typical. Hence, when migrant factory workers in Mae Sot make collective legal claims for legislated employment protections, they are in effect seeking to escape their de facto informal legal status, so as to realize their de jure formal status.

By far the most common form of putting-out work employed by Mae Sot factories has been the trimming of loose threads, as a finishing stage in garment manufacture. There are, however, other forms of putting-out work used in Mae Sot, some of which are employed by the small minority of factories not engaged in garment production. Tasks include stuffing toy animals with soft, bean-like filler, then stitching the items closed; inserting pieces of foam into motorcycle helmet liners, then sealing the liners shut; and stitching sequins or embroidering simple designs onto otherwise finished garments. Embroidery is not common, however, as a form of putting-out work. The reason for this, I was told, is the higher level of skill/experience required for the work. Thread trimming, by contrast, is deemed exceedingly simple. Indeed, Ma Phyu laughed at me when I asked her if the supervisor who had hired her for her very first putting-out job had taught her how to trim garments. “No one taught me,” she replied, “I just trimmed [the garments] on my own.”

The relatively low skill level required for most putting-out work in Mae Sot suits the fact that none of those I met doing this work had—with the exception of some women doing embroidery—any prior experience of garment manufacture, thread trimming or otherwise. Rather than incorporating “an existing labor process, developed by different and more archaic modes of production” (Marx [867] 1976: 1021), the tasks for which putting-out has been employed in Mae Sot have had to be newly introduced into home-based production. Yet like the developed putting-out system in early modern England, putting-out work in Mae Sot has been similarly restricted to tasks of “minute specialization” in the production process. It is this characteristic of task specialization that distinguishes putting-out work from subcontracting. For unlike a firm subcontracted for the production of finished products—as many factories in Mae Sot, in fact, are—an individual engaged in putting-out work “only constitutes a small link in an external production chain” (Lazerson 1995: 37).

The only tools needed for the specialized task of thread trimming are a pair of small, one-piece sewing scissors, which are available for sale at markets throughout Mae Sot. In rare cases, managers will temporarily lend these items out to the outside trimmers in their employ. More commonly, those engaged in thread trimming will purchase their own scissors at the nearest market for a cost of 10 to 20 baht (US $0.30 to $0.60) per pair, depending on the quality of the instrument.

It is the technical simplicity of thread trimming, and the low cost of requisite tools, that makes it possible for children to carry out this work alongside their parents—a practice quite common in Mae Sot, where migrant families often reside together. Ko Zaw remarked that during his many deliveries to migrant households he had often observed children aged 12 to 14 engaged in such labor. Ko Zaw was adamant that factory employers knew full well that children were trimming threads alongside their parents. While Ma Phyu told me her own children trimmed with her only outside of school hours, she knew of other migrant children aged 13 or 14 who no longer attended school and instead spent their days trimming at home with their mothers. According to Ma Nyo, factory managers disapproved of children younger than 12 doing this work, as very young children risked puncturing or otherwise damaging the garments. But since managers did not remain to directly supervise the labor process, they were unable to ensure such guidelines were followed. In lieu, then, of the regulatory function of direct supervision, employers would in some cases demand compensation for damaged garments or simply withhold payment for an entire batch, even if only a few items were ruined.

At the time Ko Zaw was engaged in delivery work, the outside workers for the K2 factory were being paid 30 baht per 100 units of completed garments, with cash payments made immediately on collection of the finished garments. Since K2’s outside workers often completed 200 to 300 units per day, they could expect, depending on their speed and the amount of time spent trimming, a daily wage between 60 and 90 baht (US $2.00 to $3.00). Those engaged in this work with whom I spoke were clear-eyed about the insufficiency of their wages for supporting themselves and their families. “Of course, it’s not enough,” acknowledged Ma Nyo, “It’s not enough, but I don’t have [other options], so I have to do it.”

Trimming’s technical simplicity, its low remuneration, its locus of work at migrants’ homes, and the control it allows migrants over the time and pace of the labor process, are all important factors shaping the demographics of those who take on this work. Pointing to the overdeter-mined character of the resulting employment demographics, Ko Zaw remarked:

This work [pays] little money. Many of the people who do trimming are those who can’t do heavy-duty work, like children and the elderly … People who can work will go out and work for more money. Mostly people who don’t have jobs and stay at home do trimming … Children, of course, children do a lot of trimming. Some children aged 13 or 14 help their parents. Some old people, some people aged 60 or 70 do trimming. They trim with their glasses on. They turn on a fluorescent light and trim at night.

Given its low remuneration, putting-out work has often been treated as supplemental, rather than central, to household incomes (Mies 2015: 219). Among migrants in Mae Sot, thread trimming is, indeed, often done by women caring for young children, who view their income as supplementing the larger daily wages their husbands obtain from (typically) agriculture or construction work. In such situations, putting-out work is one of the few options for women to gain an income within gendered expectations that they (rather than male partners) will remain at home to care for children, and complete other household tasks like cooking and cleaning—performing, thereby, “traditional” roles for Burmese women as wives and mothers (Tharaphi Than 2013). The gendered logic and low wages of this arrangement persist, however, even when the women employed have no additional income from a male breadwinner on which to rely. The widow Daw Suu, for instance, was unable to support herself on the meager remuneration she received from thread trimming and had to supplement this income by taking on part-time domestic work for a local Thai family. In the case of Ma Ni, it was she who had to financially support her husband, who had been unable to obtain employment since losing his leg in a workplace accident.

Whatever the marital status of the women involved, putting-out work in Mae Sot remains highly gendered. Ma Ni, who had trimmed threads for two different factories, estimated that for every 100 putting-out workers, 99 were women. The frequency of women in this ratio is notably higher than among workers employed in-house at Mae Sot factories, where—still heavily gendered—only about 68 percent are women, according to a survey of 15 factories I conducted in 2013. Garment production in Mae Sot, as elsewhere, is thus dependent on gendered relations of kin—between husbands and wives, and children and parents.

With remuneration low and work inconsistent, relative to in-house employment, advantages migrant thread trimmers have ascribed to putting-out work pertain most often to the freedom it affords from factory discipline—the flexibility to set the hours and pace of work and the absence of managerial supervision. “If sometimes you want to sleep,” explained Ma Nyo, “you can just lie down and go to sleep. In the factory, you can’t do that.” Indeed, when I stopped by Daw Htay’s home to inquire about her experience with putting-out work, I found her reclining atop a large pile of trousers she had recently been trimming, enjoying for the moment the satisfaction of an afternoon nap.

This valuing of autonomy from managerial oversight is a trend that has been noted in other cases of flexible and precarious work (Millar 2014). In Mae Sot, it is an important factor that has impeded the occasional attempts by managers to bring thread trimming back within factory walls and back under direct managerial supervision. The manager of the Apex garment factory, for instance, offered Ma Ni full time employment trimming threads inside the factory after she had demonstrated her capacity to do this work in its putting-out form. Once inside, however, the manager expected Ma Ni to follow the factory’s strict work regime. She lasted a month and then quit, despite the relative employment stability that working in-house provided. When I asked her to elaborate on her different experiences working inside and outside the factory, Ma Ni put it like this:

Outside [the factory] you work the amount you want to work. You trim as much as you can trim. If you can’t trim [anymore], then you can go to sleep. It’s no problem. But inside the factory, he [the manager] decides. If it’s meal time, then ‘dong’ [the clock bell rings] I have to go eat, then ‘dong’ I go back inside, then ‘dong’ I go back outside. His [the manager’s] clock drives you.

Ma Ni’s remarks recall the disdain many eighteenth-century English workers felt toward the rigid work discipline they encountered on entering the first factories of the Industrial Revolution (Thompson 1967). In the case of Ma Ni, moreover, this disdain was an affective manifestation of the tensions that persist where employers have attempted to reincorporate outside workers into factory production.

What sort of labor relations are these?

For Marx ([1867] 1976: 1021), a “takeover by capital” of handicraft production in peasant cottage industry (as in the putting-out system) did not in itself establish a “specifically capitalist mode of production.” The reason for this is that the capitalist as manager did not yet intervene directly to restructure the labor process—a step (to be taken under mechanized factory production) that is necessary to move from the extraction of absolute to relative surplus value. The putting-out worker thus retains some control over the labor process—specifically, over “when and how much” to exert herself (Marglin 1974: 81)—despite her dependence on the capitalist putter-outer for her wage. It is due to this (albeit slight) retention of control by the artisan over her labor that Erik Olin Wright (1977: 80–81) argued such workers occupy a “contradictory class location,” somewhere between petty bourgeoisie and proletarian, while “still being employed by capital as wage labourers.”

Taking the “not quite proletarian” side of this argument further, the more celebratory accounts of labor informalization have presented informal work as synonymous with self-employment, and as “a relatively desirable entrepreneurial sector” (Maloney 2003: 66). Such portrayals, however, are grossly misleading, as Jan Breman (2013: 30–32) has previously argued. For not only does the informal economy encompass casual, in-house wage labor, but even those hired outside the workplace, like Mae Sot’s thread trimmers, often remain dependent on the sale of their labor power to a single employer. While they may be free of direct managerial oversight, such workers are not without a boss. To the extent that contemporary forms of informal labor hired outside the workplace differ from “classic” in-house wage labor, this difference remains solely in their formal relations as labor to capital—the effect being “disguised” wage labor (Bhattacharya 2014).

If putting-out workers diverge from “classic” wage laborers in any significant respects, unpaid children trimming threads for their parents diverge even further. Laboring in this way, children find themselves employed without wages within kin-based relations of exploitation. This is not, however, a “kin-ordered mode of production” (Wolf 1982: 88), but a capitalist one. Children’s labor here remains subsumed—if only formally—to capitalist enterprises compelled by the market to extract surplus value.

A crucial distinction needs to be noted here between the two uses of “mode of production” in Marx. As Jairus Banaji (2010: 349–350) has made clear, Marx employed the term “mode of production” in reference both to particular ways of organizing the labor process (such as industrial wage labor) and to “epochs in the social development of society.” It is the former usage that Marx had in mind when he described labor that is but formally subsumed to capital as not “specifically” a capitalist mode of production. In the latter usage, the capitalist mode of production as an epoch is understood in terms of generalized market compulsions to accumulate capital through the extraction of surplus value, irrespective of the forms of labor through which this is done—wage labor, indentured servitude, slavery, or what have you. In Mae Sot, both waged, home-based putting-out work and unwaged, kin-based forms of exploitation are subsumed in this way to capitalist production, whatever their dissimilarities to formal employment.

Mae Sot, of course, is not early modern England. And whereas the historical English context saw precapitalist peasant handicraft taken over by merchant capital, putting-out work in Mae Sot has been introduced by industrial capitalists into an already proletarianized migrant population. Migrant thread trimmers in Mae Sot retain no agricultural land on which to supplement their livelihoods, and the tasks for which they are employed have been determined in advance by an already industrialized division of labor. Yet like putting-out work in early modern England, thread trimming in Mae Sot is similarly employed without direct managerial oversight; in a network of decentralized production; using a simple, unmechanized labor process; with unwaged child labor widely incorporated.

As a consequence of its (unmechanized, not directly managed) labor process—subsumed “merely formally” to capital—any significant increase in absolute surplus value from the putting-out stage of garment manufacture in Mae Sot can be realized only through an extension of hours worked, or a crude intensification of the labor process. This situation differs from garment factories elsewhere, where more mechanized manufacturing processes are employed, with productivity (and relative surplus value) raised using (among other instruments) automatic under-bed thread trimming machines (McLoughlin and Mitchell 2013: 128).

Putting-out’s expansion in Thailand’s garment sector is a facet of labor’s informalization in the country. Where this informalization involves a shift to merely formal subsumption, it challenges a historicist narrative that might otherwise be read in Marx. Instead of a sequential displacement of formal by real subsumption, the trajectories of labor informalization in Thailand illustrate a more heterogeneous unfolding of contemporary capitalism. It is within this heterogeneous unfolding that we see how capitalism remains structured by a variable “coexistence of formal and real subsumption” (Mezzadra 2011: 314). In this respect, what the case of Thailand’s garment sector reveals is that this unfolding of contemporary capitalism—these multiple unfoldings—are, in fact, capitalist responses to prior and ongoing working-class struggles.

That said, under formal subsumption, limited to the extraction of absolute surplus value, capitalists can raise surplus value only by increasing hours worked or intensifying the pace of the labor process. For putting-out workers like Ma Ni, however, control over the time and pace of work are the most valued aspects of the putting-out arrangement. For this reason, despite the advantages of flexibility that putting-out provides garment factory employers, there persists a tension in this arrangement with employers’ drives to increase surplus value. We therefore see, in cases like Ma Ni’s, employers attempting to reincorporate thread trimming back into the more regimented labor regime of factory production, while still benefiting from the largely de facto informal character of undocumented migrant labor in Mae Sot.

Formal subsumption as a postcolonial argument

In establishing a conceptual narrative of capitalist development, Marx drew heavily on observations of Manchester industrial workers, and of English industrialization more generally. From this rather particular historical experience, Marx saw capitalist development proceeding through industrialization, with the peasantry “freed” of means of production and “free” to sell their labor power to the employer of their choice (Marx [1867] 1976: 278).

A relic, then, of rather limited Western European provenance, this narrative was subsequently exported by analysts with eyes trained elsewhere—notably to the colonial (and then postcolonial) countries of Asia and Africa (Linden (2008: 1–9). The expectation was that the peasantries of these countries would give way to (iconically male) industrial wage workers well positioned to establish unions, bargain collectively over their working conditions, and formalize their rights as employees under protective legislation. These, at least, were assumptions informing the modernization agendas of numerous postcolonial development states (Breman (2013: 16–17).

As the development of postcolonial capitalism proceeded, however, theories of capitalism’s universalizing and homogenizing effects were found wanting. Notably, forms of exploitation outside of formal wage relations—in petty commodity production, for instance—were seen to persist or even expand. Where such labor has been but formally subsumed to capital, it has challenged a linear narrative of progressive subsumption. Attention to forms of informal and, at times, unwaged labor has, in turn, informed important postcolonial critiques of singular and homogenizing narratives of capitalist development (Sanyal 2007).

Alternatively, a nonhistoricist reading of Marx—as, indeed, many later Marxist labor historians have advocated (for example, Chakrabarty 2000)—avoids projecting Western European capitalist history over the diverse histories of capital in the global South. For a history so projected gets rendered as global, subsuming, as it expands, the decolonized world—the latter condemned to repeat, but lag perpetually behind, the history of capital in the global North. With the contemporary proliferation of forms of labor whose subsumption to capital is but formal, it can no longer be presumed, if ever it could, “that ‘real’ capitalism means ‘real’ subsumption” (Chakrabarty (2000: 49–50). If anything, we are seeing a contemporary expansion in the global North of patterns of informal labor so long characteristic of the South.

What needs to be added to the postcolonial analysis of capitalist heterogeneity outlined here is the extent to which capitalism’s perpetual unfolding is mediated by class struggle and catalyzed in particular by working-class struggles, broadly defined. This mediating role of class struggle in capitalist development undermines all possibility of teleology.

Conclusion

The contemporary expansion of putting-out work, and of merely formally subsumed labor more generally, challenges stagist understandings of differential subsumption. This does not, however, render Marx’s observations on labor’s subsumption to capital defunct. Rather, contemporary dynamics of informalization, where this entails a shift away from labor’s real subsumption to capital in factory production, follow the very logic Marx observed in the shift toward factory production in early modern England. Specifically, capitalist development in both instances is mediated by the push and pull of class struggle.

A nonhistoricist reading of Marx’s analysis of forms of subsumption remains useful, then, in two important ways. First, it highlights the tensions that persist within informal labor, where new employment relations implemented to counter prior working-class gains inhibit employers’ abilities to extract relative surplus value through a mechanization and regimentation of the labor process. In such cases, incentives remain for capitalists to reincorporate this labor back into factory production—thus the persistent instability of informalized putting-out work, which cannot be treated as a closed deal effectively securing capital’s advantage.

Second, the notion of forms of subsumption clarifies how putting-out work, including the unwaged child labor so often incorporated, and other forms of merely formally subsumed labor, remain capitalist is character. This recognition requires a clear understanding of the two uses of mode of production in Marx. Formally subsumed labor is “noncapitalist” only insofar as capitalism is construed as the industrial wage relation. Such labor is capitalist, however, in its subsumption to capitalist enterprises compelled by the market to extract surplus value.

In these ways, Marx’s subsumption analytic retains its purchase for understanding the contradictions in contemporary forms of informalized putting-out work.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the Myanmar migrants who shared their experiences with me and to Winnie Lem, Aaron Kappeler, Soe Lin Aung, and two anonymous reviewers for feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

Notes

1

All names of persons, and some factories, included herein are pseudonyms.

2

The exchange rate at the time of research was approximately 30 Thai baht per US dollar.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Tharaphi Than. 2013. Women in modern Burma. London: Routledge.

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Contributor Notes

Stephen Campbell is a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University. He holds a PhD from the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. Email: stephencampbell@trentu.ca

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • Banaji, Jairus. 2010. Theory as history: Essays on modes of production and exploitation. Leiden: Brill.

  • Bhattacharya, Saumyajit. 2014. Is labour still a relevant category for praxis? Critical reflections on some contemporary discourses on work and labour in capitalism. Development and Change 45(5): 941962.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braudel, Fernand. 1982. Civilization and capitalism, 15th–18th century: The wheels of commerce. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Breman, Jan. 2013. At work in the informal economy of India: A perspective from the bottom up. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

  • Brown, Andrew. 2004. Labour, politics and the state in industrializing Thailand. London: Routledge.

  • Campbell, Stephen. 2016. Everyday recomposition: Precarity and socialization in Thailand’s migrant workforce. American Ethnologist 43(2): 258269.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Post-colonial thought and historical difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Charusheela, S. 2010. Engendering feudalism: Modes of production revisited. Rethinking Marxism 22(3): 438445.

  • Custers, Peter. 2012. Capital accumulation and women’s labor in Asian economies. New York: Monthly Review Press.

  • Deyo, Frederic. 2012. Reforming Asian labor systems: Economic tensions and worker dissent. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Gibson-Graham, J. K. 1996. The end of capitalism (as we knew it): A feminist critique of political economy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Harvey, David. 1989. The condition of postmodernity: An inquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge: Blackwell.

  • Hewison, Kevin, and Woradul Tularak. 2013. Thailand and precarious work: An assessment. American Behavioral Scientist 57(4): 444467.

  • Itoh Motoshige, and Masayuki Tanimoto. 1998. Rural entrepreneurs in the cotton-weaving industry of Japan. In Yujiro Hayami, ed., Toward the rural-based development of commerce and industry: Selected experiences from East Asia, pp. 4768. Washington DC: Economic Development Institute of the World Bank.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lazerson, Mark. 1995. A new phoenix? Modern putting-Out in the Modena knitwear industry. Administrative Science Quarterly 40(1): 3459.

  • Linden, Marcel van der. 2008. Workers of the world: Essays toward a global labor history. Leiden: Brill.

  • Maloney, William. 2003. Informal self-employment: Poverty trap or decent alternative? In Gary Fields and Guy Pfeffermann, eds., Pathways out of poverty: Private firms and economic mobility in developing countries, pp. 6582. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marglin, Stephen. 1974. What do bosses do? The origins and functions of hierarchy in capitalist production. Review of Radical Political Economics 6: 60112.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Marx, Karl. [1867] 1976. Results of the immediate process of production. In Capital, vol. 1, pp. 9431084. London: Penguin Classics.

  • McLoughlin, J., and A. Mitchell. 2013. Mechanisms of sewing machines. In I. Jones and G. K. Stylios, eds., Joining textiles: Principles and applications, pp. 123148. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing Limited.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mezzadra, Sandro. 2011. The topicality of pre-history: A new reading of Marx’s analysis of “so-called primitive accumulation.” Rethinking Marxism 23(3): 302321.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mies, Maria. 1982. The lace makers of Narsapur: Indian housewives produce for the world market. London: Zed Press.

  • Mies, Maria. 2015. Housewifisation—globalisation—subsistence-perspective. In Marcel van der Linden, ed., Beyond Marx: Theorising the global labour relations of the twenty-first century, pp. 209238. Leiden: Brill.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Millar, Kathleen. 2014. The precarious present: Wageless labor and disrupted life in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Cultural Anthropology 29(1): 3253.

  • Mills, Mary Beth. 1999a. Thai women in the global labor force: Consuming desires, contested selves. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mills, Mary Beth. 1999b. Enacting solidarity: Unions and migrant youth in Thailand. Critique of Anthropology 19(2): 175192.

  • Ohno Akihiko, and Benja Jirapatpimol. 1998. The rural garment and weaving industries of northern Thailand. In Yujiro Hayami, ed., Toward the rural-based development of commerce and industry: Selected experiences from East Asia, pp. 131160. Washington DC: Economic Development Institute of the World Bank.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ong, Aihwa. 2003. Buddha is hiding: Refugees, citizenship, the new America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Pasuk Phongpaichit, and Chris Baker. 1998. Thailand’s boom and bust. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books.

  • Piya, Pangsapa. 2007. Textures of struggle: The emergence of resistance among garment workers in Thailand. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sanyal, Kalyan. 2007. Rethinking capitalist development: Primitive accumulation, governmentality, and post-colonial capitalism. New Delhi: Routledge.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smith, Gavin, and Susana Narotzky. 2006. Immediate struggles: People, power, and place in rural Spain. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spivak, Gayatri. 2014. Review: Postcolonial theory and the specter of capital. Cambridge Review of International Affairs 27(1): 184198.

  • Thai Labor Database. n.d. Thai Labor Database. www.thailabordatabase.org/en.

  • Tharaphi Than. 2013. Women in modern Burma. London: Routledge.

  • Thompson, E. P. 1963. The making of the English working class. New York: Vintage Books.

  • Thompson, E. P. 1967. Time, work-discipline, and industrial capitalism. Past and Present 38: 5697.

  • Tronti, Mario. 1964. Lenin in England. Classe Operaia 1. Available at libcom.org/library/lenin-england.

  • Tsing, Anna. 2009. Supply chains and the human condition. Rethinking Marxism 21(2): 148176.

  • Wolf, Eric. 1982. Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Wright, Erik Olin. 1977. Class, crisis and the state. London: New Left Review.

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