`Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose ... from “black-birding” to the Pacific Seasonal Work programs’

Since the nineteenth century, workers have travelled from South Pacific Islands to work in countries bordering the ocean where industrial processes have been dominant. During the same period labourers were transported into countries of the region, including from India and nearby islands to Fiji as plantation workers. At first sight these movements simply represent part of the international mobility of labour which has accompanied the global expansion of capitalism.

However, as this seminar argues, while attention continues to focus on such matters as the manner of labour recruitment, forced or willing, conditions of transportation and employment, and expulsion even deportation once contracts come to an end, another at least equally important issue is ignored. What part does the household labour on smallholdings in the countries from which the migrant workers travel play in determining the value and thus the wages of this migrant labour?

The labour-subsidy thesis has been employed to describe the importance of households living on smallholdings, where women in particular had their working hours extended to feed and rear children, the next generation of labourers. The thesis, used extensively where primarily males left rural households to work on plantations and in mines, argued that these industrial operations in Africa, South America as well as the South Pacific were subsidised by households living a ‘traditional’ even pre-capitalist existence. The subsidy arises because workers’ wages did not and still do not cover the cost of reproducing labour power. In the seminar it is concluded that as much as the rural households subsidise wages and thus increase profits, the households from which today’s seasonal workers come are not maintained in the terms required by the previously influential explanation. Rural households from which many of the migrants come are not a form of `traditional’, non-capitalist existence. Instead to adequately understand the operation and effects of seasonal workers’ programs, both the workers and the households from which they have migrated need to be more comprehensively integrated within the dynamic of (capitalist) accumulation in the South Pacific.

Scott MacWilliam is a Visiting Fellow in the State, Society and Governance in Melanesia Program, School of International, Political and Strategic Studies in the College of Asia and the Pacific at The ANU. He has researched and written on Australia, Kenya, and Fiji as well as Papua New Guinea. His latest book Securing Village Life: Development in Late Colonial Papua New Guinea was published in 2013 by ANU E-Press. He is currently working on a follow-up book which focuses primarily upon the political economy of post-Independence Papua New Guinea.

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