Panel 6, Labor Diasporas Past and Present

Andrea Wright

Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, William and Mary

“Security, Rights and the Postcolonial State: Indian Laborers’ View from the Persian Gulf”

In this paper, I use archival and ethnographic materials to explore shifting legal engagements with the discourse of consent and how it is mobilized in regards to the treatment of migrant laborers. I look at how consent became instrumental in shaping colonial and contemporary labor mobilities, and I examine how the rights of individuals were structured as secondary to the security of the nation-state. Beginning with nineteenth century legal debates in England around the consent of Indian indentured laborers, I find legal debates concerning workers’ ability to freely consent motivated policies, contracts, and bureaucratic structures. In the colonial period, a focus on consent was meant to ensure that Indian indentured workers were traveling of their own “free will” and with a “knowledge of their [future] labor conditions.” This legacy of consent continued in the postcolonial moment and informed how bureaucrats in the nascent Indian nation-state envisioned the state’s obligations to citizens abroad.

Today, the consent of workers continues to be a key factor in labor migration, but it is increasingly tempered with rhetoric of the security of the state. In the twentieth century, as the oil industry in the Persian Gulf became increasing important to the geopolitical security of the British Empire, the mechanisms used to move indentured laborers throughout the British Empire were re-invigorated to move Indian laborers to the Gulf. I find routes excavated by the movement of slaves and indentured labor were refashioned to move Indians to work in the oilfields because Indians were seen as apolitical. I argue the structures used to move Indian workers in conjunction with a rhetoric of insecurity meant that the rights of workers were actively curtailed while simultaneously framed as consensual.

Neha Vora

Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Lafayette College

“Normalizing the Arabian Peninsula within comparative approaches to labor migration”

In order to accommodate corporations and alleviate nativist concerns, global immigration trends seems to be shifting towards temporary labor regimes: many countries, for example, have relaxed immigration laws and/or created new categories of migrants that cannot threaten “national identity” by demanding the rights afforded to citizens. These exceptions could be considered counter to the liberal and democratic claims of most Western and postcolonial nation-states, and resemble to a large extent the “kafala” system of migrant sponsorship that is prevalent in the Gulf Arab states, where I have been conducting research for a decade. However, I have found that the Gulf migration literature has not been utilized to reflect on other parts of the world precisely because of these claims—the exceptionalism and sensationalism through which the region’s economy, culture, demography, politics, labor exploitation, and urbanism are viewed in contrast to other parts of the world all combine to make it seem impossible to compare the Arabian Peninsula to anywhere else.

How might de-exceptionalizing the Gulf lead to better understandings of global labor migration? This is the entry point into my new research project, which considers the trajectories of Indian students-to-workers in the US. The wealthiest group of migrants, Indians also have the fastest growing rate of undocumented status. My Gulf-based expertise brings a different perspective to their everyday lives of migration, education, labor, race, and precarity that can help to explain such a paradox, which highlights larger trends in what I call “illiberal” immigration practices in the contemporary world.

Riyad Koya
Ph.D. candidate, Department of History, University of California Berkeley


“Laboring and other diasporas: defining the emigrant and dividing the diaspora under the Indian Emigration Act of 1922”

The dispersal of Indian indentured laborers to colonies in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, East and Southern Africa, and the Pacific in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is often treated as a prototypical example of a labor diaspora.  The category of a “labor diaspora” itself pluralizes a broader concept of “diaspora,” raising questions about the relationship of labor diasporas to other forms of diaspora.  The relative status of this “subaltern” diaspora to “elite” diasporas has been thrown into relief by the differential access to citizenship rights afforded to the descendants of indentured laborers by the postcolonial Indian state.  The reluctant embrace of so-called “Persons of Indian Origin” has raised questions as to the genesis of India’s disenchantment with its “older,” laboring diaspora.  This paper historicizes the disjunction between labor and “elite” diasporas through an examination of colonial Indian debates concerning the passage of the Indian Emigration Act of 1922.  The 1922 Act, I argue, may be properly understood as an extension of a longer debate on the abolition of indentured labor.  The Emigration Act introduced a vital distinction between skilled and unskilled labor for purposes of defining emigration.  This distinction enabled the restriction of the emigration of unskilled labor to specific destinations while facilitating the continued emigration of skilled labor.  In seeking to prohibit of the emigration of unskilled labor, I argue, nationalists sought to promote the international standing of India.  In this final repudiation of the system of indentured labor we may locate a pivotal moment in the Indian state’s longer-term disavowal of its laboring diasporas.