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Y-Dang Troeung, Disciplinary Power, Transnational Labour, and the Politics of Representation in Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt

Stephanie Black’s important documentary Life and Debt contains a segment that focuses on a free trade zone established in Kingston, Jamaica in the 1980s. Black provides a compelling visual and narrative account of the processes of globalization leading up to the creation of this free zone and of the exploitive working conditions endured by the local Jamaicans within its military-style guarded walls. The Kingston free zone is represented as a site of transnational labour that exists outside the territorial and economic boundaries of Jamaica. Black shows how, inside this extra-territorial space, the bodies of the Jamaican workers become tools for capital accumulation by transnational corporations and how this exploitation is effected through the maintenance of a disciplined and subjected workforce. In these respects, Black’s representation of the Kingston free zone serves as a compelling example of the continuing operations of disciplinary power in current conditions of global capitalism.

However, in approaching an analysis of the Kingston free zone scene from this critical perspective, I am interested not only in what is signified about the power configurations of global capitalism but also in the kinds of stereotypes and tropes that are mobilized in Black’s representation of the group of Asian transnational labourers introduced into the Kingston free zone to displace the Jamaican workers. The issue that I wish to take up here has to do with the extent to which the film participates in an economy of representation that intentionally or unintentionally exports what has come to be an essential trope of global labour: the existence of a dispersed Asian labour community (and of a Asian female worker more specifically) that possesses certain “innate” characteristics suitable to labour in sites of transnational production. Building on Laura Kang’s analysis of the representations of Asian women as transnational labour, this paper will argue that Black’s representation of the Asian female transnational worker relies on two representational patterns that are frequently employed in various descriptive and critical accounts of labour exploitation in globalization. These tendencies, as identified by Kang, include a spatial-temporal distancing and a visual fixing of the Asian woman at transnational sites of labour, both of which contribute to the discursive production and circulation of the Asian woman as natural labour power for global capitalism (165-166). This paper will explore the extent to which these representational limits in Life and Debt affect the film’s overall critique of existing regimes of transnational capital, and will thus use the film to illustrate some of the challenges facing cultural criticism today.   

Historical Background

It is useful to situate Black’s representation of the Kingston free zone within a broader historical context related to the creation of “export-oriented industrialization” (EOI) programs beginning in the 1960s. Swasti Mitter, in her book Common Fate, Common Bond: Women in the Global Economy, explains how the EOI model, encouraged by international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, was conceived of as a way to reduce the national debt of non-European countries—labeled as “Third World”—by having these countries sell their labour power and by having transnational companies from “First World” countries provide the necessary capital (7-8). A common arrangement under the EOI model would involve the provision of loans from the IMF or the World Bank to developing nations. These loans, sometimes referred to today as “tied-aid”—would be contingent upon conditions such as the “elimination of import tariffs that [would] protect domestic industry but hamper multinationals, tax breaks for foreign investors and the creation of free trade zones . . . control of wages, abolition of price controls and any subsidies for food and other necessities” (Fuentes and Ehrenreich 37-38). This international industrial restructuring had the effect of allowing transnational corporations (TNCs) to dictate to a large extent the work conditions of workers within a particular nation-state—exploitive conditions that were often enforced rather than contested by local military institutions (Mitter 9). This configuration was apparent in “export processing zones” or “free trade zones,” strategically chosen areas where a transnational corporation would relocate production in order to evade local economic controls and to employ a low-paid workforce.

As Mitter observes, “in free trade zones—the enclaves reserved for the export-led production of the subsidiaries and subcontractors of transnational corporations—nearly 80 per cent of the workers are women” (14). Mitter argues, however, that this disproportionate gender representation must be understood not in terms of any kind of biological suitability on the part of women, but in terms of an active recruitment strategy on the part of corporate management to compose its workforce of individuals already socially and economically marginalized, and who are thus more easily lured into accepting exploitative work conditions (13). The most common of these conditions include poor-pay, job insecurity, and the prohibition of assembly.

These material consequences of economic globalization policies are explored in Stephanie Black’s Life and Debt through the example of Jamaica, a country that has emerged from a history of colonialism to enter into what is shown to be in many ways a comparably dark period of globalization. While it is important to note that Jamaica entered into its first IMF agreement in 1977, and that it presently owes $4.5 Billion to the IMF and to other international lending agencies, a comprehensive summary of Black’s portrayal of the devastating impact of free trade, international lending, and structural adjustment policies on the everyday lives of Jamaicans is outside the scope of this paper. Rather, I wish to address more specifically Black’s treatment of the damaging effects of free zones on the people of Jamaica.
In the segment focused on the Kingston free zone, the viewer is introduced to the workers who sew five days a week to earn $1200 Jamaican dollars, which is equivalent to $30 U.S. per week. The heavily-secured free zone, for which the Jamaican government is still paying back loans, consists of garment factories owned by American corporations who “are not liable to local controls” (Life and Debt). These corporations are able to evade import tariffs on garment materials, which arrive by the shipload from the U.S., are assembled by the free zone workers, and are then put back on ships, “never in effect having touched the shores of Jamaica” (Life and Debt). Such impediments on local economic flows contradict the official rationale that the free zones provide an economic and social benefit to the nation-state of Jamaica. The inequities of free zones are also apparent in work conditions imposed on the Jamaican workers, who are forbidden from unionizing, and are frequently fired without cause. When the workers at the Kingston free zone eventually organize a work stoppage to protest their exploitive situation, a group of Asian labourers are brought into the free zone to finish the required work before the factory is closed down and relocated to another area.[1] In depicting the social and economic crisis incited by the shifting presence of transnational capital in Jamaica, Life and Debt attempts to capture a sense of the lived effects of globalization in general, and of free trade zones in particular, on the people who these social-historical formations purportedly benefit.

Disciplinary Power and Sites of Transnational Labour

Michel Foucault’s ideas about the operations of modern disciplinary power—and about the disciplinary ordering of space in particular—are useful to understanding Black’s repres
entation of the Kingston free zone in Life and Debt. The first image of this free zone is an image of enclosure. The viewer sees a large number of Jamaican workers walking through the barred-metal gates of the zone structure, which is surrounded by concrete and barbed wire walls that extend beyond the perspective of the camera. An overhead shot of the free zone depicts a vast walled-in compound, complete with its own internal streets and composed of identical-looking factory buildings. As Foucault describes in Discipline and Punish, “discipline sometimes requires enclosure, the specification of a place heterogeneous to all others and closed in upon itself” (141). He goes on to argue that the “principle of enclosure” functions through “elementary location or partitioning. Each individual has his own place; and each place its individual” (143). Foucault’s understanding of the disciplinary ordering of space to enhance visibility and supervision is apparent not only in the architectural design of the free zone compound as a whole, but also in the interior spatial organization of each individual factory. The viewer sees the open interior of the factory as the camera pans across seemingly endless rows of women seated at garment workstations. Presumably, this arrangement is intended to maximize productivity by keeping workers within close enough proximity to invite self-monitoring but not close enough to invite communication.

Foucault’s concept of partitioning is illustrated by the anecdotal account given by one of the Jamaican workers.   She describes her work conditions as the following: “You can’t talk to nobody. You can’t eat. You can’t get up to go to the bathroom. They’re watching you . . . It’s like you’re working under slavery” (Life and Debt). Like the “analytical space” of the enclosure, the factory space of the free zone factory corresponds “not only to the need to supervise, to break dangerous communications, but also to create a useful space” (Foucault 144). In the example of the Kingston free zone, we see that space is ordered to maximize the utility of disciplined bodies, which themselves become places for capital accumulation. To an extent, Black’s depiction here of a contemporary labour situation in which the intense regulation of physical bodies is more primary than the molding or disciplining of subjectivities suggests a return to an almost feudal system of wage-slavery. Thus, a strict application of Foucault’s concept of disciplinary society to an analysis of the situation Black represents would almost appear to be a mischaracterization. What Black conveys in this scene is the way in which subjectivities have been stripped down to bare labour within the space of free zones. In any case, Black’s overall representation of the Kingston free zone in Life and Debt lends itself to a Foucauldian explication of disciplinary power as operating through the ordering of space.

Other critics, however, have argued that such modes of representing the space of free zones can create a sense of spatial-temporal distancing that further estranges the workers within these zones. Laura Kang, for instance, discusses this representational tendency specifically in relation to the critical discourse surrounding the condition of Asian women within transnational factories. She argues that even in the discursive forms that seek to “uncover” or “report on” the hidden realities of this situation, “often these women workers are not only relegated to a distinct locale in a faraway place, but this geographical distance is mutually reinforced by figuring them as living in a belated moment of both global capitalist progress” (176). One example that she uses is the representation of transnational sites of labour that transcend territorial, social, and economic boundaries (177). While Kang acknowledges that many free trade zones and export-processing zones “have borne little correspondence to actual delineations of geographical contiguity or international borders,” the emphasis in critical discourse on representing these zones as extra-territorial spaces “has the effect of producing an estrangement” that detracts from the local and global corporate alliances responsible for the very real exploitation in these zones (178).
In Life and Debt, the impression of geographical remoteness is effected through the visual and narrative representation of the Kingston free zone as socially, spatially, and economically demarcated from the rest of Jamaica. The restricted accessibility of the Kingston free zone is illustrated by the security procedures that the workers are subjected to. We see that, once they pass through the metal gates of the compound, the workers must then proceed single file through another set of gates where they undergo a security check. The gateways in the Kingston free zone are guarded by “zone police” who verify the “special passes” of each person passing through the gates. The signs hanging on the concrete walls of the compound also work to symbolically demarcate the space of the free zone. One sign specifies that “all persons entering and leaving the Kingston free zone are subject to be searched”; another sign states that “no children under 17 are allowed on the free zone compound”; and finally one sign specifies that “no food or any other goods should be taken in the Kingston free zone for sale” (Life and Debt). These signs highlight the social fragmentation wrought by the free zone through the tight control of bodies and of the goods moving in and out of the zone.

The free zone’s spatial demarcation is conveyed not only through powerful overhead shots of the walled-in compound but also through the commentary preceding these images. One Jamaican worker describes the free zone as an “area . . . like a state within a country” (Life and Debt). Later in the scene, the viewer sees even more expansive overhead shots that depict the free zone’s geographical positioning on the coast of Jamaica. The following commentary is overlaid with the images of ships leaving and arriving at these coastal ports: “The free zone operates within the theoretical thing that is not even part of Jamaica. It is a separate entity. So the goods come in in a container and go through guarded gates. After it leaves the free zone it goes back onto the ship never in effect having touched the shores of Jamaica” (Life and Debt). As a “separate entity,” the free zone is exempt from the usual economic “laws or the systems that normally govern a country’s operations” (Life and Debt). While such visual and discursive accounts paint a picture of the political-economic autonomy of the Kingston free zone from the rest of Jamaica, they also imbue the free zone with an aura of alien remoteness that casts the exploitation of workers within these zones as removed from the motivated and material agents of power responsible for this exploitation. This mode of representation does more to circulate the image of the free zone as a broad symbol of globalization than it does to address or probe the question of what can be done to contest those corporate powers who are accountable.

This tendency in Black’s film to produce an estranging effect with respect to the Jamaican workers is also true with respect to the representation of the Asian transnational labourers who are brought into the free zone to displace the Jamaicans. While the documentary’s paralleling of the situation of Jamaican labourers and Asian labourers within the Kingston free zone effects a critique of globalization by suggesting the international scope of labour exploitation in present circumstances, this documentary construction also further illustrates the problem of spatial-temporal distancing within the film’s representational framework.
Referring to the Asian transnational labourers, one Jamaican worker describes: “these workers are brought in hundreds. And they live in what we consider to be a

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