BLOGPOST \ INTERVIEW WITH DR. FLAVIA MAXIMO: Decolonizing Labor Law in the Data Driven Economy

On September 20th, Dr. Flavia Maximo, a visiting scholar from Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto (Brazil), gave a talk for the project Panoptiwork, titled: Decolonizing Labor Law in the Data Driven Economy. After the talk, I met with Flavia to ask her some questions about the main concepts that she touched upon. This blogpost therefore gives an insight in the research that Flavia conducts, as well as in the practice of the field work projects that she is engaged in.

The interview is by Maddalena Fazzo Cusan, Research master student in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the Faculty of Philosophy (University of Groningen)

What is it meant with ‘decolonizing’, or ‘decolonization’?

So, decolonizing is the process of engaging with decoloniality. Decoloniality deals with how to detach from a power pattern that we call coloniality. Coloniality is a power pattern that was established during the colonization of the Americas, by creating in each space of social existence some kind of colonial structure that even with the end of formal colonialism is still going on. So, when, for example, Latin America was colonized, coloniality was established by the European colonizers in the space of work, with a sexual and racial division of labor, and with the creation of the race category connected with the skin color. In the space of gender, coloniality was set as a model, as a prototype, with the white bourgeois heterosexual cis-normative type of family, and this was the model that was imposed on people who were living in these territories.

Regarding knowledge production, coloniality established the Eurocentric way of thought: That means, that in a binary perspective, all the knowledge production that was not in the frame of the same epistemic criteria of Eurocentric knowledge was deemed to be unscientific, uncivilized, traditional, exotic. Finally, in terms of collective governance, the nation state was established. All these areas were connected to elaborate a power pattern that signaled the beginning of modernity, and we call this power pattern ‘coloniality of power’. The act of decolonizing then means trying to detach politically and epistemically from these categories connected with Eurocentric thought.

Thank you very much. And I’ve heard also a lot the term ‘postcolonial’. Is there a difference between decoloniality and post-coloniality?

Both are very well connected, but ‘postcolonial’ was a school of thought that was founded in India by some Indian scholars, like Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha: they were trying to do an epistemic turn away from Eurocentric thoughts, and to disconnect from the power structure that was created with the colonization of Asia. So first, in terms of geopolitical thinking, post-coloniality is connected with the colonization that was made by the United Kingdom, while the decolonial thought is more connected with other types of colonization, like the Portuguese and Spanish ones.

But beyond this geopolitical difference, the postcolonial framework is more connected with cultural studies, for example with things like identity and differences, and this can become a problem as it can be relativistic. Another difference is the main concerns of the schools: The postcolonial school uses a theoretical matrix which is not so much concerned with class. They are using European thinkers to try to do a political and epistemic turn.

In light of these, some authors from Latin America posed the question: How can we do a political and epistemic turn, if we are using the same framework as the colonizers? Therefore, they separated from the postcolonial group and founded the network of Modernity and Coloniality, which focuses more on thinkers situated in Latin America but also is more concerned with class and race (in a phenotypic conception). That does not mean that decoloniality does not engage with European matrixes: Decoloniality does not want to destroy European matrixes (on the contrary, it engages a lot for example with Marxists), but rather it claims that you have to situate knowledge, you have to situate these European ideas in the reality of the South, and that we want to detach from Eurocentric knowledge, namely the rationality that was created by the colonizers to dominate people and knowledge production.

Thank you very much. Let’s move on to talk about your area of expertise, which is labor law. When we talk about law, we imply that somehow there is a state involved, any sort of state, and Aníbal Quijano writes that the nation state is itself a colonial concept that has been imposed through the course of colonialism, and that now is surviving, as you said, after the end of political and territorial colonialism itself. What consequences does this aspect, of the state being colonial, have for the way in which we conceive of labor law?

So, coloniality is different from colonization and colonialism. Coloniality talks about structures that were built during the invasion of the Americas (specifically, we are talking about Latin America), and how these structures are very much alive today. The nation state is one of them: Quijano considers it as a symbol of coloniality, because during colonization there were a lot of other forms of collective governance that were not based on a homogenous identity nor on a homogenous way of working or living: People had different livelihoods, different ways to engage with the land and with other people, other values, other dimensions. These were not considered as valid in the Eurocentric framework of the nation state.

And this impacts labor law: First, with the nation state as the main collective authority, you need to have a homogenous thought to regulate what is law and what is labor. So, in the end, the nation states that were built during colonization ended up replicating some of the knowledge production of the Global North, and therefore reproducing European patterns, their patterns of what is democracy, their patterns of what is work, the patterns of what is life. In doing so, these nation states in the Global South ended up recognizing only one labor relation, that is, the employment relationship. Therefore, a lot of different livelihoods and different forms of work were not considered under labor law, because this Eurocentric framework focuses on the typical work that existed in Europe. So, you have all these informal people, usually black and women, who are not included under the protection of the current labor law, because the state is reproducing the same law as the Global North.

And talking a bit about your own research, do you think there are ways to decolonize labor law when working in the field?

Yes, of course. One of the main weaknesses of law, in general, is that we do not do field work. Therefore, one of the main points of decoloniality is to connect theory to praxis, as a continuum: you cannot just theorize, without working with the people that you are theorizing about. So, if I am working with the working class, I have to talk and engage with them to create knowledge together, without imposing on them what I think as an academic. We think that this gap between theory and praxis, between epistemology and living labor conditions among workers in Brazil or any other country of the Global South, is a power project; And a way of weakening this gap is doing field work.

In Brazil we are doing some field work with platform workers, we are trying to engage with them to look for new forms of struggle: It can involve technology, it can involve other forms of collective organization. But we are also doing field work with people who were affected by the dam rupture which happened in Minas Gerais in 2015-2019. For this project in the field we are using the cartographic method, which means, we will listen to workers before we pose questions, to understand what is valuable for them, what kind of labor they think is important. And of course, what comes up is not only the kind of capitalist conception of work that we have: They are showing us that there are a lot of dimensions of value that labor can create, which our juridical framework cannot reach. One example is when a person is working the land, but is not producing for selling in the market: Rather, the act itself of producing the things that you are eating and planting, that is a kind of existential dimension that these people have lost with this accident [the dam rupture], which labor law cannot do reparations for, because we are not prepared to measure this kind of value: Law just responds with colonial capitalist value measurements.

Now I want to talk a bit about global capitalism, because this is also another force that Quijano talks about, a force that perpetuates colonial influences in the modern world. Normally, when we think globally, we only consider nation states as actors in the global sphere. However, there are a lot of scholars that nowadays say that there are new actors coming up, and these are multinational corporations, which means, corporations that have their assets in more than one country, and traditionally they also have a very long supply chain of different producers and suppliers. Typically, production is located in the Global South, or in poorer countries, and then the multinational corporation buys cheaper products in the Global South to then sell them at a better price in the markets in the Global North. My question for you then is, do you think that the rise of multinational corporations is changing or has changed anything in the practice of labor law, and in the struggle for decolonizing labor law?

Yes, of course. We are seeing that multinational corporations get in a position to determine policies, and they are on some levels stronger than the state itself. They are stronger than political parties. So, you can see a coloniality over policies and juridical dimensions, imposed by the economic sphere. Corporations are setting the rules of politics, and they define what is legal and what is not. I gave you before the example of the dam rupture: You can see that the mining company that is responsible for the disaster is stronger in determining what is legal and what is not than the state itself. You see that there is an economic power that colonized the ‘institutions of democracy’. So, when these multinational corporations start to influence the labor environment, they do exactly like you said: They will try to get Global South workers to do precarious functions, while protecting workers from the Global North. That way, the coloniality continues flowing in the same circle, right? Global South workers send a lot of raw value to the Global North, while the Global North has the control of the knowledge production, like new forms of commodities, and the colonial flow continues in the same way.

So, how does this change labor law? First, it has to change how workers can resist: You cannot organize collective movements only inside the nation state anymore, you have to think about international union networks in order to reach global collective agreements. This already happened, for example, with Volkswagen’s workers in Argentina and in Germany, who united themselves in an international union network for establishing a global framework agreement. But the problem of these global framework agreements is how to adapt them to national levels and – more importantly – who is going to inspect these? So, that is a problem.

But international strikes through these international networks are more interesting: If a company is based in several countries, and workers unite together in a solidarity strike, this can be more effective. And of course, when we talk about strikes, it is not just about stopping work: There are other ways to disrupt the normal rhythm of work, for example by occupying spaces, doing flash mobs, slowing down an app that is used for work. There can be different forms of political struggle. How do we deal with this? I think we have to think about how the ILO [International Labor Organization] plays a big part in this: The ILO was a major actor for legitimizing coloniality in labor. Perhaps, finding a way to impose fines internationally, so sanctions that involve money, in other words, responding to the market with its same logic, could be more effective. But also, if you think that multinational corporations right now are just as relevant as, or more relevant than, political institutions, maybe we should apply the same laws that concern the public service to these multinationals, in order to get more transparency in the whole chain. So, for example, if you are talking about platform workers, and we do not know what the algorithm does in this type of work, we can think of applying a transparency public service law to get access to it, to try and resist the ways in which it generates exploitation.

And related to what you just said, and as kind of an example: In Germany the Supply Chain Act was introduced. This is a law that forbids Germany companies who have a supply chain abroad to purchase goods or services from suppliers that violate human rights. Do you think that these types of measures can be helpful to decolonize labor law in other places? Specifically, yesterday you finished your talk with the question, ‘will the privileged listen?’. Do you think this is a valid starting point for the privilege to start listening?

I think that this is a good starting point, but we cannot call these decolonial strategies, right? They are just maintaining the minimal standards of existence for people of the Global South, but they do not change the bigger picture: We are still having worse work conditions in the South while the labor law itself is still focused on Eurocentric sociality, based on the employment relation. So as long as other forms of work are not recognized to be central in the framework of law, it will always be like that: We will be dependent on the Global North to set laws, to protect other people who are more vulnerable in the South. I am not saying that these steps are not a valid solution, because I think they are, but I will not say that they are decolonial, because they are not going to change in a deep way how Global South workers are going to continue to be exploited by Global North companies.

Thank you very much. Finally, I have a last question about data. With digitalization and the advent of digital technologies there is now a new market that came/is coming, which is based not on physical goods, but rather on a more intangible good that is data. How do the topics of the data economy, decoloniality and labor law connect together?

So, there are some authors that have already worked with the idea of data colonialism. I work with the idea of data coloniality, because, like I said to you before, colonialism was the formal occupation of the territories, and coloniality is the continuum of this power structure in labor relations nowadays. Data coloniality is pretty much about trying to challenge the idea that this data driven economy is neutral and objective. Like the narrative of colonialism, the data driven economy comes to us claiming that this technology is going to bring progress and democracy, is going to change our lives for the better. I am not saying that I am against technology, I am saying that you have to rethink how to use technology to reduce inequalities in the world. But the ways in which we are using it today means that this technology is just maintaining the same inequality of race, of gender, of sexuality, and of geopolitical position. So, I think that as of now, it is a kind of new instrument to maintain these inequalities.

I will give you an example, regarding algorithm discrimination: In job process selections, some algorithms can associate the name of a candidate with whether this person is black or not, and associate them to a criminal record. So, we are dealing with machine learning algorithms which associate black people to crime. And they sell this technology as something that is neutral, something that is universal, messianic – like European colonizers did with people who lived in Latin America, by claiming that Europeans knew better than them. So, colonizers could control their territory, creating a partial way of choosing people, choosing knowledge, choosing contracts. I think the universalisms of the narratives are pretty close, in that way.

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