Cover Page

Resources Series

Anthony Burke, Uranium

Peter Dauvergne & Jane Lister, Timber

Michael Nest, Coltan

Elizabeth R. DeSombre & J. Samuel Barkin, Fish

Jennifer Clapp, Food, 2nd edition

David Lewis Feldman, Water

Gavin Fridell, Coffee

Gavin Bridge & Philippe Le Billon, Oil, 2nd edition

Derek Hall, Land

Ben Richardson, Sugar

Ian Smillie, Diamonds

Adam Sneyd, Cotton

Bill Winders, Grains




I would like to thank several people who have helped me with preparing this book. First, Louise Knight, who approached me several years ago now to contribute to Polity’s Resources series. I would also like to thank Nekane Galdos for helping to shepherd the project along. My friend Bradon Ellem granted permission to use the map in Figure 5.1. Kavita Pandit helped me track down some of the demographic data in Chapter 2. I would like to thank Adam Wrigley for help with some of the data collection. Adam participated in an innovative program at the University of Georgia in which high school seniors are paired with faculty members so that they can learn a little about how research is conducted. Adam did a sterling job locating some of the data used in the book. Thanks, also, to two anonymous reviewers for some helpful comments. Finally, I dedicate this book to my dad, John Clement Herod (1931–2013).


Labor is the ultimate source of all wealth. Without the exertion of human labor, the world’s natural resources, like iron ore, oil, lumber, and land, cannot be used and neither can the services that make the modern world run be provided. This capacity to transform the planet around us through work is central to understanding the dynamics shaping contemporary economic, political, social, and biotic life. In thinking about labor as a resource, however, we must ponder not only labor itself but also the labor processes within which individuals are embroiled and which shape how they interact with one another as they refashion the natural world for human use. This is because the way in which working people cooperate (or not) with one another and with their employers changes how they themselves behave as a resource. Because they have the capability to contest and change the conditions under which they are employed, then, it is important to think of workers both as objects of analysis and also as sentient subjects who can alter their own situations through proactively thought-out economic and political actions. This capacity makes labor fundamentally different from any other resource.

In this book I provide a broad-ranging look at labor as a resource. In the first chapter I outline how labor’s sentience makes it a resource unlike others. In so doing, I consider how labor is deeply geographically embedded in particular places but is also distributed unevenly across the economic landscape. This spatial aspect of labor’s nature is more than simply an interesting facet of working people’s existence. Rather, it is a deeply constitutive element of their lives, for much of their behavior is shaped by their need to come to terms with the differentially developed geography of the contemporary world and how they are tied to specific places. This has signal implications for labor’s behavior as a resource. For instance, many workers are trapped in particular communities for a variety of reasons – an inability to sell their homes so that they can move elsewhere, a psychological attachment to particular places that hold important resonances for them, or the fact that they lack the legal status to move elsewhere. This can reduce their ability to negotiate better terms of employment because they have few options but to take whatever wages are being offered locally. On the other hand, for those workers who can overcome this geographical fixity, the ability to migrate elsewhere may provide significant opportunities for bettering their lives. At the same time, though, it may be fraught with challenges – they may not be welcome in the new communities in which they settle, the promises of a better life may not materialize, or they may have to live in the economic shadows because they do not have the correct legal documents to work out in the open. How they negotiate the tensions between staying in one place and seeking to move elsewhere, then, is an important component of their lives.

Having explored several aspects of what it means to think about labor as a resource, how it is different from other resources, and how labor’s geographical constitution affects how it behaves, I look in Chapter 2 at labor as a global resource. In particular, I detail some of the historical migrations which have led to the current distribution of people across the planet, together with how in situ demographic processes like differential rates of population growth in various parts of the globe, have resulted in the present distribution of working people across the planet. For instance, the booming oil economies of the Persian Gulf are reliant upon the labor of millions of migrant workers coming from places like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, while South Africa’s economy sucks in young men from across the continent to work in the gold mines of the Witwatersrand. Likewise, the migration of hundreds of millions of peasants from the countryside to the nation’s industrial zones has helped make China’s economy the world’s second largest. Concurrently, the global population explosion that has occurred since the mid-twentieth century has fundamentally reconfigured labor’s distribution across the planet – since 1950, world population has tripled in size (from about 2.5 billion to nearly 7.5 billion), with the bulk of this growth occurring in the Global South. At the same time, however, regional phenomena like the AIDS crisis in Africa are having tremendous impacts upon labor markets and what this means for economic development.

Chapters 3 and 4 explore two phenomena that are dramatically impacting working people across the planet, albeit in different ways: globalization and the growth of work precarity. In the first of these chapters, I examine globalization’s impact on working people, focusing especially on the geography of foreign direct investment (FDI) and how this both has allowed employers to play workers in different parts of the globe against one another but has also brought these workers into greater contact with one another, thereby creating improved opportunities for them to challenge their employers’ actions. A key feature of such globalization has been the growth of numerous global production networks (GPNs) through which commodities pass as they are manufactured, with these networks tying workers in different parts of the globe together through how the labor process is structured. I also investigate what I term global destruction networks (GDNs) through which discarded commodities like old electronics pass as they are broken up so that their constituent elements can be recovered for reuse as inputs into new products. These GDNs often link people in the Global North, who discard old commodities, with workers in the Global South, who take them apart. For its part, Chapter 4 details some of the ways in which work and life have become more precarious for millions across the planet. Much of this precarity is the result of neoliberal policies which have made labor markets more “flexible.” Hence, many workers who previously enjoyed full-time, long-term employment now find themselves reduced to part-time, short-term arrangements, while millions of others find themselves with few opportunities for generating paid income except to participate in the “gig economy” as they flit from job to job with companies like Uber and Lyft, food delivery services like Bite Squad and Caviar, and many others. At the same time, new technologies threaten to replace workers across the planet with machines. Meanwhile, for millions of farmers in places like Africa’s Sahel, global climate change is threatening harvests and leading many to migrate to Europe to escape their ever more precarious lives.

Much as Chapters 3 and 4 operate as a pair, so do Chapters 5 and 6. Specifically, they investigate the supposed transition from an “Old Economy” dominated by manual labor and “dirty” jobs to a “New Economy” of knowledge work and mental labor. Although US management consultant Peter Drucker first used the term “knowledge worker” in 1969, it became popularized in the 1990s when growing numbers of writers began suggesting that a new way of organizing economies and work was emerging, one that would have tremendous implications for labor. This New Economy, they averred, would be characterized by “a world in which people work with their brains instead of their hands” and would be “at least as different from what came before it as the industrial age was from its agricultural predecessor,” such that “its emergence can only be described as a revolution” (Browning and Reiss 1998: 105). The future of work, then, would be one in which the dreary, labor-intensive toil of the past would be replaced by clean and rewarding technology-aided manufacturing and service work in which workforces would be empowered and liberated from drudgery. In Chapter 5, in light of this assertion, I examine work in three economic sectors – iron ore mining in Australia, cocoa plantation work in West Africa, and labor in the global fishing industry. As I show, there is little in these sectors which looks much like the imagined emancipatory work that is supposed to characterize twenty-first-century economies. This perhaps is understandable, given how these are activities usually associated with Old Economy work. In Chapter 6, on the other hand, I detail work in several sectors that are often viewed as emblematic of the New Economy, including hi-tech manufacturing and various types of service work. Significantly, despite the utopian language with which the work that is imagined to define the New Economy is often portrayed, much of this labor is also little different from the dirty work of the Old Economy. Rather than there being a historical transition from an Old to a New Economy, then, I suggest that the emancipated work enjoyed by many “knowledge workers” is in fact built upon a foundation of drudge work carried out by millions of highly exploited workers.

The final chapter surveys some of the ways in which workers challenge their positions within various labor markets and labor processes and how they seek to self-organize to improve their lots. This includes forming labor unions and other types of organizations, as well as engaging in activities like occupying factories and running them on their own rather than under the direction of various managers. In this regard, the chapter focuses upon how working people act as the subjects of their own histories and geographies and are not merely resources used by others.