Precarity, by comparison: the uncertain transnationalization of labor politics between Korea and the Philippines

  • Elisabeth SchoberEmail author


Shipbuilding is a remarkably mobile industry. After the center of gravity moved from Northern Europe to South Korea and Japan, of late, low–labor cost countries like China and the Philippines are increasingly cutting into the market share of more established players. Before delving into a discussion of how workers in places such as Germany, South Korea, and the Philippines have tried to make sense of recent large-scale shifts, at times pitting their narratives of insecurity and loss against imagined lower-quality workforces elsewhere, I investigate what an anthropological understanding of precarity as an umbrella term within such a heated terrain may be able to achieve. Finally, I propose an ethnographically informed reading of David Harvey’s and Beverly Silver’s works on spatio-temporal fixes, and argue that their combined approaches can bring about new openings when brought into conversation with anthropological theorizing that is alert to local historical nuances and encounters.


Shipbuilding Precarity South Korea Philippines Spatio-temporal fix 



I would like to thank Sian Lazar, Andrew Sanchez, Keir Martin, and the anonymous peer reviewers for their extremely useful comments on an earlier draft of this article, and I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to the labor activists who have given me their time in South Korea and the Philippines.


  1. Author. 2016.Google Scholar
  2. Author. 2018a.Google Scholar
  3. Author. 2018b.Google Scholar
  4. Author 2018c.Google Scholar
  5. Baca, George. 2011. Resentment of neoliberals in South Korea. Kim Jin-Sook and the Bus of Hope Movement. The Journal of Eurasian Studies. 8 (4 (December)): 125–140.Google Scholar
  6. Bear, Laura, Karen Ho, Anna Tsing, and Sylvia Yanagisako. 2015. Gens: a feminist manifesto for the study of capitalism. Cultural Anthropology. March 30, 2015. Available from: Accessed 18 Dec 2018.
  7. Breman, 2013. A bogus concept? New Left Review 84 (November–December): 130–138.Google Scholar
  8. Bruce, George J. 1999. The business of shipbuilding. London: LLP.Google Scholar
  9. Carrier, James, and Don Kalb. 2015. Anthropologies of class. Power, practice and inequality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Chan, Fong Yin, and Philip F. Kelly. Local politics and labor relations in the Philippines. In Labour in Southeast Asia, ed. Becky Elmhirst and Ratna Saptari. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Cho, Soon Kyung. 1997. The reality and myth of dispatched employees. Industrial Labor Research, Book 3 vol 1 (Study for Korean Industrial Labor).Google Scholar
  12. Chun, Jennifer. 2009. Organizing at the margins. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cristobal, Melly Ann E.A., and Efren I.I.R. Resurreccion. 2014. De-confusing contractualization: defining employees engaged in precarious work in the Philippines. Philippine Law Journal 88 (342): 342–374.Google Scholar
  14. Durrenberger, E.Paul. 2009. The last wall to fall: the anthropology of collective action and unions in the global system. Journal of Anthropological Research 65 (1): 9–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Eich-Born, Marion, and Robert Hassnik. 2005. On the battle between shipbuilding regions in Germany and South Korea. Environment and Planning. 37: 635–656.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Ellen, Roy. 2010. Theories in anthropology and ‘anthropological theory’. JRAI. 16: 387–404.Google Scholar
  17. Harvey, David. 2003. The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Harvey, David. 2004. The ‘new’ imperialism. Accumulation by Dispossession. Socialist Register 40: 63–87.Google Scholar
  19. Harvey, Penelope, and Christian Krohn-Hansen. 2018. Introduction: dislocating labour. Anthropogical reconfigurations. JRAI 23 (S1): 10–28.Google Scholar
  20. Harvey, David, and Raymond Williams. 1995. Militant particularism and global ambition: the conceptual politics of place, space, and environment in the work of Raymond Williams. Social Text 42: 69–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. James, F. Cyril. 1927. Cyclical fluctuations in the shipping and shipbuilding industries. PhD thesis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.Google Scholar
  22. Jessop, Bob. 2006. Spatial fixes, temporal fixes, and spatio-temporal fixes. In David Harvey. A critical reader, 142–166. Oxford: Blackwell.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Kalb, Don, and Gabor Halmai. 2013. Headlines of nation, subtexts of class. London: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  24. Kalb, Don, and Hermann Tak. 2005. Critical junctions. Anthropology and history beyond the cultural turn. London: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  25. Kasmir, Sharryn, and August Carbonella. 2014. Blood and fire. Toward a global anthropology of labor. London: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  26. Kim, Hak-tae. 2017. Anneseo saeneun pagaji. In Maeil Nodong News. URL (English translation can be found at: Accessed 18 Dec 2018.
  27. Lee, Ching Kwan. 2003. Beyond historical capitalism? In Critical Solidarity 3 (3): 4.Google Scholar
  28. Lee, Yoonkyung. 2015. Sky protest: new forms of labour resistance in neo-liberal Korea. Journal of Contemporary Asia 45 (3): 443–464.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Marx, Karl. 1973. Grundrisse. Foundations of the critique of political economy. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  30. Mollona, Massimiliano. 2009. Made in Sheffield. An ethnography of industrial work and politics. London: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  31. Munck, Ronaldo. 2013. The precariat. A view from the south. Third World Quarterly. 34 (5): 747–762.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Nam, Hwasook. 2009a. Shipyard women and the politics of gender: a case study of the KSEC yard in South Korea. In Gender and labour in Korea and Japan: sexing class, ed. Ruth Barraclough and Elyssa Faison, 78–102. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  33. Nam, Hwasook. 2009b. Building ships, building a nation. Korea’s Democratic Unionism under Park Chung Hee. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  34. Narotzky, Susana. 2014. Structures without soul and immediate struggles: rethinking militant particularism in contemporary Spain. In Blood and fire. Toward a global anthropology of labor, ed. Sharryn Kasmir and August Carbonella. London: Berghahn.Google Scholar
  35. Polanyi, Karl. 2001 (1944). The great transformation. London: Beacon Press.Google Scholar
  36. Robinson, Tammy Ko. 2011. South Korea’s 300 day aerial sit-in strike highlights plight of precarious workers in Korea and the Philippines. Asia-Pacific Journal. Accessed 18 Dec 2018.
  37. Roseberry, William. 1997. Marx and anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 25–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Roxas, Patrick. 2017. Dole declares Hanjin union certification election a failure. Manila Times. Accessed 18 Dec 2018.
  39. Shin, Kwang-Yeong. 2013. Economic crisis, neoliberal reforms, and the rise of precarious work in South Korea. American Behavioral Scientist. 57 (3): 335–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Silver, Beverly. 2003. Forces of labor. Workers’ movement and globalization since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Standing, Guy. 2011. The precariat. The new dangerous class. London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  42. Werbner, Pnina. 2014. The making of an African working class: politics, law, and cultural protest in the manual Workers’ Union of Botswana. London: Pluto.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social AnthropologyUniversity of OsloOsloNorway

Personalised recommendations