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At the zero degree / Below the minimum: Wage as sign in Israel’s split labor market

Abstract

Marx conceived of the reproduction of labor-power as a circuit in which the wage must suffice to purchase the commodities necessary to meet the worker’s “so-called necessary requirements,” which are “products of history.” In this article, I argue that, through ethnographic investigation of the wage as a sign of these requirements, we can arrive at a wealth of knowledge about how the wage helps to construct different groups of workers as belonging to different human types, which are often “bundled” together with categories such as race and citizenship. I make my case through the investigation of two groups of workers: young Jewish-Israeli citizens engaged in logistics work and earning the minimum wage, and migrant farmworkers from Thailand who are paid far below that minimum for their labor. I argue that the first group represents a “zero degree” of labor-power, defined by the legal and biopolitical concern of the state for its reproduction, while the latter is understood by its members, their employers, and the surrounding society as undeserving of such concern. Deploying the Marxist-feminist problematic of the social reproduction of labor power, I argue that, by affording different groups of workers, and their children, different standards of living and opportunities for integration into labor markets, the wage works together with other forces to lock people into embodied, inherited “types.” From this perspective, I suggest, some categories of oppression do not “intersect” at right angles but rather run almost parallel, and at times coming close to cohering—a finding with implications for both analysis and political practice.

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Notes

  1. Every few years, the media “exposes” wage and other violations in Israel’s agricultural sector, leading to a short cycle of public outrage, official denials, and oblivion. The last of these cycles, in late 2018, was slightly more prominent than usual due to the fact that the “exposing” was done by a BBC World team rather than a local outlet and was projected to the outside world, including Thailand (see BBC News 2018).

  2. This second-class citizenship, previously de facto, has been codified in the “Nation-State Law” of 2018.

  3. Israel’s Law of Return promises free immigration and a quick path to citizenship for Jews, as defined by halakha, as well as for some of their kin. The latter category, known as “individuals eligible for immigration according to the Law of Return,” or more briefly, “[persons] eligible under the Law of Return” (zaka’ei hok hashvut) grew rapidly in the 1990s with the immigration of large numbers of mixed families from the former Soviet Union. “Eligibles,” as I call them here, occupy an ambiguous position in Israel’s ethnoscape, usually “passing” as Jews but encountering discrimination at the hands of the religious establishment, which controls issues of personal status like marriage and burial (Lustick 1999).

  4. See the website of NGO Workers’ Hotline (www.kavlaoved.org.il) for a wealth of information on the conditions faced by non-citizen workers in Israel.

  5. This and all names of companies and individuals have been changed.

  6. See note 11 below for a brief discussion of gendered pay gaps.

  7. Our findings are corroborated by the independently conducted research of the Israel Police (Nathan 2010, 6–7), Human Rights Watch (2015, pp. 21–25) and Kushnirovich and Raijman (2017).

  8. I was bound to confidentiality by the University of Michigan’s Institutional Review Board and made sure to clarify this, but I cannot assume complete trust on the part of interviewees. The strong taboos against expressing negative emotions and against impinging on the “face” of others, especially those in dominant positions, probably also played a part in migrants’ reticence to speak about such matters (see Aulino 2014, 2019).

  9. Out of 63 responses to our call for questions, 20 (31%) referred to wages, by far the largest single category. In response, we devoted an entire episode to answering questions about wages. I do not have a full explanation for why workers felt so much freer to talk critically about wages on Facebook than in person, but this may have to do with the fact that the online exchanges were held entirely in Central Thai and the Isaan dialect, rather than in Thai and English with the aid of an interpreter (see Kaminer 2018b).

  10. See Junya “Lek” Yimprasert’s excellent documentary film Missä Marjat (Junya, 2017) for the complete impotence of Thai embassy officials in Finland in the face of gross violations of Thai workers’ rights in the country.

  11. The complex interrelationship of class and gender is beyond the scope of this article, and this brief discussion does not pretend to do it justice. Nevertheless, my analysis does show gendered wage gaps such as the one practiced at Ya’akobi in a different light from, say, the gap between citizen and non-citizen workers. Wage gaps based on gender (and age) play a critical role in forcing women (and young people) into the subordinate domestic roles which make the exploitation of their unwaged labor possible. Excepting important hybrid cases such as live-in domestic workers (Ehrenreich and Hochschild 2003), this does not hold true of wage gaps predicated on race or citizenship.

  12. In Mbebme’s text, and in other studies of exterminationist racism (e.g., Wilderson 2003; Wolfe 2006), we find racialized lives valued at precisely nothing, or even negatively. This sort of zero is distinct from the one I am discussing, though it is certainly not unrelated to the questions discussed here; Mbembe himself discusses the Palestinians of the Occupied Territories as subjects of necropolitical power. Generally speaking, though I cannot elaborate on this here, any over-hermetic separation of bio- and necropolitics seems to me to retrace problematic dichotomies between economy and politics, class and race, exploitation and oppression—fundamentally ideological separations which serve to obscure the continuity between these modes of power under global capitalism.

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Acknowledgments

This article originated as my contribution to a panel on remuneration at the American Anthropological Association’s Annual Meeting in 2015, which I could not attend. I would like to thank the organizers of that panel, Gregory Morton and Adam Sargent, who also gave me excellent feedback on a draft. In the years since then, I have received comments and encouragement from Joel Beinin, Jason De León, Dotan Leshem, Tal Giladi, Geoff Hughes, Carmel Kaminer, Alma Katz, Alaina Lemon, Zachary Lockman, Eilat Maoz, Salar Mohandesi, Liron Mor, Gregory Morton, Smadar Nehab, Katie Rainwater, Adam Sargent, Hagar Shezaf, Shahar Shoham, Andrew Shryock, and Hadas Weiss, and am grateful to them all. My research was supported by the Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Development Research Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Award, the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship, the University of Michigan’s Rackham Program in Public Scholarship, and other awards from UM’s Rachkam Graduate School, Center for Southeast Asia Studies and Department of Anthropology. The errors are, as usual, all my own.

Funding

This study was funded by:

• Fulbright-Hays Dissertation Development Research Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Award, US Department of Education, Award No. P022A160004.

• International Dissertation Research Fellowship, Social Science Research Council.

• Rackham Program in Public Scholarship and various internal grants from the University of Michigan

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Kaminer, M. At the zero degree / Below the minimum: Wage as sign in Israel’s split labor market. Dialect Anthropol 43, 317–332 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-019-09560-7

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Keywords

  • Labor
  • Semiotics
  • Israel
  • Migration
  • Social reproduction
  • Race
  • Class
  • Citizenship