Payal Arora: How do we put the human in the global value chains?

The pandemic has proved we need to rethink the global value chains. But how can we do that until we acknowledge the systemic problems with the old approach?

Payal Arora is the author of the award-winning books “Leisure Commons” and more recently “The Next Billion Users” (Harvard Press), which won the 2019 PROSE award by the American Publishers Association under the Business category. She co-founded Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives to address problems with global value chains.

During the eighth episode of What’s NEXT, she explored the emerging narratives around rethinking these global value chains – and some of the problematic assumptions built into them.

While the global pandemic has reshaped how we live right now, it has also created some really valuable conversations about how we will live in the future. And, as Payal Arora explained, the same old conversation has come up: is globalisation good for society?

“And that’s because what we’re experiencing with a pandemic are massive shortages in the global value chain in terms of ventilators, masks, medicines,” she said. “That leads to a lot of pressure about what to do about this broken system.”

Lots of people are pushing to reset the system, she suggested, and evoking vulnerability and fragility of the supply chains to justify that. And Arora believes that there’s a real need to create smarter, more robust systems.

“But what do we mean by that? Why are they bringing up these terms of vulnerability for a very generic abstract system like the global value chain?”

Narrative framing of value chains

If you look at how people are framing these narratives, one possibility is that they mean that people aren’t hoarding enough, she said. Companies usually outsource the hoarding – the holding of stock or materials – because it’s cost-efficient. Then there’s the issue of a lack of diversity of sources and suppliers.

“So, people say let’s not bank ourselves on China, which is the factory of the world or say, Malaysia, that owns and operates about 70% of the shipping or India, the pharmaceutical centre of the world. So basically, the idea is we need to diversify suppliers.”

The World Economic Forum agrees that, yes, fragility means that we need to have more suppliers. So the underlying idea is that we can use technologies, automation and so on to reinvent the flow so as to make sure consumers have an uninterrupted flow of consumption.

“But by consumers, the assumption is always that they mean Western consumers,” she said. “Where’s the human dimension to this?”

The corporation in human clothes

It’s uncomfortable reading about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos becoming possibly the first trillionaire in the world at the same time there’s a warehouse protest out there, Arora suggested. Hundreds of thousands of people are suffering because they’re struggling to get the basic needs of hand sanitisers and masks or being able to get toilet breaks.

“And yet the language of vulnerability is applied to the corporate side?”

This sort of humanising of the corporate machine is not something new, Arora explained. It goes back to the 1800s. In the early days of the US railroad the first big retailer, the robber baron Jay Gould, actually faced an enormous number of protests from his factory workers.

What were they protesting about? Oppressive hours of 10 to 14 hour shifts; they were talking about wages, which were below subsistence level; they were talking about inhumane conditions in the workplace. But the strike was killed.

“And it gets even more perverse because during that time, he uses the 14th Amendment, which was created to protect racial identity and protect the freed slaves, and he applies that to the corporate identity. He argues convincingly that corporate identity deserves the same rights as racial identity.”

Today, we still have the corporation as a person in the US, she says. It actually has legal status of personhood.

Modern slavery

“You might think we’ve progressed since then, but look at what’s happening today in modern slavery chain,” she pointed out. “We have 40 million people in modern slavery.”

Action Aid and Human Rights Watch did massive surveys of garment workers. “I work for 11 hours and feel like my buttocks on fire because I can’t go to the toilet,” said one of the people they interviewed. This idea that having a toilet break is a privilege, or it’s something that is a negotiation, reminds us that not much has changed, she suggested.

In recent months, the garment sector has bailed out on contracts for €3bn worth of goods, said Arora. “They claimed that, because the pandemic had happened, they needed to cut their losses, even though their suppliers had already bought much of the raw materials in places like Bangladesh.”

Decisions like that impact on whole economies. Millions of workers, the majority of them women and children who gets paid far below subsistence wages. 70 to 80% of these women experience sexual harassment, or rape in the workplace.

Abandoning the victim narrative

Arora has been instrumental in launching a new project, along with a team in India, Bangladesh, Germany and the Netherlands, to address this. It’s called Feminist Approaches to Labour Collectives.

“We will not just rehash the same old like victimhood narrative,” she said. “We are going to be churning out a new kind of narratives.

They’re using TikTok and other social platforms in Bangladesh, India and other countries where the next billion users are.

“And they are active online, they are making a difference,” she says. “To get them online, and to get them to shame and name these brands, poke fun at them, shows their resilience, their creativity, their humour, in spite of the situation they’re in. But it also changed the rules of the game.”

The project is making visible the vast invisible populations that we just do not normally take account of.

“It’s really the bottom of the global value chains pyramid but the bottom is very heavy,” she said. “It’s the foundation.”

Shifting the value chains narrative

And then she switched to the other end of the value chains: the US President Donald Trump. “How could we not talk about Trump?” she said. “But that’s the problem. It’s such a compelling story. Reading about it has become almost like it’s an addiction, like a bag of chips. You know it’s not good for you, but you can’t not eat it.”

Trump says something ridiculous, like he’s taking hydroxychloroquine – a malaria drug. And the media covers it in the US, and in Europe. And so people start stockpiling it.

“What we don’t hear about is the fact that malaria is a poor person’s disease, with 94% of the deaths are taking place in the African region,” she explained. “How can we not be deeply outraged that this is a very important drug, which is being pulled away from the people who actually need it?”

This stockpiling will actually impact millions of lives and the majority of them are children under the age of five, she explained.

”Why is this not a story? Why do they not feel this is worth a read? Is it because we are exhausted with the poverty porn stories? This is why we need digital storytelling to bridge that distance, to create new kinds of intimacy where we can start feeling empathy again.”

The would-be architects of a new future

But what about these people who are dedicating themselves to becoming the architects of a new kind of social design? There are people on both the left and the right doing this. She cites Rutger Bregman, and his book Utopia for Realists, about how you redesign society along more ethical and empathic lines. He wrote an article for The Guardian that was read by millions, including many politicians, because he’s giving hope to people.

He challenged William Golding’s Lord of the Flies narrative that if you leave a bunch of children together, they will just become the worst of human nature because, by nature, we are wild people. We need social institutions and laws to regulate us, otherwise we become extremely barbaric. Not so, he argued. We are actually innately good in many ways.

White saviour narratives

He told the story of a bunch of Tongan boys who get trapped on an island, escaping from missionary schooling, and manage miraculously to survive 15 months in isolation. They’re eventually discovered by the son of a rich businessman, who rescues them. These boys, after 15 months of surviving, get thrown into prison, because they stole a little boat. And their rich, white saviour then gets them out of prison.

“That is basically what Rutger Bregman is touting as a story of hope?” she questioned. “We got into a major Twitter war a few weeks ago because I critiqued him in a Dutch paper.”

Her argument was that he was downplaying the colonial past that underlies the story. “You know, it’s sort of ironic these black persons were thrown into jail,” she argued. “If these were white boys, would they have been thrown into jail after 15 months of surviving such an ordeal? I don’t think so. There is a racial history, there is a colonial history.”

Rethinking our value chains

“When we talk about value, we cannot let efficiency override morality,” said Arora. “There has to be a higher moral code to live by.”

She is sure that not every consumer is happy with paying a little less for a garment and depriving people of a toilet break as a result. It’s just not something that most people are willing to stomach.

She cited the recent Black Lives Matter protests as a good example. “It’s about empathy, politics and people realising that there is a certain amount of higher-level justice that they want.”

They self-same types of people who are now campaigning for supplier diversity, and the very ones who created the monopolisation in the first place, she argued. “They forced many of the global south countries into specialising in one raw material.”

We all need to be more mindful in the way we act if we are to solve these systemic problems. “There needs to be a high amount of self-responsibility if we are to move forward into reassessing this global value chains,” she concluded.

Are you ready to take on that responsibility?

This is a summary of an interview with Payal Arora, conducted by David Mattin and Monique van Dusseldorp during the NEXT Show on June 25th 2020. You can catch up with Payal and her work on her website or on Twitter.

She was also a speaker at NEXT19.