Goodbye iSlave

The FUTURES Podcast speaks to Professor Jack Qiu about the ways factory workers are repressed and sharing what activists are doing to fight back.

Luke Robert Mason: Jack, your work is on iSlavery. Could you explain what iSlavery is?

Jack Qiu: iSlavery: from the word, iPhone, iPad. So the ‘i’ came from all kinds of ways to call today’s smartphone or digital media. But at the same time ‘i’ also stands for individualism, because of individual consumerism – that’s how I imagine it. And slavery of course. It is about enslavement, about extreme ways of exploitation. This is an attempt to have a comparison, but also to bring together historical lessons from slavery and anti-slavery movements to today’s digital media, and efforts to improve the world of digital media today.

But there’s a more analytical concept. There’s the ‘manufacturing iSlave’ – people who are enslaved because they do production. I sometimes call it ‘iSlavery along the assembly line’. Especially Chinese workers who make not only our iPhones, but also Samsungs – any kind of digital gadgets today. These are called ‘manufacturing iSlaves’. A second mode is called ‘manufactured iSlave’. These are people who spend lots of time…this is the consumption mode. Scholars like Tiziana Terranova call them ‘free labour’. People who are addicted to digital media usage. In cities like London or Hong Kong, we have lots of people who have lost their personal freedom because of too much addiction to digital devices. Essentially, this is also an important part. Slavery works in consumption mode in the data mine, as much as in the assembly line.

Mason: To a degree, some of these devices are then being used – and social media is then being used as a form of resistance – a kind of weird irony. I know that you’ve looked at people who are using social media as a form of activism to reveal what’s going on to the rest of the world. I wonder if you could speak to some of those examples.

Qiu: My favourite example is from 2009 – this was a shoe factory called 360 Degree. It’s a Chinese brand making athletic footwear and apparel. So when 360 Degree was preparing for its IPO in New York, it was the financial crisis and then the company tried to become even more lean and mean. So there were thousands of workers. This was in the province called Fujian, in a small town called Jinjiang – but then half of the town was working for this factory. So the workers started a strike, and what the factory did was that they bought off local officials and then used riot police and thugs to crack down on workers – a very bloody crackdown outside of media attention. There was also local media censorship, so most people did not know about it until things went dramatic. Probably my most favourite example about using digital media to have an insurgency by workers is that the shoe factory workers formed solidarity with hackers. We know China also has a sizable number of working class software programmers. They’re not all in India, you know. In China we have a small army of software programmers – I call them grey-colour workers. These are people who do tedious coding and programming, but make a very low salary, and then they were probably…my suspicion, OK…I haven’t really been able, because the place is rather far away from Hong Kong so I’m never down into it, but my suspicion is that the shoe factory workers maybe have cousins or brothers who are software programmers. So what they did is they came together, what they did is they used a skill called ‘search engine optimisation’. What they did is basically they hacked Google. So when anyone searched 360 Degree using Google, they could not find the financial PR release from the company. What they found is thousands of pictures about the bloody crackdown. This was by my account the first factory worker and hacker alliance, and then they had an ambush. This is probably the first cyber ambush against capitalism in the history of the global labour movement. It happened in a special time of 2009 and it shows the creativity of 21st century labour activism in China and in the world. There are probably similar things in India and Latin America that I haven’t heard about, but this is one thing that came to our attention. As scholars, as activists, there are so many new things because neo-liberal capitalism – including digital media incarnation of capitalism – are endlessly novel in the way they exploit people. But at the same time – this is my lesson that I learnt from history from my own activist work – the ways workers resist capitalism are also infinitely creative. Using this form of hacking for example as one of many ways to use digital media against digital capitalism, against slavery.

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