Forwarded from Rakesh (plantation labor)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon Aug 25 06:44:56 MDT 2003

Journal of Contemporary Asia, August 2001 v31 i3 p306.
Title: Towards a Model of Asian Plantation Systems.(agricultural
industry history research, early 20th century)
Author: Alec Gordon

DMS may appreciate that Gordon attempts to show elsewhere how the
plantation complex undermined the growth of local capitalism; this
excerpt speaks to the issue of cheap labour.


"The history of the plantation system has been characterised by the fact
that labour requirements could not normally be met by the supply of
labourers in the immediate neighbourhood of the plantations."
(Goldthorpe, 1984: 437)

That came from a Director of Harrisons Fleming plantation consultants.
He does a little better by adding a quote from Jackson (1961) "The 1889
Annual Report for the State of Perak, Malaya, stated that, `a Malay
absolutely refuses to hire himself out as a labourer on any terms a
planter could accept'" (my emphasis). That is more like it. What the
planter would accept was very low indeed. ...

"As there is ample land available in the Outer Provinces, the population
enjoys economic independence which it has no desire to change for
wage-earning employment.... this independence has been increased ...
[by] Native cultivation of products for export...." (ILO, 1935: 92)

Cheap labour had to be brought in from areas outside the plantations
because with minor exceptions no locals were mad enough to work on
plantations on the terms of the planter whilst they retained ownership
of their own land.

This plantation system joined the plantation area with outside
socio-economic complexes that had lower living standards. This would be
either another usually distant part of the same colony: as in India for
the tea plantations of Assam; or in Indonesia, Javanese workers to the
rubber plantations of Sumatra; in French Indochina it meant the transfer
of migrants from the Red River Delta to the southern rubber plantations;
or in Papua New Guinea workers from the Highlands or the Sepik to the
coastal or island coconut plantations. Or it could be with another semi-
or wholly colonial state: so many places around the world took workers
for plantations and mines from India and China; and in,rather smaller
numbers Javanese indentured labourers went to Surinam, Malaya and French
New Caledonia. But in both cases labourers in the country of their
origin had been subjected to a disruptive form of development that
parted people from their customary means of livelihood and made them
labourers. "The labourers were recruited from areas where the
destruction of local industry, famines or political unrest had led to
widespread hardship" (Stenson, 1970: 1-2). Initially, at least, "The
recruiters were the grossest riff-raffs of the country ..." (Sandhu,
1969: 81). The workers had to be economically transported, and secured
in their new workplace under increasing state supervision and enforcement.

"The ... feature of the migrant labor system [in Indochina] was its
reliance upon a wide variety of both direct and indirect political
mechanisms that forced small-scale cultivators to seek wage-paid
employment ... Thus in order to pay colonial taxes, villagers were
compelled to produce cash crop surpluses ... or to sell their
labor-power or both." (Murray, M. 1980: 253-40

Semi-forced labour -- the indentured labour system, usually enforceable
by Penal Sanction -- initially and frequently provided the cheap labour
in a system. The system was described in 1931 by the Governor-General of
the Australian colony of Papua as, "Really, rather like slavery"
(Fitzpatrick, 1980: 57). The indenture bound the worker to remain with
the same employer for the contract period so that the money advanced to
pay the workers' fare and upkeep on the journey and later was repaid.
Encouragement by the planters for the workers to use credit tended to
perpetuate the force of the indenture.

"It is clear that coercion was needed because Papua New Guineans
preferred their own way of life to the boring and arduous work on
plantations and mines, especially after they had experienced such work."
(Fitzpatrick, 1980: 57)

The worker could not change his/her employer without the employer's
permission. When as frequently occurred workers did "escape" they were
pursued by the police under the penal sanction clause and when caught
their "crime" was normally paid off in terms of an extra period of
non-paid work at the plantation from which they had absconded. The
sanction also applied to other "infractions" by the workers such as
"lack of proper respect" of the employer or "failure to work
diligently". Punishment for such infractions included flogging.

The kangany and similar systems of recruiting and supervision worked in
much the same way. "It must be emphasised that the kangany system was
only a variant of the indenture system" (Jomo, 1988: 188). A kangany, a
former plantation worker or possibly overseer, would return to his
village in South India and there recruit workers obliging to them sign
an agreement to repay advances that covered the cost of passage, upkeep
of the worker and his profit. The kangany would then sell the debt (and
thus the worker) to a planter. The worker was bound not to leave that
employment until after repayment of the advances. As the inter-war
Encyclopaedia put it, "Labor still has a forced character despite the
abolition of indentured labor" (McBride, 1935: 151). In Vietnam, "The
contract subjected recruited northern workers to a spider's web of
obligations which were nothing less than indentured servitude" (Murray,
M. 1992: 52). A well known book on Indian migrant workers and their
families overall is actually called A New Form of Slavery (Tinker,
1974). These operations were firmly enforced by the colonial law system.
In colonial Malaya, in view of the lack of interest in plantation work
by the local Malay population who still owned land, bound immigrant
workers from India were preferred. In most years Tamil Indian workers
accounted for over 70% of the plantation workforce. "Perhaps the most
important reason was that Tamils were much cheaper than Javanese and
Chinese labour" (Ramachandran, 1994: 53). This was doubtless caused in
part by the long lasting agrarian crisis in the Madras Presidency over
which the British colonialists were then ruling.

A system somewhat similar to the kangany eventually bound Chinese
immigrant workers. In 1929 Indian estate workers in Malaya peaked at
181,000 and Chinese workers at 68,000. The immigration of Chinese
workers was undertaken "privately" and mainly for tin mining under the
most atrocious circumstances in the 19th century that was referred to by
the Chinese themselves as "the pig trade."

"The Malayan governments wanted a cheap as well as a large labour
supply. This object was achieved in respect to Indians whose wages were
generally low and bore no real or sustained relationship to the actual
demand for estate labour.... The immigration machinery was devised with
this object in mind...." (Parmer, 1961: 254)

Elsewhere, in Fiji for example, from 1879:

"Indian labourers could be brought to Fiji for five years' indenture.
Recruits were to serve where the government directed and were subject to
penal sanctions.... The recruiters were paid by the number of workers
they engaged, and they lied and mislead many people. They indicated Fiji
was near Calcutta ... and that huge wages could be earned. In most cases
it seems that no reference to the penal clauses in the indenture
contract." (Prasad, 1974: 1-2)

In Indonesia (Dutch East Indies) the importation of workers initially
for tin mining, tobacco plantations and in the 20th century increasingly
for rubber plantations, was governed for Sumatra by the 1880 "Coolie
Ordinance" and its later amendments. Initially, the migrants were from
China but later increasingly and overwhelmingly from nearby Java. "Labor
conditions are particularly bad in the Dutch colonies" (McBride, 1935:
151). The reputation of the Deli plantations was even worse than that of
the Malayan ones. Chinese workers would protest vigorously at the mere
thought of going to the hated Deli estates (Breman, 1989: 132). (Chinese
migrant workers in Sumatra as in Malaya were predominantly working in
the tin mines.)

"The Sumatran plantation industry represented an extreme of the
indentured labour system but its recruitment methods were typical of the
plantation industry in other parts of the world (my emphasis)."
(Goldthorpe, 1984: 440)

Migrants from Java to the Sumatra plantations travelled by ship listed
as "freight" cargo and were then transported by rail inland from the
port as if they were cattle. As Breman remarks:

"Freight and cattle, the associations were not incidental. From the time
of their recruitment the coolies were systematically dehumanised in
order that, even before their work started they would be degraded
effectively to resemble a labour commodity, pure and simple." (Breman,
1989: 133)

"Because of its coercive nature the `penal sanction' actually verged on
slavery" (Thee, 1977: 37). As an almost throwaway remark the fundamental
importance of the penal sanction is shown:

"Despite defects of working with immigrant labor under a penal sanction,
it seems unlikely that the rapid opening up of East Sumatra would have
been possible without it." (Thee, 1977: 41)

The use of the term "cheap labour" in this context would be somewhat
similar to Meillassoux's notion of "over exploitation" which, "can be
said to exist when the remuneration for labour is less than the cost of
the reproduction of labour power" (Meillassoux, 1981: 91nh).

In the modern Asian plantation system this would occur through:

(i) use of migrant labour--where the cost of maintaining the workers
(i.e. reproduction) before and after working in the plantations, would
be borne outside the plantation sector. That is to say in the usually
unproductive early period in a person's life before coming to the
plantation and after leaving plantation work which would cover the less
productive old age of the person. For non-migrants this is covered by
the society in which the person lives. However, the plantation was not
responsible for these costs which then had to be borne elsewhere.

(ii) payment of wages related to a hypothetical subsistence level for a
single person--where the full cost of reproducing the labour force is
not even taken care of whilst the workers are actually working within
the plantation sector. For example:

"With a few minor exceptions the story in New Guinea has been that of
recruiting the man alone. The women should remain in the village and
produce there the future generation of labourers. The village bore the
costs of maintaining the wife and mother; and the wage was fixed in
relation to the assumed needs of the 'unit of labour' only." (Rowley,
1972: 104)

Actually, I recollect that still in Papua New Guinea in 1974 when the
question of "the family wage" for plantation workers was raised again at
the National Minimum Wages Commission. The proposal whilst meeting with
sympathy, was rejected on the grounds of the inability of the planters
to pay it! In a manner of speaking this must have been quite true
because the 1970 Enquiry had revealed that 50% of plantation owners were
paying less than the existing legal minimum wage anyway.

(iii) where possible the use of seasonal labour -- in which case even
the maintenance/ production cost is not fully covered by the plantation
system. The use of seasonal labour is, of course limited by the crop in
question having a definite harvest "season." Rubber and tea, for
example, are harvested more or less throughout the year and do not make
much use of seasonal labour. At the other extreme are coffee and sugar.
Sugar has a very definite and limited time for the cutting "campaign."
And the cheap labour for it was not everywhere easy to find. Hence the
unholy glee (as well as great insight) on the part the doyens of the
literature on the Dutch sugar growing in Java:

"The greatest advantage moreover is that these people are entirely free,
that they are available when they are wanted and that they need neither
be paid nor provided for during the time when there is no work to be
done (my emphasis)." (Prinsen Geerligs, 1937: 8)

The shortfall to the worker involved in the cheap labour system would be
made good by a "subsidy" from the family, clan or village of the
worker's area of origin to the plantation system or/and the worker
having to accept a wage below subsistence. See also M. Murray (1980:

"Properly regulated, plantations might be operated with completely free
labor; but the profit to the owner would be reduced, possibly to the
point where under present conditions capital would not be available for
such undertakings." (McBride, 1935: 151)

Java Sugar -- A Possible Exception?

One possible exception to this picture of coerced labour was in the Java
sugar plantations in the 20th century where landlessness and population
pressure had produced such poverty that generally a free labour market
in unskilled workers prevailed from around the change in tax payment
from kind to money in 1890. The imposition of a money tax does raise the
question as to whether this was designed to oblige farmers to work for
wages or to produce cash crops rather than mere recognition that the
older forms of taxes in kind were no longer appropriate. Men, women and
children were prepared to offer themselves as temporary and migrant wage
workers during the sugar harvest time which lasted throughout Java for
about three months. As an envious planter from Ceylon remarked, "In Java
the native population is enormous amounting to some 33 million
intelligent and tractable natives, sufficient for all purposes, and
being so plentiful that the rates of wages are low" (Ferguson,
1910/1983: 324). In other activities such as road building as late as
the 1920's sugar mills were still using unpaid labourers under the
"village services" (desa diensten) that supplied forced labour. (These
had remained after the general tax changes of 1890.) In the Princely
Territories, (Vorstenlanden) however, a separate sugar system did supply
unpaid, forced labour for sugar cultivation (Agrarian Legislation, 1930:
157; Selosoemardjan, 1962: 263; or Gordon, 1999). Nevertheless, it seems
that these were exceptions to the general rule of "free" labour in Java
in the 20th century whose low wages received no upward pressure from the
250,000 Javanese migrants who were working in Sumatra as indentured
labourers on the rubber and tobacco plantations there.

However, because Java sugar falls significantly under the item of
enforced cheap land it certainly qualifies as a plantations system.


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