Transnational Labor Migration, Globalization, and Ecological Integration in the Pacific World, 1800s-2000s

AHA Session 74
Labor and Working Class History Association 2
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Room 311/312 (Hilton Atlanta)
Bonnie G. Smith, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Edward Dallam Melillo, Amherst College

Session Abstract

This comparative panel investigates the varied economic and ecological exchanges facilitated by transnational labor migrants across the Pacific Ocean over the past two centuries and shows how the realities of the modern Pacific World are dependent on the history of trans-Pacific laborers, whose movements have been, and continue to be, fundamental in shaping economic globalization, environmental change, and wealth disparities within networks connecting Asia, the Americas, and the Pacific Islands.  While each paper focuses on a different localized study – nineteenth-century Hawai’i, the early twentieth-century Dutch empire, and Japan since the 1980s – the papers share a common thematic focus of exposing the integrated nature of the Pacific World during the modern era. Gregory Rosenthal’s paper argues that Hawai’i played a central role in connecting the shores of the Americas and Asia into a cohesive maritime space during the nineteenth century.  Tracing the indigenous epistemologies of Hawaiian, Chinese, Mexican, and Pacific Northwest laborers, Rosenthal reveals how trans-Pacific migrants established a new system of capitalist exchange while also propelling environmental changes into motion.  Kris Alexanderson’s paper investigates the migration of Indonesian, Chinese, and Indian contract laborers to plantations and factories in Suriname from 1900-1940.  Ecological concerns over public health, disease, and contamination among Asian migrants affected the economic decisions of colonial businesses profiting off of trans-Pacific workers and these decisions influenced the identity formation of migrants moving across Pacific exchange networks.  Tomoyuki Sasaki’s paper examines the flow of Brazilian, Peruvian, and Argentinian workers to Japan around the turn of the twenty-first century, when Japanese labor shortages required an increased reliance on trans-Pacific labor migrants.  Once in Japan, these workers realized that one’s worth in the global capitalist labor market depended on the economic status of one’s nation of origin.  The three papers suggest that trans-Pacific labor migrations are fundamental to the development of capitalist economies across the Pacific World in a variety of ways and reposition labor history from a “terracentric” viewpoint to a transoceanic perspective. 

The three papers are also linked by a methodological interest in tracing the effects of labor migration on identity.  Not only are Pacific World migrations contested arenas of power between various state and individual actors, but they are also opportunities for individuals to create meaning over the multifarious worlds experienced during trans-Pacific migrations. Rosenthal’s look at Hawai’i shows how the nineteenth century was a period of intensive economic and ecological exchange, which helped shape a new integrated oceanic system.  Alexanderson explores a period of institutionalized contract labor, when the regulated  “business” of labor migration was, simultaneously, a contested arena of negotiation. Sasaki helps contextualize the history of Pacific labor migration during the late-twentieth century and furthers our understanding of the long-lasting trends and effects of trans-Pacific labor migration within contemporary capitalist economies.  All three papers share a desire to understand the inequalities inherent to Pacific World labor migrations over the past two hundred years and incorporate local, national, and global levels of empirical analyses into a singular panel on the Pacific World.

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