Is the race to the bottom over? Reflecting on ‘surplus’ populations in Cambodia

Everybody speaks about a ‘race to the bottom’ in the world of work. For brick workers enduring debt-bondage in Cambodia the race might already be over.

Tanya Murray Li, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, describes the millions of unemployed or under-employed people across Asia as “surplus populations”. She writes, “For the 700 million Asians who live on less than a dollar a day, tiny incomes are ample testament to the fact that no one has a market incentive to pay the costs of keeping them alive from day to day, or from one generation to the next.”

This idea of a surplus population puts a whole new spin on the notion of a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of the trajectory of work. It forces us to rethink the very premise of the metaphor, and also to question how such populations can become lucrative for capital in other ways.

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