Working Class Casualties: Mumbai and Long Island

Posted November 29, 2008

The left tends to analyze the world with broad strokes, looking at the action (or inaction) of our class in the thousands and millions. This perspective is essential to counter the corporate press, which typically featured working class people only in “human interest” stories: society is made up of atomized individuals. Some of them are prone to heroism, some of them, due to a bad roll of the die maybe, are condemned to misfortune and misery.

Two events in the past week show how, to capitalists, their profits are worth more than our lives.

“This army of workers,” says an article in the Times Online, “had been brought together from the four corners of the world.” Now, this may be the stuff of dreams for revolutionary socialists. But unfortunately, the army they’re referring to are the employees at the Taj Mahal Palace, a Mumbai hotel that was one site of armed attacks in Mumbai this past Wednesday. This is a workforce that caters to the ruling class in a very literal sense: “hotel staff prided themselves on serving maharajas and princes, heads of states, tycoons, captains of industry and modern-day corporate nomads.”

For awhile I worked at a convention hotel in Atlanta. At my hotel, like the Taj Mahal, workers were linked to homelands all over the globe: China, Vietnam, the Indian subcontinent, Somolia, Nigeria, Gambia, Bosnia, Mexico and Guatemala. Multinational corporations, with financial interests in many of these same areas, held conferences at the hotel. The symmetry of a multinational, largely immigrant workforce providing corporations with the ability to develop their agenda was a constant source of fascination and disgust.

Our training emphasized identification with the happiness of our “guests,” rather than any sense of personal or collective fulfillment with the work itself. Most unskilled workers rely on tips – a way of enforcing this identification through material incentive. The lives and experience of usually white, rich, guests is simply more important than those of a lowly bellhop or housekeeper.

In Mumbai this week, that enforced loyalty to the well being of the rich was deadly. “There were some [workers] whose bravery and sense of duty led them to sacrifice their own lives, witnesses said.” A man named as Mr Rajan was killed by a gunman as he shielded guests. Whether in war, disaster, or shooting spree, it’s always workers on the front lines…

Two days later, in Long Island, a 34 year old worker named Jdimytai Damour was trampled to death by a stampede of Wal-Mart shoppers. Worse still, Jdimytai was not even a Wal-Mart employee. He was a temp – not that a full employee of the retail chain would be eligible for a living wage, health care, or anything like that.

Jdimytai’s death was the result of a trend across the entire retail industry to turn shopping into a hyped-up “event.” In a call to stock analysts a couple of weeks before, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced a ten percent increase in profits from the previous year.

“Our price leadership positions us well and will help our customers in all markets navigate through these difficult times. I am optimistic about the holidays for Wal-Mart and for the Wal-Mart customer.”