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Race, technology, and maritime labour in the 19th century
2016-06-23


Prof John T. Grider

 

“When employers
impose
worker identity,
it creates problems.”

What does identity mean to people today, and how is it formed? Religion, politics, race, ethnicity, and gender make up individual and community identity. However, Prof John Grider (University of Wisconsin – La Crosse) is of the opinion that employment moulds our identity, since we spend so much time on the job.

Prof Grider joined the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) on the Bloemfontein and Qwaqwa Campuses to discuss his research on the maritime industry, published in his book, Foreign Voyage - Pacific Maritime Labour Identity: 1840 to 1890. “When employers impose worker identity, it creates problems,” he said. Particularly, this “creates instability in communities, and a vulnerability and insecurity amongst the employees”.

To illustrate his point, Prof Grider expanded on the history of 19th-century Atlantic sailors, a highly-skilled workforce, who failed to adapt to changes in their labour environment. Initially, the sea-faring community was very diverse racially. However, as the Pacific, and particularly Asian, marine community gained precedence, this tide turned to such an extent that, in 1886, the Atlantic sailors formed their own Coastal Seamen’s Union in San Francisco, causing a split between Asian and non-Asian sailors. Atlantic sailors had failed to integrate with the new technology of the day (steam power), nor had they accepted the demographic changes that flooded their community rapidly with cheap labour from Chinese shores. 

Prof Grider highlighted the need to maintain an adaptable mentality in the ever- and rapidly-changing labour world, since division amongst workers could lead only to further exploitation of the workforce.

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