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Dr Ashok Kumar

Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow

email: ash.kumar@qmul.ac.uk
Tel: 0207 882 8438
Location: Geography Building, Room 223

Profile

Ashok Kumar

I completed my PhD at Oxford University in 2015 and began my Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship the same year. My main research interests are in economic geography including in international political economy, globalisation, global production networks, industrial relations, cities, migration and social movements.

Alongside my research and teaching, I sit on the editorial board of the journals Environment and Planning D: Society and Space and Historical Materialism, as well as project editor of the critical geography journal City. I have previously received research funding as a Fulbright Scholar and a Wisconsin Idea Fellow.

My three-year research project, titled “End of Sweatshops? China’s labour scarcity and the ascent of monopoly garment firms”, looks at firm consolidation and labour strikes to analyse workers’ bargaining power in capital-light manufacturing in Asia. I argue that burgeoning monopolistic garment manufacturers are finally bridging the spatial divide between value-creation (producers) and value-capture (brands/retailers), with workers demanding a larger share.

Key Publications:

  • Kumar, A. (2014) “Interwoven Threads: Building a Labour Countermovement in Bangalore’s Export-Oriented Garment Sector” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 18:6, 854-872.
  • Kumar, A & Jack Mahoney (2014) “Stitching Together: How Workers Are Hemming Down Transnational Capital in the Hyper-Global Apparel Industry” WorkingUSA: Journal of Labor and Society. 17:2, 187-210.
  • Kumar, A. & Simon Hardy (2012) “Wisconsin Is Global – The Shape of Things to Come” It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest. (ed.) P. and M. Buhle [New York: Verso Books] 161-172.

You can find the latest updates on my research and public engagement at my academia website or by following me on twitter.

Ashok frequently addresses issues of politics and the economy in the media. Recently he was on BBC World Business discussing the strikes, unemployment figures and the French Economy.

Teaching

Undergraduate

  • GEG5111: Spaces of Uneven Development (co-conveners: Kavita Datta & Al James)

Postgraduate

  • GEG7120: Introduction to Geographic Ideas and Practice (Convener: Alison Blunt)
  • GEG7131: Global Working Lives (Convener: Al James)
  • GEG7132: Retheorizing Development Futures (Convener: (Kavita Datta)

Research

Research interests:

My research pursues the argument that the end of cheap Chinese labour causes production at the point of assembly to experience a twilight of what Harvey (2006) calls the ‘spatial fix’, meaning ‘buyers’ may have limited long- term alternatives to China’s labour surplus and economies of agglomeration, leading to the growth of new organisational and technological ‘fixes’ in the garment production process.

I investigate whether there is a maturing toward monopoly power in the configuration of supplier-end capital, which may unlock clues to the changing materiality of workers’ struggles across the global south. The research updates Gary Gereffi’s (1999) theory that labour-intensive production is decidedly ‘buyer-driven’ and builds on an initial study of the changing organisation of China’s garment sector by Zhu and Pickles (2014). I argue that the growth of ‘full package’ suppliers that combine low-value assembly with higher-value sectors such as textiles, logistics, design, and retail, has meant the relationship between ‘producer’ and global ‘buyer’ (transnational brands and retailers) is now more symbiotic. Thus, greater value-capture at the supplier-end may bridge the historic geographic divide between spaces of value capture and places of value creation in the garment sector. Firm-level economic upgrading has been shown to assist in social upgrading for workers (Rossi 2013). Such spatial coincidence calls into question widely held ideas of garment value chains and may help alter the strategies of workers and their trade unions to place demands for a greater share of value from their direct employers rather than only buyers. Ultimately, these changes in the sector demonstrate that workers shape the actions of capital: driving up labour costs, thus forcing vertical (and sometimes horizontal) integration, limiting the spatial fix and moving the struggle to the more direct and brutal technological fixes, which are clearly in the workers’ court: the point of production itself.

The objective is to shed-light on the new dynamics of garment sector capital-labour relations through a historical, empirical, and theoretical study of the following three specific enquires:

  1. Investigate the rise in Chinese labour costs and the future of labour-intensive production
    
South China’s wealth of surplus labour, cheap raw materials, and infrastructure was the optimum environment for garment production, increasing profits and depressing workers wages across the world. However this is changing. By analysing garment outsourcing patterns, factory disclosure lists, and government data, I examine how China’s rising labour costs are shaping the future of the garment sector globally, where it locates next, wage differentials amid pre and post-South China, and how these changes are impacting production costs and profitability across the supplychain.
  2. Interrogate the limits of spatial fixity and the ascent of monopoly suppliers
    New spatial realities alter the composition of capital leading to the next theoretical question: how integrated have once assembly-only firms become? And is this changing their role as largely weak comprador capital to powerful monopoly capital? There is a critical need for a survey of growing ‘full package’ suppliers across Asia. A comprehensive study of these firms, mergers and acquisitions, sourcing rates, levels of upgrading, and surplus value are key to understanding the shifting dynamic between buyer and producer, worker and boss, and indeed the global south and global north. The research will be conducted through comprehensive company data mapping, analysing trends in purchase contracts, followed up by in-depth interviews with representatives of domestic firms and transnational brands, trade unions, as well as labour monitoring groups across Asia to discern the question of power and price: who calls the shots between global buyers and, now, full-package multinational producers?
  3. Probe workers’ power, supply chain organising efforts, and economic leverage
    The disparate nature of global garment firms poses a significant challenge to labour organising. Yet, the limits of ‘spatially fixing’ the profitability crisis posed by China’s rising labour costs may be contributing to both the relocation of capital and the growth of ‘full package’ suppliers. To brands, the historically profitability of South China, in terms of labour force and infrastructure, has no substitute. Thus changes in China’s labour landscape fundamentally alter the global economic geography. The study in this section will be conducted through a survey of over forty local garment trade unions across the world, supplemented by interviews with union contacts retrieved through longstanding links I have developed with IndustriALL global union member unions, Clean Clothes Campaigns affiliates, and the International Union League for Brand Responsibility member unions.

Through an exploration of three separate but complimentary points of enquiry of the garment sector the research will make a key contribution to the understand of the changing relationship between capital, labour, and production in the global economy. The project will result in the first in-depth analysis on the ascent of ‘full package’ garment manufacturers in Asia, delivering insights on the complex and changing relations of power between manufacturers, buyers, workers, factory owners, consumers and the state. These findings will contribute to ongoing efforts to establish workers’ rights in a sector plagued by building fires and collapses in which countless initiatives have to date remained largely without success (Kumar & Mahoney 2014). Ultimately, understanding the trends in Chinese manufacturing may hold the clues to the future of production across the world and whether we are indeed in the waning days of the ‘sweatshop’ factory.

Beyond the Leverhulme Trust funded research project, I write and research about South Asia and the United States on issues of international political economy and industrial relations, race and inequality, as well as power and contestation.

Publications

For access to my publications visit my academia page.

Edited Special Issues

  • Kumar, A. Gebrial, D.; Sarkar, A.; Cooper, A.; Iyer, S. (2016) eds. Special Issue “The Politics of Identity” Historical Materialism (ongoing)
  • Kumar, A; Cowan, T.; Tilley, L. (2016) eds. Special Issue “Peasants, Primitive Accumulation and Global Capitalism” City (ongoing)
  • Kumar, A., Murrey, A.; A. Elliott-Cooper & M. Younis (2014) eds. Special Issue: “Labor Pains: Resistance Across Global Spaces” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 18:6

Journals

  • Kumar, A. & Dalia Gebrial (2016). “Rhodes Must Fall as an Atonement for the Present”. Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 51. Issue 10.
  • Kumar, A (2015) “Global Workers’ Rights through Capitalist Institutions? An Irreconcilable Proposition” Historical Materialism, 23.3. 215-227.
  • Kumar, A. (2014) “Interwoven Threads: Building a Labour Countermovement in Bangalore’s Export-Oriented Garment Sector” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 18:6, 854-872.
  • Kumar, A., Amber Murrey, Adam-Elliott Cooper & Musab Younis (2014) Co-Editor, Special Issue: “Labor Pains: Resistance Across Global Spaces” City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 18:6.
  • Kumar, A & Jack Mahoney (2014) “Stitching Together: How Workers Are Hemming Down Transnational Capital in the Hyper-Global Apparel Industry” WorkingUSA: Journal of Labor and Society. 17:2, 187-210.
  • Kumar, A. (2014) “Securing the Security”, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action. 18.3, 356-359.

Chapters in Edited Volumes

  • Kumar, A. (2016) “Financialization and Neohausmanization in Bangalore” Advances in Urban Studies in India. R.K. Books (in press)
  • Kumar, A. (2015) “Urbanism” Encyclopedia of Social Theory, Wiley Blackwell. (In Press)
  • Kumar, A. (2015) “Chinese Hand Laundry Association” Chinese Americans: A History & Culture of a People. ABC-CLIO
  • Kumar, A. (2015) “International Ladies Garments Workers’ Union” Chinese Americans, ABC-CLIO. (In Press)
  • Kumar, A. (2014) "Les Jeux olympiques de Londres: une destruction créatrice" La Coupe Est Pleine! Les désastres économiques et sociaux des grands événements sportifs [Paris: PubliCETIM Collection] (translated by Julie Duchatel)
  • Kumar, A. & Simon Hardy (2012) “Wisconsin Is Global – The Shape of Things to Come” It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest. (ed.) P. and M. Buhle [New York: Verso Books] 161-172.
  • Kumar, A. (2011) “Achievements & Limitations of the UK Student Movement” The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance. (eds.) D. Freedman and M. Bailey [London: Pluto Press]
  • Kumar, A. (2011) “LSE: Then & Now” Springtime: The New Student Rebellions. (eds.) C. Solomon & T. Palmieri [London: Verso] [Korean (Soul: Jiwasarang Publishing)].

Other Publications (selection)

PhD Supervision

Public engagement

My academic and activist work has appeared on the covers of USA Today and Wisconsin State Journal as well as news sections of Der Spiegel, Evening Standard, The Sunday Times (UK), Haaretz, Telegraph, Guardian & over a dozen other print media outlets. I have appeared on: Air America Radio, BBC World Service, National Public Radio, Truthdig Radio, BBC “Newsnight”, BBC London, Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, ITV’s “Daybreak”, BBC Asian Network, Channel 4 News UK, Russia Today, Press TV & Sky News.

Examples include (video links included)

I also present my research in academic and non-academic settings including:

  • “Plenary: #blacklivesmatter Roundtable” Radical Americas, UCL Institute of Americas, (video) 2015
  • “Consolidation & Workers' Bargaining Power” LSE (radio interview) 2015
  • “A Garment Worker Countermovement?” Political Economy of ‘New’ India, AAG 2015, Chicago 2015
  • “Workers Against Capital: Sweatshops & Resistance”, State, Power & Globalization, Richmond University 2015
  • “Towards Buyer-Supplier Symbiosis & What It Means for Workers”, Juxtopose, JNU, Delhi (video) 2014
  • Chair, “Labor Geographies”, Geographies of Resistance, Oxford University 2014
  • Panelist, Responsible Conduct in the Global Economy, UCL Department of Political Science 2014
  • Co-Convener, Geographies of Resistance Conference, Oxford University 2014
  • “Participatory research & labor geography”, Humpi University, India 2013
  • “Case Study of the Transnational Campaign” CERIC Leeds University, UK 2013
  • “A Contract to End Sweatshops” Royal Geographical Society, London 2013
  • “Case study of Fruit of the Loom Campaign” North American Labor History Conference, Detroit 2013
  • Student Movements Confront the 1%, Chicago, IL (video) 2012
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