Politicizing and Dehumanizing Skills

Anti-Racism History Human Rights Ideas and Issues


Marble Falls      Talking to NYU Professor Natasha Iskander on Wade’s World  and reading her new book, Does Skill Make Us Human?  Migrant Workers in 21st Century Qatar and Beyond, forces us to confront the fact that we don’t think enough about skills.  Employers, educators and politicians constantly promote more effort and programs to increase skills.  We all talk about skills.  We just might not be thinking enough about skills; how they are used; and, frankly, how they divide us and increase inequality.

            Qatar, at first blush, seems a funny place to talk about anything that has to do with workers.  Its well-earned reputation is terrible when it comes to workers’ rights and its social and cultural integration of the workforce.  Iskander points to the obvious though.  If you are going to look at how migrant workers and skills intersect, there may not be a better place, since over 90% of the labor in Qatar is migrant.  Furthermore, the numbers swelled dramatically as Qatar, controversially, was awarded the coming World Cup soccer matches.  Qatar sees this as an opportunity to rebrand itself and attract tourists instead of oil field roughnecks, and devised a world-class construction program with amazing architectural designs.  As Iskander explains, the construction requires extensive training and supervision programs in order to transition tens of thousands of workers coming into the country without construction experience in the intricate skills of their crafts.

            Iskander is quick to point out that Qatar did improve its labor code under pressure from human rights advocates and the international community, although they were raising the standards from such a low bar that many might not appreciate their system.  Certainly, there are still no rights to organize and any strike leads to deportation.  What didn’t change is the political and cultural way that Qatar, including most construction managers, were unable to change their assessment of their workforce from unskilled to highly skilled, even as they acquired what had to be recognized as best-in-class achievements in one area after another, despite language barriers and other obstacles.  Seeing them more clearly would have confronted the very divisions in Qatar society.  Maps literally redline, as we would call it, areas for “families”, meaning Qatar citizens versus industrial and migrant areas, so that “never the twain shall meet.”

            It’s not hard to extrapolate Iskander’s key insights into how informal workers are seen everywhere, including in the United States and Europe.  Moreover, this same way of dehumanizing people as people and workers as unskilled is also true of the way immigrants are lumped together.  All of us know too well, the way former doctors, lawyers, and others, once immigrants, are all seen through this lens as “other”, lumpen, and worse.  Because divisions based on skill are able to mask as technical and mysterious to the rest of us, the dehumanization, division, and inequity is advanced even more.  Many are willing to talk about how there is honor and dignity in all labor, but in reality, the mythologies around labor skills, are used to make those pieties not only hollow, but oppressive.

            Iskander is right.  We need to think about skills more and differently.