Recycling War Scrap

Indian Labour in Iraqi Kurdistan

Arup Kumar Sen

Globalisation has opened up new frontiers of capitalist exploitation on a world scale. A recent ethnographic study (Umut Kuruuzum, Building from Scrap: War, Recycling, and Labour in Iraqi Kurdistan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2022) bears testimony to it. To put it in the words of the author: “This book is ethnographically rooted in the fragmented landscape of Iraq and engaged with the relationality of capital in the twenty-first century”. (p.7)

Kuruuzum has situated his study in the perspective of war-ravaged Iraq: “Not only the ruins from the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, the Gulf War between 1990 and 1991, and the Iraq War in 2003 and the subsequent US invasion and occupation until 2011, but also the continuing Syrian Civil War and the rise and fall of ISIS between 2012 and 2017 turned the region into a haven for dumping various kinds of coveted war scrap, which is rich in copper, such as broken down tanks, armoured vehicles, and anti-aircraft shells… Simply, the book is about the social after-life of war scrap as a commodity highly valued and desired in the frontier of scrap recycling in Iraqi Kurdistan”. (pp.4, 20)

A new paradigm of capitalism was born in the soil of Iraqi Kurdistan based on recycling of war scrap: “…Iraqi Kurdistan emerged as the new lucrative frontier of scrap recycling for the world’s steel business, providing relative security for industrial manufacturing compared to the rest of free-falling Iraq while being close to abundant scrap metal resources created during the intermittent wars and destruction over the last 30 years. Unsurprisingly, in this socio-economic context, the total production of steel exploded from virtually zero in 2006 to five million tons per year in 2016, which created a billion-dollar scrap recycling industry…”. (p.5)

Kuruuzum located new sources of cheap labour for industries in the war zone:“…war and violent conflicts in the wider region have uprooted people from their social and material means of livelihood…, generating a large vulnerable, malleable labour reserve for industrial manufacturing… In Iraqi Kurdistan, the bulk of the refugee men left their families behind in tent settlements and moved to cities and industrial districts to pursue employment opportunities”. (p.112-13) The precarious employment status of refugee labour was recorded in the ethnographic narrative of the author: “Of these unskilled refugee men recruited, none had a contract. They were monthly labourers who lived in temporary accommodation and were in fact constantly moving house like modern hunter-gatherers”.(p.116)

Globalisation also opened up opportunities for engaging migrant labour in the war economy of Iraqi Kurdistan, mostly from Indonesia, Ghana, India, Nepal, Philippines, Georgia, Sierra Leona, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania. (p.119)

Umut Kuruuzum made an in-depth study of labour employed at the Frontier Steel Mill, many of whom were migrant workers from India: “The Frontier Steel Mill had the highest proportion of the workforce engaged in steelwork in Iraqi Kurdistan—in total around 750 workers, of whom 650 came from abroad. Of these 650 workers, around 400 of them were skilled or semi-skilled Indian migrant steel labourers, most of them from the south and southeast of New Delhi, towns such as Agra, Budain, Rampur, Varanasi, Chhapra, Mairwa, Gorakpur, Gopalganj, and Jaunpur. Due to their skills and work experience in the Indian steel sector, these workers are extremely valuable to the global steel industry and its subcontracting practices for cheap production, which takes advantage of cheap scrap reserves and recycling in several parts of the world”. (p.120)
The Indian migrant steel workers in Iraqi Kurdistan recruited through an Indian subcontracting firm were found to be living precarious lives: “The Indian labourers were employed for lower wages compared to the regional skilled labour force, such as from Turkey or Iran, and contracted to live in the labour camps for periods of about two years. Indeed, keeping an Indian worker on the shop floor was as cheap as using unskilled refugee labour”. (pp. 120-21)

The above narrative of capitalist development in the war zone of Iraqi Kurdistan testifies that workers have become footloose and more vulnerable in the forward march of Capital under neoliberalism.

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Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022