Knowledge, Production, Skill: A Political Taxonomy

Saturday, 4 July 2015: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
TW2.2.03 (Tower Two)
Natasha Iskander, NYU, New York, NY

In contemporary models of economic development that focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and the knowledge economy, knowledge development and production are viewed as distinct endeavors.  Moreover, the processes involved are sequenced: new knowledge emerges first and it then provides direction for how the innovation it generated should be produced.  Skill, widely defined as the expertise required to carry out production, is viewed as separate from both knowledge generation and production, barely ranking as a second-tier form of knowledge. Skill is portrayed as a transactional and instrumental, necessary for production, but excluded from conversations about how to cultivate the knowledge economy. 

This paper presents a radical counterpoint to this view by examining Qatar’s construction industry. It argues that the state-of –art buildings that line the Doha skyline require the intensive integration of knowledge creation, production, and skill development. These processes interact and inform one another in an ongoing way throughout the construction of buildings that in their finished form exist on the technological frontier. The blending of these processes is an outgrowth of Qatar’s labor market policy and of the labor pool recruited to work in construction.

In Qatar, the construction industry represents fully half of the labor market, and the labor pool is made up exclusively of migrants.  This labor market displays extreme churning: the vast majority of migrants work under very restrictive two-year contracts, and the industry is constantly bringing in new workers from an increasingly varied array of source countries.  Most migrants arrive with little or no skill in construction and undergo intensive, though informal and unrecognized, on-the-job training in order to perform basic functions. Training can last up to the first full year of a two-year contract.

The volatility of this labor market means skill development must be integrated as a central function of production.  In order to remain viable, firms in this industry are compelled to organize production around training.  But the financial model that they rely on depends on their keeping skill development invisible and unremunerated.  Arguably, this represents an industrial relations strategy designed to undercut any leverage that workers are able to draw out of their skill.  This paper examines the extent to which this industrial relations approach finds its legitimacy in a knowledge economy model of economic development – a model that not only neglects the ways that knowledge, production, and skill are interrelated in practice, but that also obscures the political ramifications of its taxonomy for workers and for their ability to leverage their contributions for better working conditions.