The Golden Cage: Labor Control and Social Utopia in an Indian Oil Town

Sunday, June 26, 2016: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
126 Barrows (Barrows Hall)
Maha Atal, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
Companies today often serve as governing authorities, providing public services and maintaining public order in the communities where they operate. What motivates firms to take on responsibilities, and how can these practices achieve political legitimacy? This paper combines the strategy-as-practice approach from management science with international legal theorist Nicholas Onuf’s concepts of rules and Rule to argue that the daily practices of corporate governing behavior constitute the social rules of the communities in which they apply. In turn, these shape the Rule, or political order, of corporate-community relations. Drawing on three months of fieldwork, this paper examines the Reliance Industries Limited refinery and township in Jamnagar, Gujarat, and argues that the purpose of its company ‘Rule’ is two-fold. First, company services are designed to bring into being a social utopia that reflects the conservative, Hinduism-influenced ideologies of those who control the firm. These services encourage users to live in nuclear, heterosexual families, to practice Hindu worship, to observe a vegetarian diet, and to take part in company health and lifestyle courses, with many recreational activities subject to gender segregation. The social vision implied in these services has greater legitimacy among older workers, and women, than among young men. Second, company surveillance and ‘law’ enforcement aim to maintain control over workers, through surveillance and policing rules that prevent workers from organizing to protest or alter company practices. Together, these goals and practices suggest an attempt to build, and failure to sustain, a hegemonic utopia.