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Precarious work and precarious life: the biofinancialization of shipbreaking laborers in Bangladesh

Authors: Elizabeth Sibilia*, CUNY - Graduate Center
Topics: Economic Geography, Political Geography
Keywords: biofinancialization, insurance, racial capitalism, shipbreaking, Bangladesh
Session Type: Paper
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Shipbreaking is the process of extracting material, mostly steel, from devalued ocean-going vessels. The laborers central to this process are known as shipbreakers. Shipbreakers are exposed to slow and spectacular forms of violence during a labor-intensive dismantling process. Following geographic research that focuses on forms of extractive violence this paper employs the theoretical framework of racial capitalism to analyze the “Bangladesh Insurance Sector Development Project,” a World Bank Program aimed at expanding the domestic economy through the deeper integration of the insurance sector, and the “Bangladesh Ship Recycling Bill, 2018,” a bill mandating shipbreaking yards to issue life insurance for their shipbreakers. As shipbreakers are being cast as an ‘insurance frontier,’ the potential exists for a ‘double exploitation’ to emerge that establishes a more pernicious relationship between accumulation strategies and bodily experiences of life and living. This new context necessitates an interrelated set of concerns: What relationship will life insurance have to the devaluation of these human lives? How will actuarial knowledge be produced and used to value the ‘risk’ represented in the potential death of a shipbreaking laborer? Who will benefit from the life insurance? And, how much will the policy pay the family in death, if at all? This paper interrogates this process of ‘biofinancialization’ by bringing into conversation concepts and theories central to the reproduction of global capital in the twenty-first century, namely, the production of ‘waste’, crisis and risk, devaluation and value, and labor.

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