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Scholarship examining labour history and studies in the “Global South” too often continues to prioritize western centric categories of the “proletariat” and working-class, marginalizing a range of people and labour forms. Regardless of the scale of inquiry – translocal, national, transnational – the scholarly emphasis on capital and capitalism has resulted in the dominance of structuralist accounts of human agency. The over-emphasis on context has reduced humans to subjects of powerful (economic and material) forces, leaving little room for peoples’ experiences, emotions and perceptions. Moreover, these frameworks and conceptual categories often take labour as a known, where its contours and character are assumed and therefore insufficiently investigated.


To move beyond canonical western and structuralist conceptualizations of labour, this workshop prioritizes new approaches to understanding labour in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. By foregrounding analytical lenses such as “work” (as opposed to “labour”), precarity, resourcefulness, mobility, exile, care, and historical perspectives, we strive to decentre western categories as referents and move beyond narratives of state formation and the nation-state by opening up labour history and studies to include migrants, domestic workers, caregivers, waged and unwaged labourers, conscripted workers, volunteers and performers, to name a few. In so doing, we aim to widen the landscape of labour and labour politics to spaces beyond factories, mines, plantations, markets, corporations, trade unions, parastatals and strikes, to consider households, homes, schools, streets, mobile workplaces, and the maintenance and dissolution of familial and social relationships.


Our focus on examining labour in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East in the past and present from a historical perspective is two fold. It promotes global south perspectives and framings and enables much-needed conceptual comparison. Much of the dominating language and approaches to labour studies emanates from western intellectual traditions, most notably tethered to industrialization and commodity production. Understanding labour from a global south lens can yield nuanced and critical insights into the formation and evolution of power asymmetries across time and space and diverse iterations of human agency.


We invite 15-20 scholars, including PhD candidates, post-doctoral fellows, and junior and senior scholars, from history, anthropology, sociology, and economics departments at universities located in southern Ontario to pre-circulate work in progress and meet in-person over a day and a half long workshop held at the Jackman Humanities Institute. The workshop, focused on scholars located in the humanities and social sciences departments in southern Ontario, will generate interdisciplinary conversations about labour and foster a cross-campus and cross-university community of intellectuals.


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Husseina Dinani

Husseina Dinani is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Historical and Cultural Studies and Global Development Studies at University of Toronto Scarborough. She obtained her PHD in History, with a specialization in modern Africa, from Emory University (Atlanta, USA). She is currently completing a book manuscript, entitled, Women of the Postcolony: Mobility and Resourcefulness in Southern Tanzania, 1930-1985, which is a history of the early African postcolony told from the perspectives of rural women in southern Tanzania. She has published aspects of this research in International Journal of African Historical Studies and Gender & History. Her other research interests include rural labour and migration patterns, the bicycle and East African South Asian women’s lives in Tanzania.


Stephen Rockel

Stephen Rockel is a specialist in African history, particularly East Africa and the western Indian Ocean region. After completing his PhD at the University of Toronto he taught in the Department of Economic History at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, before returning to Toronto. He has particular interests in African social and cultural history, labour, slavery, urbanization, colonialism, environmental history, and war and society throughout the African continent and beyond. In 2006 he published the first full study of caravan labour, Carriers of Culture: Labor on the Road in Nineteenth-Century East Africa. In 2009 he published (with Rick Halpern), Inventing Collateral Damage: Civilian Casualties, War and Empire. His current projects include publishing a collection of life histories of enslaved Africans, a study of slavery and the slave trade in nineteenth century East Africa, and a history of Tabora – a commercial city in Tanzania. Future plans include research on the East African experience of the First World War.

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