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People Are Missing: Andrea Wright Illuminates Inequities Faced by Indian Migrant Workers

As the innaugural recipient of the Jinlan Liu APIA Faculty Research Award, Professor Andrea Wright of Anthropology and Asian & Middle Eastern Studies delivered an APIA Banh-Mi lecture on her research about labor in oil companies in the Middle East. Her latest project, for which she is seeking student collaborators, is entitled “Global Views on a Green Future.” As Wright analyzed green energy projects in Kuwait, India, and Virginia, she found that across these three countries, common themes arise.

“People are missing from these pictures,” Wright said, gesturing to an image of an energy plant in Kuwait, “What kind of inequality are we once again hiding underneath these discourses of the environment?”

This observation prompted what Wright seeks to learn with her next project.

“There’s this idea of green energy infrastructure and how it is reinforcing social inequalities while trying to imagine a new future,” Wright said, “and I began to wonder how other groups are imagining the future.”

One perspective she came across at a climate change summit in India was that of the Adivasi community, an indigenous community of India. While debating with a colleague about India’s role in reducing its carbon footprint, the colleague described the ideology of the Adivasi people.

“They see everything as interconnected,” Wright’s colleague had said. “Everything is alive. They see the sea is alive, the water is alive, the flowers are alive. But, they also see all of these things that are connected, they are all responsible for each other.”

A focus on people is what has defined Wright’s research for years.  Her past research on the lives of Indian migrant workers in the Middle East  is what inspired the projects she works on today. From the conditions compelling these workers to take foreign jobs to the larger systems of power that have shaped their lives through history, Wright’s work sheds light on the human aspect of this international labor phenomenon. 

One story Wright highlighted during the lecture was that of Ahmed, a young man from Uttar Pradesh she had met during her research.

Wright displayed an image of a concrete house. The house being made of concrete, as opposed to mud and thatch, symbolized the family’s wealth and social mobility, all made possible by their son’s job in the Gulf.

“Look at this house,” Ahmed had said to Wright, “That’s why it’s my dream to go work in the Gulf. So I can do these things for my family.”

Though there are many stories of success, there is a darker side to the working conditions faced by these men.

“Even in the best case scenarios, labor laws are written so that the employers have the most power,” Wright said. “And in the worst case scenarios, these men may end up abandoned by their employers.”

In one such situation in Sharjah, locals took the workers in as they arranged to return home, and Wright and her team were able to aid with that process. She further explores these perspectives in her book Between Dreams and Ghosts: Indian Migration and Middle Eastern Oil.

The story of Indian migrant workers does not end with the individual lives of these men. It is also a product of greater systemic inequalities and power structures.

“I began to see how race and nationality began to inform how workers were treated and the policies that emerged.”

In a book she is currently working on, “Producing Labor Hierarchies,” Wright writes about her works analyzing labor laws and understanding the various intersections of race, class, caste, and other systems of oppression and their effects on the lives of workers in the Middle East.

In recognition of her contribution to Asian Pacific Islander American Studies, Wright was awarded the Jinlan Liu award and will hold the award for three to four years.

“It shows the commitment of APIA to Professor Wright in recognition of Professor Wright’s contribution,” Professor Francis Tanglao Aguas said of the award. 

Professor Wright is currently seeking students to work with on her project “Global Views on a Green Future.” To learn more and to get involved email her at agwright@wm.edu

This lecture was a part of the Banh-Mi lecture series of the APIA program. For more information on Banh-Mi lectures as well as the Asian Centennial please visit https://www.wm.edu/sites/asiancentennial/index.php