Infrastructural Labor and Urban Development

My dissertation project examines the construction and maintenance of two largescale urban infrastructures, the New York City Subway and the Seoul Metro, and the ways that two militant trade unions, the Seoul Transit Labor Union and the Transit Workers Union Local-100 have historically contested and negotiated the labor costs of infrastructural development. I pay attention to demographic shifts of the city, the ideas of infrastructural modernity of public transit, and the state regulation of public employment in this project. 

Fieldwork and archival research has been generously supported by a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant from the American Sociological Association, the  International Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Social Science Research Council, the Labor Action Research Network New Scholars Research Grant, the Holtz Center for Science & Technology Studies Research Grant, and the Crowe Scholarship for Dissertation Research.

Several papers from this project are being prepared for publication, tentatively titled,

"Workers in Barricades and Mayors on Bicycles: The charisma behind collective action in subway strikes, New York City and Seoul"

"The varieties of solidarity in the underground metro of New York City and Seoul 1970-2020"

"Unionizing against Solidarity: The Meritocracy Habitus and the Politics of Skills in the Seoul Metro"

The subway maintenance depot of line 2 in Seoul, Photo by Youbin Kang

Regulating Global Supply Chains

This research examines transnational labor regulation in Bangladesh in the aftermath of Rana Plaza. I conducted several months of fieldwork and more than a hundred interviews between 2015-2019 based on my experience working as an intern at a garment manufacturing factory, and then as a researcher for the International Labour Office.  I published two papers from this project. Research was supported by the Scott-Kloeck Jensen International Travel Grant, the Crowe Scholarship, the Center for South Asia Travel Award

The first paper, "The Rise, Demise, and Replacement of the Bangladesh Experiment in Transnational Labour Regulation" is published in the International Labour Review and won the Early Career Award at the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics.

Five years after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013 – a disaster that killed 1,133 garment workers – the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a multi-stakeholder programme designed to set labour standards for the garment industry, was terminated by Bangladesh's highest court. Widely hailed as a promising example of transnational regulation, the Accord was never successfully institutionalized locally. On the basis of archival and ethnographic work in Bangladesh, the author suggests that, although the Accord successfully upgraded factory safety standards, its failure to build widespread support among local employers, workers and the Government led to its termination and replacement.

Another paper, "Access to justice after Rana Plaza: A preliminary assessment of grievance procedures and the legal system in the apparel global supply chain" is published in Delautre, G.,Echeverria Manrique E., Fenwick, C. (eds). Decent Work in a Globalized World: Lessons from Public and Private Initiatives. ILO: Geneva. p.265-300.

The problem of access to justice for garment workers in Bangladesh was tragically exemplified by the Rana Plaza disaster of 2013. In its wake, various legal and institutional reforms were introduced in the garment sector in Bangladesh that were aimed at enhancing the possibility of workers to receive just treat- ment under the law. This chapter asks: How did the critical incident of Rana Plaza transform the access to justice for workers? The available literature by scholars, activists and policymakers introduces three different courses of action: the first promotes the strengthening of the domestic judicial system; the second calls for the increased participation and responsibility of trans- national corporations; and the third focuses on raising the legal consciousness workers and legal professionals. Through the analysis of internal documents of legal service providers, information obtained from 23 interviews and a longitudinal dataset of grievances filed by garment workers with a non- governmental organization (NGO) that provides legal aid, this paper details how the combination of these three courses of action led to transformations in the workers’ access to justice. This chapter demonstrates that the transnational pressure to amend and strengthen the judicial system worked alongside extra- judicial initiatives that broadened the reach of labour rights in Bangladesh. It also illustrates that legal consciousness is critical for understanding possible ways of translating international labour standards into local labour rights.

I also reviewed Sarosh Kuruvilla's book, Private Regulation of labour standards in GVCs, published in the ILR Review.

The search for Rana Plaza Victims, Photo by Taslima Akter

Lawyers in Dhaka Labor Court, Photo by Youbin Kang

Automation and Driverless Metros

With Jungmyung Kim, I have been collecting an original dataset of all metro systems in 134 cities around the world. In this ongoing quantitative project, we examine the influence of technological fetishism, city competition, and labor institutions on the adoption of driverless metro systems. We foresee several additional projects to come out of this dataset, including an investigation of the influence of strikes and trade unions on the adoption of driverless trains.

"The Spectacle of Automation and Status Aspirations: The Adoption of Driverless Metro Systems Around the World, 2008-2020"

Why do cities automate labor? Scholarship and journalistic accounts of the consequences of automation have grown dramatically over the years. Yet, motivations behind the adoption of automation technology have been understudied. We draw on an original dataset of 428 cities in 110 countries and conduct an event history analysis that models the adoption of driverless metro systems in urban passenger transit worldwide. Building on theories of status competition and techno-developmentalism, we posit that the cities are largely driven by status competition in their decision to automate train operations in urban passenger transit. Automation events are more likely among “middle-status” cities compared to cities of higher or lower status, controlling for GDP, population, and labor-related variables, implying that status aspirations using the spectacle of automation is a considerable motivation for adopting automated technologies. This finding invites inquiry into the socio-economic determinants of automation and the symbolic valence of technological development in different economic sectors.

Kaplan-Meier survival graphs from our working paper on Driverless Metros