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Following the work across borders: How leisure and security are part of the new offshoring

Updated Monday 9th June 2014

Once offshoring was restricted to manufacturing and call centre jobs - but now other chunks of the nation's economy are being sent overseas.

Laurie Taylor:
The interior of the Burj Al-Arab seven star hotel Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Released into public domain by Atlia rs The Burj Al-Arab hotel [We're talking here about] not the better known offshoring of manufacturing, call centres or financial services but the offshoring of leisure – the development in places like Dubai of vast new centres of consumption.

Well this enlargement of the concept of 'offshoring' is analysed in a new book bearing the term as its title and its author is John Urry, who is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Lancaster University.

We’re going to talk a little bit here, John, about these various different types of offshoring but you suggest they’ve all got a common route – whether we’re looking at leisure, manufacturing, work, whatever they’ve got a common route.

John Urry:
Yes one of the things that I think is really striking has been contrary to what people imagined in the early 1990s and the kind of much more open and borderless world an offshoring world has brought into being many new secrecies – tax havens often are called secrecy jurisdictions – and many of the forms of leisure and pleasure and the offshoring of work of different sorts, offshoring of waste, all presuppose new ways in which they are secret routes and secrecies, so an open world actually turns into almost its opposite.

Laurie Taylor:
Well apparently we keep hearing about open borders don’t we and free trade and money flowing freely across borders. Okay so this is the importance of secrecy, now let’s just go back to a familiar example before we spread out into some of the other examples in your book. This business about the offshoring of work. Now you want to say that there are three different components in this, it’s quite a complicated thing to talk about, it’s not just one single idea?

John Urry:
Sure, there’s the offshoring where literally part of a company gets offshored and the manufacturing or service work goes elsewhere. There’s secondly where there’s a division between various kinds of offshored work. And thirdly where there’s a whole new system develops which over time comes to replace an existing set of economic and social practices. And in all of that there are some other things that kind of link together and especially the significance of containerised shipping which I think is one of the most dramatic characteristics over the last 30-40 years, the small metal box sometimes called coffins of labour power which have come to reorganise manufacturing worldwide.

Laurie Taylor:
I mean this is something which is going – I mean when we talk about say the offshoring of work I mean this is being done more and more, so I mean leading countries which previously had their own industries their industries are now offshored?

John Urry:
Yes, I mean we were discussing just now the way that the derelict factories, the factories that get taken over by nature and obviously many of those were centres of manufacturing work and that manufacturing work especially has come to be done in China, I suppose, where the transportation of the goods manufactured in China come to be exported to the rest of the world and exported through notions of free trade and in these vast container ships.

Laurie Taylor:
So the transportation costs are so low that it hardly makes any difference where the manufacturing occurs in terms of transportation costs?

John Urry:
Absolutely. Until fairly recently but – until fairly recently it was almost without cost and thus the products in almost all of our houses and workplaces were manufactured tens of thousands of miles away.

Laurie Taylor:
Now I mentioned leisure, we introduced this by talking about leisure because this in a way a slightly surprising addition to the notion of offshoring until I began to read your book and understand what it was about and you trace this back to the pirate radio stations in the early ‘60s.

John Urry:
Absolutely yes, yeah, that’s exactly so. This was an interesting example where it was possible partly to do with the law of the sea that the pirate radio stations could transmit over – as long as they were three miles out to sea and a ship is subject to the laws and rules relating to where it is registered not to where it is broadcasting, as in this case. And that was a very sort of interesting development which has now been reflected in countless further ways in which people’s lives and their leisure lives, their leisure and pleasure, can often take place away from home and away from neighbourhoods.

Laurie Taylor:
These sort of offshore worlds where you can perhaps do what you like almost, things that you can’t do at home, they’re sort of enclaves established for you to roam freely and do what you want to.

John Urry:
Absolutely and of course you made reference to Dubai, which is a fascinating Islamic country, and Dubai went from a more or less very poor place with almost no power and electricity 40 odd years ago, it had almost no water and so on, and it has turned into during the 2000s the eighth most visited city in the world. At one time it was said to have more cranes than any other country in the world, it has the Burj Al Arab which is said to be the world’s only seven star hotel.

Laurie Taylor:
Offshore manufacturing of leisure I suppose. You also talk about – another one which is new in your book is the offshoring of security, just tell me about – how would I recognise that, what’s going on here?

John Urry:
Well I mean there are many ways in which security has involved different and diverse forms of secrecy and also the kind of it trying to expose the secrets of others in order to determine who is friend and who is foe. And – but at the same time there are various ways in which but various kinds of activities such as torture is supposedly not allowed in certain countries and most countries have in fact signed the UN declaration and yet there is the way in which you can in effect get torture done somewhere else.

Laurie Taylor:
And the nice little technological thing – your reference to drones because here is, if you like, offshore surveillance.

John Urry:
Offshore surveillance and indeed offshore killing often in which the country bringing about the killing does not have to have declared war and war is being fought but it’s not being declared, there’s almost a kind of an offshoring of war.

Laurie Taylor:
Yes and you’ve talked about as well that extraordinary rendition. Now but you also talk about the sea itself as being a sort of an unregulated and unruly place – offshoring to the sea.

John Urry:
Oh absolutely. I mean most of us social scientists study the land, which is only a quarter of the earth’s surface, three quarters is sea and on the sea there are these pretty unregulated ships, there’s the unregulated oceans full of pirates, full of huge rubbish dumps, much transportation of waste, the location of islands of leisure and pleasure and tax avoidance. And there are also the sea as a place of unruliness generated by changing climates and of course those storms on sea increasingly come onshore and cause a whole series of further consequences.

Laurie Taylor:
Now you want to argue – I mean you see – and this is a very serious book because you want to talk about the way in which this continuing trend in offshoring is antithetical to democracy. I mean can – I can see how that can be happening because all these elements are now sort of, if you like, out of control to some extent of the country which initiates them but I mean is there any way in which we can if offshoring is going to stop or is going to be halted or is there going to be some decrease in the future?

John Urry:
Well in this book I have a final chapter which is all about the possibilities of reshoring and has various things to do with reshoring of waste, of taxation and in particular I discuss briefly the idea of so called 3D printing or additive manufacturing which has the possibility, potentiality, of relocating manufacturing work closer to where consumers are and which could come to produce a reshored system of manufacturing and production.

Laurie Taylor:
Give me an example of what you mean by that then, I mean I’ve heard about this 3D printing in relation to small objects but I mean we’re talking about larger….

John Urry:
Yes in theory it can apply to almost all objects such as the manufacture of the parts of cars, the manufacture of furniture, people have even talked about 3D printing parts of houses and aircraft. Indeed probably we’ll be able to 3D manufacture drones.

Laurie Taylor:
That’s a fascinating prospect. John Urry, thank you very much.

 

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