The Place-based Work of Global Circulation: Maritime Workers, Collaboration, and Labor Agency at the Seaport

Publication Name

Economic Geography


How does place influence the work of global circulation, and how might that work enroll hitherto overlooked modes of collaboration, power, and agency? Geographers recentering labor in analyses of global production and circulation emphasize the labor–capital relation and employer control versus employee resistance. This can limit empirical and political prospects. Instead, we foreground two additional relationships: collaborative relationships of trust between workers across roles and organizations who coordinate circulation together; and relations between workers and place that unfold as tasks are completed amid challenging oceanic and climatic forces. Such relationships are forged by the need to collaborate and provide the foundation for transverse exercises of labor agency. To illustrate, we take to the water with maritime workers (marine pilots, tugboat operators, and liners), observing how shipping circulation is maintained. Seaports are idiosyncratic places—gateways and chokepoints for global circulation experiencing oceanic and atmospheric extremes. Coordination problems are pervasive. Disruption risks require maritime workers to collaborate in place to ensure circulation occurs through place. Demonstrating how the ocean's lateral forces mediate circulation, we emphasize three features of an on-water, place-based labor process: (1) choreographed coordination, (2) situational awareness, and (3) combined multidimensional skills. Navigating a labor process conditioned by the sea, port workers collaborate to manage risks and maintain circulation. In so doing, they also preside over risk and circulation. We argue for collaborative relationships and transverse expressions of agency to feature more prominently in analyses of the diverse, place-based, and interconnected labor upon which capitalist circulation depends.

Open Access Status

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Funding Number


Funding Sponsor

Australian Research Council



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