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  • Author or Editor: Edward Webster x
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This chapter problematizes the notion of public sociology by comparing two examples of research undertaken during the apartheid period. It raises questions over the role of sociologists in situations of large-scale suffering and exploitation. Should they take sides, and if they do, on what grounds can such choices be justified? It is argued that one takes sides on the basis of certain value commitments. But when sociologists go beyond the relative comfort of the classroom and engage with organizations outside the university, they dirty their hands. This is the dilemma that lies at the heart of a ‘critically engaged sociology’: how to square the circle between practical engagement with outside organizations and a commitment by the sociologist to scholarship. The chapter concludes by suggesting a response to this dilemma in the form of ‘critical engagement’.

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This chapter explores how the rise of neo-liberalism changed the rules of the game, undermining the gains made by workers in the 1980s and eroding the standard employment relationship through outsourcing. The chapter begins by reflecting on different cycles of municipal workers’ resistance in Johannesburg. Then it goes on to show how these municipal workers rediscover their power and attempt to resist casualisation and privatisation. The contention is that, by failing to extend its struggle to the community (utilising societal power), the SAMWU lost an opportunity to broaden its power resources. The chapter concludes by showing how, in the age of globalisation, neo-liberalism has captured the state, social democratic labour’s historical ally. This has drawn sections of the union leadership into corrupt practices. In terms of Jelle Vissers’ typology, SAMWU is an example of dualisation, where unions defend existing strongholds and focus on workers in stable jobs. This opens up a growing representational gap as more and more precarious workers are left without a voice.

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The concluding chapter begins by returning to the early 1970s in South Africa. At that time, a resurgence of labour’s power seemed implausible. Today, the future for labour also looks uncertain. But the Durban strikes of 1973 show that one underestimates workers at one’s peril. With this basic lesson in mind, we reconsider the findings from each of the case studies to outline the trajectory that worker struggles have taken over recent decades. We see how labour process fixes and the rise of new branches of industry all contribute to a dynamic process that restructures the working class. It is capital’s efforts to overcome impediments to accumulation and find fresh avenues for accumulation that unmakes and remakes the working class in some cases and creates new sections of the class in others. This chapter ultimately considers how workers and their organisations respond in different historical and contextual moments by harnessing diverse sources of power to be unmade, remade and made anew. In the current moment of flux, we suggest that the revival of labour movements in the Global South is likely to come from workers who are experimenting with various forms of organisation and different sources of power.

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This framing chapter situates the book’s case studies within their historical context. Over the last half-century, globalisation and digitalisation have dramatically changed the world of work, and the social weight of the international labour movement has declined. Understanding these changes has preoccupied labour scholars. The chapter explores how this literature has wrestled with Karl Polanyi’s notion of a counter-movement to find new hope for labour under neo-liberalism. But the conundrum that is the ‘future of labour’ ultimately takes us back to Marx, whose insights into the inherent logics of capital accumulation and the fundamental contradictions of wage labour provide the theoretical building blocks for understanding the changing politics of production today. The central argument is that capital employs numerous ‘labour-process fixes’ to overcome impediments to accumulation, undermine worker organisation and restructure the workforce. The case studies in the rest of the book then consider how labour process changes in different industries ‘unmake, remake and make’ sections of the workforce and the working class more broadly. Finally, the chapter introduces the idea that how workers build power is the guiding question when enquiring what future there is for labour.

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From its beginnings, the sociology of work in South Africa has been preoccupied with three enduring themes: skill/deskilling, racism in the workplace, and Fordism/racial Fordism. With the advent of democracy in the 1990s there was a shift away from studying the labour process. We argue in this article that there has been a return to taking seriously the ways new forms of work in this postcolonial context pose new questions to the global study of work. A central preoccupation in the study of work has been the racialised reinscription of post-apartheid workplace orders, now in the context of new dynamics of externalisation and casualisation of employment. Another important theme is the shift away from studies of the formal sector workplace and toward the broader implications of the precarianisation and informalisation of labour. This focus coincided with the growth of new social movements by mostly unemployed (black) township residents around state services provision. This includes studies on working-class politics more broadly, with attention focusing on questions of organising and mobilising. More recently this interest in precarious labour has grown into studies of the gig economy, returning to earlier themes of technology and skill, as well as new forms of waged labour and wagelessness. We argue for the ongoing salience of labour process studies for understanding the specific issues of the securing and obscuring of value, and through the articulations of ‘racial capitalism’ offered by the long tradition of labour studies in South Africa.

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Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age

Much of the debate on the future of work has focused on responses to technological trends in the Global North, with little evidence on how these trends are impacting on work and workers in the Global South.

Drawing on a rich selection of ethnographic studies of precarious work in Africa, this innovative book discusses how globalisation and digitalisation are drivers for structural change and examines their implications for labour. Bringing together global labour studies and inequality studies, it explores the role of digital technology in new business models, and ways in which digitalization can be harnessed for counter mobilisation by the new worker.

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Chapter 2 explores alternative forms of representation among precarious workers. Two South African case studies – COSATU’s Vulnerable Workers Task Team (VWTT) and the Organisation of Informal Traders – suggest that experimentation on the periphery of the labour movement is building significant agency and power. Both studies demonstrate the complex nature of precarious work, illustrated by the VWTT’s key demand that own-account workers be able to earn a living income rather than a living wage. There is a danger, however, that established unions will only defend the interests of permanent workers. Established labour needs to acknowledge that the world of work has irrevocably changed, and that adopting an experimental approach to representation and bargaining is the only way in which it can secure a future.

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This chapter analyses a traditional union, the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union of Uganda (ATGWU), that has successfully revitalised by crossing the divide and organising the new workers – boda boda riders – emerging in the informal economy. It shifts the narrative on trade unions as ‘victims of globalisation’, and instead shows their agency and power. The union has been transformed into a hybrid organisation – something between a traditional trade union and an informal association of micro-businesses. From 2,000 members 15 years ago, it now has nearly 100,000 members. Part I gives an historical account of the role of trade unions, particularly in Africa, and the distinctive nature of the African labour market. Part II turns to an examination of the move to cross the divide between formal and informal workers by focusing on the ATGWU as an example of the successful integration of formal and informal transport workers.

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This chapter examines a private for-profit corporation, Bridge International Academy (BIA), that presents itself as providing a solution for the educational needs of low-income families in Kenya and Uganda through digital technology. However, with the assistance of their GUF Education International (EI), local unions found that digital technology was being used to de-professionalise teachers and to cut costs drastically. BIA achieves this goal by replacing qualified teachers with low-paid and under-qualified individuals who transmit scripted instructions to pupils through ‘teacher-computers’. By openly advancing this form of low-fee, for-profit provision as an alternative to public schools, BIA represents a direct challenge to public education. Long neglected, we argue that global unions are emerging as players in this contest, helping to build counter power at both the local and global levels. Through their intermediary coordinating role at the supranational level, global unions constitute an important source of power.

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Most of the studies on gig work focus on the Global North, with very little research done on how platform workers in Africa are responding to the digital economy. Ostensibly based on freedom and self-employment, this new work order is deepening worker insecurity, undermining worker rights and dramatically increasing inequality between a core group of extremely wealthy senior managers/owners and a growing pool of precarious workers. However, our research among food service delivery couriers in Johannesburg, Accra and Nairobi shows that digital technology is generating forms of counter-mobilisation, often into self-organised network associations. By technologically linking platform workers, the gig economy tends to link their bargaining power, thus contributing to the emergence of hybrid forms of union-like associations (associational power) and new partnerships with traditional unions and NGOs (societal power). The chapter concludes by suggesting that the new digital technology is a double-edged sword: while it extends authoritarian managerial control over workers, increasing their insecurity and deepening levels of inequality, at the same time it increases workers’ workplace bargaining power, providing them with the ability to develop innovative forms of collective solidarity, organisation and strike action.

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