Against the background of the global economic crisis since 2007-8 and increasing inequality across the world, we have experienced widespread, large-scale industrial action throughout the Global South, including in countries such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa, which had been hailed as the new growth engines of the global political economy as part of the so-called BRICS.
Our special issue, published in the journal Globalizations, contains nine research articles, and an introduction and conclusion by the series editors, Jörg Nowak and Andreas Bieler. The contributions to the special issue systematically evaluate how new forms of labour mobilisation witnessed in the past ten years in the Global South respond to the predominance of the informality-precarity complex of industrial relations and what conclusions can be drawn for potentially successful strategies against exploitation in the future. Can we identify a convergence of new approaches across the Global South, or do we witness an ongoing fragmentation of actors, models and strategies? Importantly, this special issue focuses specifically on the challenge that new forms of worker organisations pose to conventional approaches to trade unions and industrial relations.
- Andreas Bieler and Jörg Nowak – Labour conflicts in the Global South: an introduction.
- Jörg Nowak – From industrial relations research to Global Labour Studies: moving labour research beyond Eurocentrism.
- Maurizio Atzeni – Workers’organisations and the fetishism of the trade union form: toward new pathways for research on the labour movement?
- Edward Webster, Carmen Ludwig, Fikile Masikane and Dave Spooner – Beyond traditional trade unionism: innovative worker responses in three African cities.
- Fahmi Panimbang – Solidarity across boundaries: a new practice of collectivity among workers in the app-based transport sector in Indonesia.
- Pun Ngai – Turning Left: student-worker alliance in labor struggles in China.
- Michaela Doutch – A gendered labour geography perspective on the Cambodian garment workers’ general strike of 2013/2014.
- Madhumita Dutta – Becoming ‘active labour protestors’: women workers organizing in India’s garment export factories.
- Yu Huang and Tsz Fung Kenneth NG – Overcoming ‘small peasant mentality’: semi-proletarian struggles and working-class formation in China.
- Isil Erdinc – Revisiting the « boomerangeffect »: The international relations of the trade unions in Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule.
- Andreas Bieler and Jörg Nowak – Labour conflicts in the Global South: towards a new theory of resistance?
As a result of the transnationalisation of production, workers in different countries and varying national contexts, both in the North and in the South, face a flexibilisation of working conditions and more precarious conditions which affect the health of workers, while wage differences between workers in the North and South continue to grow. The re-organisation of the production process around global value chains as part of globalisation has led to an increasing casualisation and informalisation of the economy in which permanent, and full-time employment contracts have to a large extent become a feature of the past. This is especially the case in developing countries, which had never been in a position to establish a large industrial sector with permanent and secure employment. Conceptualising the agency of resistance in times of globalisation, therefore, has to include a specific focus on informal/precarious workers.
In relation to informal labour, however, we have to be careful not to fall into a binary, dualist trap. Implicitly, the concept of informal work captures everything which does not conform to the standard labour contract in Western Fordism. The idea that there exists a separate informal sector, differentiated from a formal sector, has been mostly discarded since there is also an informalisation of formal labour underway, and in many cases formal and informal work relations exist in the same workplace. Moreover, there are also manifold examples in which one and the same job has formal and informal characteristics. In other words, there are many grey areas between formality and informality. Importantly, the lack of regulation by labour law is also a form of regulation, and in many cases labour law is intentionally conceptualised and designed in a way to create areas of informality. Second, informal work relations are in many cases the result of a non-implementation of labour law, i.e. of the selectivity of state apparatuses and other actors in the application of law. Third, the idea that informal labour is not regulated is the larger misconception in the debate about informal labour. Regulations for informal work are as manifold and detailed as they are for formal work, but often they are to a large extent not regulated by state bodies, or collective agreements struck by trade unions. Thus, we are facing the challenge to analyse in more detail non-state forms of regulation, the selective application of labour law, and the creation of informality by labour law itself. In short, to look more closely at the alternative forms of regulation and labour market access that are involved in what we call informal labour today and which represents the bulk of contemporary labour relations might reveal more about social relations of work than we know today. It cannot suffice to define the majority of work relations on the globe via the absence of something that is characteristic of core countries’ labour relations. Some of the forms of regulation of work involve household and family matters which has often been associated with what has been called reproductive labour or social reproduction.
Starting an analysis through a focus on the workplace, moreover, implies the danger that the main emphasis is placed on workers, narrowly defined, as a privileged agent of transformation and the workplace as the main location of struggle. Due to trade unions’ prominent role in the political economies of advanced capitalist countries after World War II, scholarship on resistance, including historical materialist research, often reduced class struggle to conflicts at the workplace and to struggles between workers and employers or trade unions and employers’ associations as the respective institutional expressions. Trade unions themselves started to adopt this narrow role and were not always progressive. Hence, as a first step to overcome the limitations of such a narrow approach we need to go beyond the notion of trade unions being the logical, automatic and only institutional expression of labour agency. This does not mean that trade unions no longer play an important role in the representation of workers’ interests. But given the fact that in the two most populous countries in the world, India and China, there are either no trade unions – China – or only a tiny section of workers are organised in trade unions – India – we have to broaden the scope in order to understand forms of workers’ organisation beyond trade unions. In other countries of the Global South, too, trade unions are in many cases only present within the public sector and special professions, and the large group of informal workers often organises in other forms of association. Hence, our analysis of resistance to capitalist exploitation needs to go beyond trade unions and include other forms of organisation.
However, we do not only need to broaden our analysis by going beyond trade unions as the institutional expression of workers’ interests. We also need to go beyond the workplace, if we want to capture all forms of mobilisation against capitalist exploitation in other places and spaces. The rise of new social movements in the core economies in the 1970s was a response to the corporatist trade union movement and the social democratic and communist left that provided not much space for ecological and feminist concerns. The term new social movements implied that the labour movement was the ‘old’ social movement. Later on, the terminology changed so that there were trade unions on one side, and social movements on the other side – a very Eurocentric view since in the heyday of social movement research, the 1980s, emerging economies like Brazil, South Africa, South Korea and the Philippines saw large new labour movements that crossed the line between corporate trade unionism and community based social movements towards a social movement unionism. These remain until today ignored in most social movement research. Given the fact that most informal labour is regulated in non-public forms, we have to include these types and actors of regulation into research on labour action in order to better understand who are adversaries or potential allies of workers. Thus, actors and spaces that have been regarded as central for ‘reproduction’ like religious communities, community groups and families might operate as actors in the regulation of informal labour relations.
A focus on the social formation and the over-determination of class relations pushes us to go beyond the Eurocentric, often institutionalist industrial relations literature, facilitating an analysis of popular struggles beyond the compartmentalisation into economic and non-economic ones. When going beyond the capitalist workplace, we need to remember that work within the capitalist social formation cannot be reduced to wage labour.
Unsurprisingly, workers are highly fragmented and sectoral divisions identified earlier are accompanied with divisions according to race and gender, with racialised workers usually being overrepresented in lower paid and physically straining jobs. Public sector and service workers tend to be predominantly female. Especially gendered divisions among the workforce see much variation over time and geography. Fragmentations can be overcome in moments of class struggle, but they need to be understood as serious barriers to solidarity nonetheless.
The capitalist mode of production is based on wage labour, the private ownership or control of the means of production, imperialism, unwaged work, patriarchal gender relations and a state and legal system that guarantees the reproduction of these social relations. This particular set-up of how goods and livelihoods are produced is historically specific to capitalism. Importantly, the capitalist social formation includes in addition to capitalist relations of production other, non-capitalist relations of production. Considering that capitalism emerged within a prior existing system characterised by patriarchal and racial hierarchies, capitalism is inevitably always gendered and racialised. Thus, capitalism is structured through a class divide, but also a gendered division of labour in the waged and unwaged sphere, and through racist and imperialist divisions within and across countries.
Furthermore, we think that a dynamic understanding of the dualisms of formal and informal work as well as workplace struggles and social movements allows a fuller understanding of labour action in the Global South since these dualisms emerged originally in the context of Eurocentric perspectives of society, reifying certain practices and social conditions that were prevalent in the societies in which scholars set up those concepts. While much empirical research provides this dynamic understanding already, the repeated use of those concepts as reflection of self-evident social realities clouds our analytical capabilities. In this light, we propose to work on new concepts that describe the same social realities but might provide more nuance and context appropriate knowledge in order not to get stuck in those conceptual deadlocks. Certainly, popular struggle is a concept that can be used to include both workplace and non-workplace struggles, making clear that the workplace should not be understood as separate from wider society. Contributions to this special issue about labour struggles in the Global South are aware of these wider dynamics of capitalist accumulation and equally recognise that workers’ organisations in this wide variety of class struggles go beyond the rather narrow trade union form.