Informality and Casualization as Challenges to South Africa’s Industrial Unionism: Manufacturing Workers in the East Rand/Ekurhuleni Region in the 1990s


  • Franco Barchiesi


The paper addresses informalization processes driven by layoffs, casualization, and outsourcing and their implications for workers’ agency. The empirical focus is on the metal engineering, glass, and paper industries in the East Rand, South Africa’s industrial heartland. The author argues that growing job precariousness, the expansion of casual work, the increasing stratification of the labor market, and steadily high unemployment rates represent a hollowing out of an earlier promise of liberation politics, which posited wage labor as the vehicle of social citizenship—i.e. decent living conditions, protected jobs, and social provisions—in a democratic South Africa. Present realities rather suggest an erosion of the socially integrative role of waged employment. It also questions the common binary opposition between “formal” and “informal” sectors that associates the former with inclusion and the latter with marginality. Furthermore, in the author’s view the reconfiguration of the meanings of waged work has eroded the socially emancipative role of organized labor. The possibilities and prospects for collective organizing on the basis of wage labor identities are limited to the extent that casualization and informalization undermine workplace-based organizations. It is, therefore, important to consider forms of social emancipation that transcend an exclusive focus on waged employment. The disarticulation of the working class, in fact, is not merely weakening work-based identities, but also creates new spaces for social agency and contestation. The paper stresses that focusing on the strategies and discourse of ordinary workers is more politically productive than mainstream definitions of informality that emphasize capitalist domination or state rationality. Rather than simply representing disempowerment and vulnerability, informality also creates conditions for political possibility.’