Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Organising precarious workers in Africa

Worker organisations in Africa are beginning to cross the divide between the formal and informal economy.

Edward Webster
23 October 2019, 7.00am
Daladala public transport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Niklas Nilsson Kreü/Flickr. Creative Commons (by)

The labour market is a key institution for shaping the distribution of resources in an economy. This is true for two reasons. First, wages are an important source of income for most individuals. Second, the wage relationship is a key site of contestation over the resources that are produced.

However, in Africa the industrial working class is very much a minority of wage earners. Instead, what you have are quite flexible classes of labour. What I mean by this is that while people still need to sell their labour power – either directly on a wage labour market or indirectly through some form of product market – categories like ‘worker’, ‘peasant’, ‘employed’ and ‘self-employed’ are fluid.

This presents a unique challenge for organising labour in Africa, however groups of precarious workers, NGOs and some trade unions are trying. I would like to present three case studies to illustrate this development. First, labour broker workers at Heineken’s brewery in South Africa illustrate how organising in the formal sector takes place while “working under conditions of informality”. Second, Tanzania’s dala dala workers – informal minibus drivers and their assistants – demonstrate workers’ efforts to challenge informalisation in the public transport sector. And third, informal tailors in Nigeria give us a good look at how formal and informal workers can come together under a single textile workers’ union. I conclude by emphasising the hybrid nature of the forms of organisation that are forming on the periphery of the labour movement in Africa.

Organising through the realisation of common interests

The Heineken plant in South Africa does not directly employ everyone who works there. Only the highly skilled workers engaged in the brewing process are directly employed. Everyone else comes from employment agencies. These companies compete for contracts with Heineken by lowering wages and increasing workloads. Workers are divided and put in competition with each other, making collective action difficult. The trigger that led the outsourced workers to unite behind a common demand was, according to the researcher Thomas Englert, amendment 198 of the South African Labour Relations Act. This makes agency workers employees of the client after three months of work. For the first time outsourced workers had the possibility of direct employment with Heineken, a prospect which raised their expectations and led them to pursue their common interests.

The precarious workers at the Heineken plant were already members of the traditional Food and Allied Workers Union, but this did little besides collect subscription fees and intervene in some individual cases. The union also kept the permanent and precarious workers separate, refusing to let them organise common meetings. The workers finally found a way forward when they met with staff from the Casual Workers Advice Office, a South African NGO, who helped them to mobilise through the newly amended Labour Relations Act. This helped the workers to unify around the demand for permanence rather than competing against each other. They formed a workplace forum based on free membership and transparent decisions taken in open assemblies. With the help of the advice office, the workers deployed a mix of strategies that included using the law, limited strike action, and a media campaign to pressure the employer to change.

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the privatisation of the public transport system fragmented existing work into an intricate system of small owners, drivers, and conductors. Those that have assigned buses have more or less steady employment, while the others take what work they can find. Considered as self-employed workers, the drivers, conductors, and their assistants must pay the bus owners daily rent and then share whatever little is left. This system leads to a market structure of thousands of atomised work units waging intense competition under self-exploitative practices. They speed to get more runs into a day and overcrowd the buses in order to meet quotas and compete for clients.

To overcome these divisions the workers formed an association and paid a formal visit to the established transport union, the Communication and Transport Workers Union of Tanzania (COTWUT). This meeting, according to Matteo Rizzo’s book on the subject, triggered a process where these two distinct institutions went about “building a shared notion of the exploitation faced by Dar es Salaam’s transport workers and a strategy to address it”. The strategy was three-fold: first, they shared in detail their working reality; second, COTWUT contributed funds for organising; and third, they employed transport workers themselves to promote the association at a street level.

It was only after they established the link with COTWUT that they managed to formalise their association and extend their scope, building a campaign for employment rights (contracts). They made use of the union’s political connections as well as the occasional threat to paralyse the city in order to put pressure on local governments and, by extension, on the bus owners. As their campaign grew, they engaged with a range of relevant national government departments – to stop the state from criminalising their efforts – and forged alliances with likeminded groups.

The National Union of Textile, Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria lost 40,000 members between 2000 and 2016 in the face of massive retrenchment in the textile industry, as a result of intensified international competition. To re-fill its ranks the union began to recruit traditional self-employed tailors on the basis of certain common interests – the need for cheap electricity and water, and regulation of foreign imports. The union also adapted its structures. It developed specific trainings for self-employed tailors, such as seminars on new trends in fashions and financial literacy, and began to address their problems. It also prioritised education and capacity development for female members as a way of promoting women’s participation in the union. They amended the constitution to increase women’s involvement in leadership structures at all levels of the union, aiming at a target of 40% women representation.

This was a big step up for the self-employed tailors in comparison to their older associations, which lacked political influence. Showing a union membership card, on the other hand, diminished police harassment significantly. This allowed the associations and the unions to recruit thousands of self-employed tailors countrywide.

Organising locally in global industries

A lot of ink is spent discussing the impact of globalisation on local workers, but reports on how those workers fight back are rarely seen. However there is plenty of movement there if one cares to look. What’s especially important to see is how trade unions change when they begin to advocate for informal workers as well. They often become ‘hybrid’ organisations, which include different forms of organisations and blur the distinction between traditional unionism, informal workers’ associations or cooperatives. An understanding of these new forms of organisation must be at the centre of any attempt to understand an emerging global labour movement.

These articles are based on earlier discussion papers produced as part of the Open Society Foundations’ Just Future for Workers initiative, which advances strategies to build strong and inclusive labor movements.

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