[WSMDiscuss] (Fwd) Labour Conflicts in the Global South: a new special issue in Globalizations

Patrick Bond pbond at mail.ngo.za
Wed Jun 2 09:05:55 CEST 2021

    Labour Conflicts in the Global South: a new special issue in

      Andreas Bieler and Jörg Nowak | May 25, 2021

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.

 1. Andreas Bieler and Jörg Nowak – Labour conflicts in the Global
    South: an introduction
 2. Jörg Nowak – From industrial relations research to Global Labour
    Studies: moving labour research beyond Eurocentrism
 3. Maurizio Atzeni – Workers’organisations and the fetishism of the
    trade union form: toward new pathways for research on the labour
 4. Edward Webster, Carmen Ludwig, Fikile Masikane and Dave Spooner –
    Beyond traditional trade unionism: innovative worker responses in
    three African cities.
 5. Fahmi Panimbang – Solidarity across boundaries: a new practice of
    collectivity among workers in the app-based transport sector in
 6. Pun Ngai – Turning Left: student-worker alliance in labor struggles
    in China
 7. Michaela Doutch – A gendered labour geography perspective on the
    Cambodian garment workers’ general strike of 2013/2014
 8. Madhumita Dutta – Becoming ‘active labour protestors’: women workers
    organizing in India’s garment export factories
 9. Yu Huang and Tsz Fung Kenneth NG – Overcoming ‘small peasant
    mentality’: semi-proletarian struggles and working-class formation
    in China
10. Isil Erdinc – Revisiting the « boomerangeffect »: The international
    relations of the trade unions in Turkey under the Justice and
    Development Party (AKP) rule
11. 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 

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