Sunday, 6 May 2018

Crossing the divide: Precarious work and the future of labour (Book review)

Dear Colleagues,

The review below has been submitted to the journal Work, Employment and Society. It was a real pleasure to read Crossing the Divide, and , as I've said in the review, paid more attention to it given the activist credentials of the authors. Despite the book's focus on precarious work in the informal economy of the Global South, it carries considerable lessons for those engaged in similar work in the Global North.

Crossing the Divide: Precarious Work and the Future of Labour

Edward Webster,‎ Akua O. Britwum,‎ Sharit Bhowmik (Eds)

Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2017, R. 315, pbk, (ISBN: 9781869143534) pp.280

A key strength of this edited book, is its reflection of that rich, historical tradition of activist-scholars applying rigorous intellectual coherence to the on-going re-shaping of labour within the context of capitalist politically economy, and assessing its implications for the future of workers’ organisations.
Similarly, this empiricist insight borne of activist experience, ensures that this book, opposed to others on a similar theme, is predicated on a degree of practicability and relevance to those engaged in organising and educational activity in the context of precarious, poor work. Thus, the focus in the introductory chapter on the sources of power open to precarious and vulnerable workers, is as relevant in analysing the on-going success in the United Kingdom (UK) of the McStrikers, as it is when applied in the second part of the book, to domestic workers in Accra, Ghana.

The book applies an ethnographic approach across a series of case studies of organising experience in Ghana, India and South Africa to examine the challenges and opportunities of organising across the informal economy. It addresses questions of how informal workers come to organise, and helpfully examines models of self-organisation, and the use co-operatives as a means to generate and sustain decent work. Importantly for those engaged in issues of trade union renewal, the book offers insights on the ways in which organisations comprised of precarious workers engage with trade unions and other civil society organisations, and their respective response.
The first part of the book caters for the broad theme of agricultural work including a focus on tea plantation workers in India, oil palm plantation workers in Ghana and in South Africa coverage of farm workers based in the horticultural sector in Gauteng, and wine farms in the Western Cape. The second part of the book is more diverse, and across six chapters examines:  the experience in India of home-based workers in Maharashtra and steel utensil manufacturing workers in Delhi; the experience of organising through the collective agency of domestic workers in Accra, Ghana; waste pickers in Accra, Ghana, and Pune, India; and a chapter on municipal workers in Johannesburg South Africa.
 This approach to critical comparison works well, as it helps underline that which is common, for example, in distinguishing the legacy and endurance of colonialism as a key feature differentiating the experience of precarious work and the typologies of workers between the Global South and North. And, that which differs across the case studies, for example, between clumsy attempts by the ‘official’ labour movement in South Africa to absorb the informal economy into its purview, contrasted with wholly independent, new forms of workers’ organisation emerging in India.
The introductory chapter to the book outlines its conceptual and theoretical basis. As such we start with a clear sense of how processes of globalisation, accelerated by neo-liberal policy, have induced the rapid, yet uneven informalisation and casualisation of work and employment.
Thus, whilst the readership of the book will span trade union activists and officials, as well as students of political economy, development studies and labour studies, it will have an appeal also to radical geographers also, as the book is reflective of the following dominant themes.

The Organising Space
Conventional analysis of strategies to organise and mobile workers is typically predicated on conventional forms of work, workplace/space and worker. Precarious work often by its nature, and whether formal or informal, takes place in the unconventional, whether this is the street, the home, or performance space. A considerable strength of the book are those chapters, like that of Wilderman on farm workers in the Western Cape, which bring fresh dynamic insight to the relevance of the ownership of public space as a feature of organising strategy. Here, the takeover by striking farm workers of a motorway held significant symbolic power as a counterweight to their otherwise subdued state through a form of paternalistic feudalism whilst living of farmland.
Worker Identity
A major impediment in the informal economy to strategies to collectivise workers’ interests, and express these through representative channels, is that work, sometimes undertaken in an educational context as the book documents, which helps shape a collective consciousness of being workers located within the economy. Gartenberg’s insight on this work with poor women workers in Maharashtra, is a considerable asset to those engaged in similar work in the Global North. The generation of identity and agency is achieved here through the relatively simple device of using existing activists in the LEARN Women Workers Union to overcome an often innate sense of inferiority held by informal economy workers, but compounded here by patriarchy and the caste system.
Worker & Employment Status
Intrinsic to those challenges of organisation and mobilisation identified above, is that caused with the fragmentation of work across supply chains at both global and level levels. Similarly, as witnessed in the UK postal and package delivery service, the concerted effort to fragment workers between core and periphery, has led to widespread concern around the abuse of workers engaged in false self-employment. Those chapters dedicated to the experience of organising waste pickers helps shed considerable light on the ways in which work in the informal economy, and the status of workers involved, reflects a complexity of status, and the challenge of organising those workers.
Between these chapters clear delineation of status can be established which then helps distinguish strategies for organising. As Gadgil and Samson reveal when examining the narratives of waste pickers in Pune, India, attempts to regularise and formalise work through the formation of co-operatives enables negotiation with local government to improve the conditions of work, and the safety of workers. As is known through others studies of the union-co-op relationship in organising workers and creating safe, decent work, hybridity can generate solutions, as well as challenges. This chapter does not shy away from acknowledging these, and this approach ensures that the approach overall in the allied chapters, combine to provide rational, honest assessments of the durability and resilience, or not, inherent to organising in the informal economy.
 Ultimately, the book retains an optimistic, rational tone. Its strength is to make the often invisible work of poor, vulnerable workers in the informal economy, open to scrutiny and analysis. It conjures an honest assessment of the relative strengths and weaknesses of organising approaches to-date, and most importantly, establishes a constructive sense of informal workers as capable of creating organic models of solidarity to protect and promote their collective interests.

In Solidarity


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