The Informal Economy and the Casualisation of Labour: Blind Spots in the Trade Union Movement in Southern Africa?

Seminar date: 
29 April 2010
Speaker(s): Freek Schiphorst

Freek Schiphorst is senior lecturer in the Work, Employment and Globalisation Programme at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. In the 1980s and 1990s he worked extensively in Zimbabwe on a project on international trade union co-operation regarding workers' participation, and is currently researching how trade unions and NGOs can reach out to workers in the informal sector. His most recent publication is entitled "Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions", in: C. Phelan (ed.), Trade Unionism since 1945: Towards a Global History. Vol. 1: Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East (2009).

Click here for the Power Point presentation
Discussant: Dr Ineke van Kessel 

This seminar will start with a brief overview of how the global economic crisis has affected Southern Africa. For example, close to a million South African workers lost their jobs in 2009 and contemporary management prefers the practice of hiring workers on a casual basis with short-term contracts or through labour brokers, which further heightens employment insecurity. The approaches of trade union centres in Zimbabwe and Namibia will also be reviewed to see why both countries have adopted an active stance in attempts to improve the position of vulnerable workers in the informal economy.

The seminar will then discuss the position of COSATU (South Africa's main trade union) vis-à-vis vulnerable workers by examining its policies and practices since 1997. This part of the seminar is based on an analysis of policy documents and Congress resolutions. The impact of COSATU's approach will be illustrated by examining the rise and fall of the SEWU, the Self Employed Women's Union, which existed between 1994 and 2004. This will be contrasted with the Sikhula Sonke, a recently established trade union for seasonal farm workers in the Western Cape. This union, which is led by women, has introduced new and comprehensive ways of addressing the livelihood challenges of its members that consist of a mix of representational and empowerment strategies. This is new in comparison with the way COSATU operates but also in contrast with the SEWU. The seminar will explore whether this could be an organizational model that could be useful in the defence of vulnerable workers.