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FOS - Worldwide Social Struggle

The Changing Nature of Work and the Working Class

Author: Leonard Gentle

In the first paper, “The Changing Meanings of Labour” we showed that there have always been political debates over the meanings of labour – ranging from a very narrow view that this was about trade unions as a special interest group in society, to many kinds of broader views that are about the working class being a social force whose struggles can enrich all struggles for social and environmental justice.

For most of the last 100 years however there was enough in the way the working class was constituted that meant that there was often a bridge between the narrow labour/trade union perspective and the broader perspectives. This meant that activists could move across the various terrains and often be close allies in practice.

This paper is saying that the bridge has collapsed over the last few decades because the working class itself has been changed by nearly 30 years of neo-liberal capitalism.



How Neo-liberalism has changed the working class

Neo-liberalism is a form of capitalism that has sought to overcome a crisis of profitability for capitalists by intensifying the exploitation of the working class, imposing market-type relations into every aspect of human life and using state power to redirect surpluses to a smaller and smaller elite. A consequence of this strategy has been the growth of unemployment – not just as occasional or cyclical unemployment but permanent unemployment. Today the levels of unemployment, globally, are on a scale last seen before World War 1.  

And of those who are in some kind of employment, a 2015 ILO report estimated that only a quarter are on permanent contracts. The ILO said the remaining three quarters are employed on temporary or short-term contracts, working informally often without any contract, are self-employed or are in unpaid family jobs.

In its World Employment and Social Outlook, the agency highlighted a rise in part-time employment, especially among young women.

Changing nature of “Work”

Since the triumph of neo-liberalism the nature of work has been changed completely. Work is flexible, part-time, and precarious. The work place can as well be a home, street, dump site or network as much as a factory, farm, mine or shop. It is outsourced, informal and sometimes appears “self-managed”.

As a result old distinctions such as “sector”, skilled vs. unskilled, private vs. public, formal vs. informal etc. have largely become blurred.

The decline of state employment and the scale of unemployment and informality has opened spaces for waste-pickers, home-based care workers, child-minders, zama-zamas, car-guards, dog walkers etc. as livelihoods amongst the working class and the wage as the defining form of livelihood has changed. 

Changing nature of the role of the State

But neo-liberalism has not only been about changes in work i.e. in the production side of working class life. The reduction in state provision of water, electricity, education, healthcare etc., or the commercialization/privatization of these basic services, has meant that millions of people now have to provide these life necessities themselves. These are tasks that have largely increased the burden on women.

Imperialist wars and structural adjustment programmes have also driven millions into seeking refuge and immigration.   

Changing nature of the Working Class

So the forms of reproduction of the working class have also changed alongside the world of work and production. And, as a result, the composition of the working class has changed in all countries – in age, gender and nationality

This has also meant the blurring of distinctions with other strata – peasantry, informal traders, at the lower end … and forms of insecurity amongst sections of the middle classes – interns, runners, casual teachers, etc.

The distinctions between the working classes of the North and South, between “developed country” and “developing country” also are sometimes blurred – Britain has seen the proliferation of food banks and zero-hour contracts and what is called the “gig economy”. But African countries show extremes of these developments – Zimbabwe has a 70% unemployment rate and South Africa 36%. In Mozambique people simply return to rural smallholdings and traditional livelihoods where communal land still exists. Poor, working class people’s access to water, sanitation, care and education have become their own responsibility – with women bearing the load – or have become projects of “development” NGOs and charities.               

What has stood in the way of understanding the scale of these changes?

There is a kind of organizational inertia and a commentary bubble amongst the media, “labour experts” and the commentarial who – as another feature of neoliberalism – are distant from working class life today. Recall, in Britain, in regard to the Brexit vote how none of the experts had any idea what working class people actually thought and how, in South Africa today, despite Marikana, media pundits still think that getting a quote from a COSATU leader tells you something about the working class. But in this they are not alone.

The statistical categories of all states still do not reflect this reality. The official stats on the unemployment rate in all countries still define unemployment as a percentage of those “active work-seekers” against the economically active. Those who do not register with a relevant state authority within a designated time are not active work seekers and therefore not counted.

So, in a world of a working class of whom millions have never known work, or have any functional relationship with a government department, and in which states have no real political interest in really getting an accurate picture no one knows the real scale of unemployment and all official statistics severely under-count the problem. 

Then again – in regard to the scale of precariousness - the South African statistical services, StatsSA, lumps different forms of flexible labour and forms of self-employment under the label, “informal sector”. So a Transnational labour-broker providing workers to a Transnational corporation such as Volkwagen is lumped with street-traders. Thus no-one knows the extent of precariousness in large scale industry and in the public sector, and too many assume the informal sector refers to its old meaning as those who are not registered to tax purposes.

So it is no surprise that the legal frameworks of countries, and global institutions do not as yet reflect this reality – from Labour Laws, to UN institutions and the ILO. In South Africa the Labour Relations Act set up an institution – the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) – which only allows trade unions to attain services to defend workers. But this now excludes the 70% majority of workers who are not in unions and whose relationship with a designated employer is now a very tenuous one.[1]       

Large institutions like trade unions and, particularly, the global trade union networks – the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and the Global Union Federations (GUFs) are dependent on these institutional arrangements. And in many countries in Europe this extends into the political arena where parties are still institutionally based on the past arrangements.

The institutional arrangements of the post-WW2 period in the North and the immediate post-liberation era in the South – including South Africa’s post 1994 negotiations settlement are structured around forms of corporatism or tripartism which assumes the trade union form as eternal. So in Mozambique and in Zimbabwe trade unions sit on important Labour Market chambers which decide on sectoral wages and working conditions, while South Africa has its National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) which is a forum for registered trade union federation to engage on economic policy issues. Germany has its Works Councils for large corporations and Belgium has the trade unions administering unemployment benefits and healthcare payments.

In many countries of the South – with such high unemployment – trade unions and global labour formations are sources for employment and livelihoods in countries in which there are few opportunities for skilled or middle class people. So there is even an element of self-interest amongst many in not delving into the real condition of the working class today and what kinds of mechanisms and organisations may be necessary to change current power relations.

The 2012 Marikana massacre by the state of striking workers in South Africa – workers explicitly challenging the whole system of labour relations and the underlying assumptions about the working class – brought these tensions out into the open.

Differing views on what this means

Many analysts and “labour” activists have simply been in denial about the scale of restructuring of the working class – largely ignoring the long history of debates about the meanings of “labour” which Paper 1 of this series unpacked.

But in recent years a number of Left analysts have begun to explore this terrain – from Hart and Negri in the USA, to Bardieu in France, to British, ex-ILO economist, Guy Standing’s, promotion of the concept “precariat”.              

But, unfortunately, the use of the term “precariat” is not helpful because it suggests that this is something outside the working class, which has led to three different understandings:

  •  One view is that the working class as a social force is on the way out. The working class is no longer the subject and object of history and now must be replaced by the precariat. This view sometimes paints the “precariat” as a new kind romantic free-wheeling phenomenon which has no stake in the system and is therefore the true radical force for social change today. In some versions of this argument the surviving working class is now an entirely conservative social force – racist and xenophobic. This is the narrative which is used to explain the Donald Trump phenomenon in the USA and the Brexit vote in Britain.
  • Another view is that the separate “precariat” is a “dangerous class”. This is the view used by the Guy Standing, who popularised the term, and suggests that they may be willing stooges for fascist forces. To counter this possibility he is a protagonist of a universal basic income grant – a call now being championed in austerity-driven Western Europe, strangely by both Right and Left politicians. 
  • A third view is that precariousness has no organising capacity – which is the prerogative of the older traditional working class. So it is associated with a call for the traditional organisations of the working class – trade unions and social democratic/labour parties to work harder or organise better to bring in the “unorganised”. Some in this view are satisfied with the concept “social movement unionism” – where trade unions take up social and political issues – as tackling this question.  

But this series is promoting the idea that these developments are, instead, an expansion of the working class, one which has suffered major historical defeats and has lost ground in shaping public opinion, but one which – if it is capable of discovering new forms of organisation- offers new possibilities for social justice.

What challenges are faced?

This is no easy task and not one to be addressed by well-meaning activists and researchers taking some “best practice” off the shelf. It is a work of self-discovery. But what are some of the obstacles?      

For a start it must be remembered that capitalism itself organises the working class as an aggregate even while it exploits it. For most of the 20th century a capitalism based on mass production and mass consumption forged a class, living off a wage, into huge industrial areas and mass housing estates. Now neo-liberalism de-industrialises and breaks up the working class – both in production and in living spaces (everything from shacks, to streets and highways, to township, to commuter and refugee zones). How does a working class forge a collective consciousness? 

The use of the wage relation as a site of battle – livelihoods were organised around the wage relation which allowed for power struggles in which capitalists could lose profits if production stopped. By organising strikes –withdrawing labour power– workers’ self-interest could hold capitalists to ransom and win demands. Even workers in the public sector could stop vital state functions and win reforms.  Now so many firms are financialised and transnational – competing for share-holder value on stock markets in a world of hedge funds, pension funds and private equity - and many state functions are privatized and out-sourced. And contesting the wage relation is less a source of power for the working class when the wage is not the main form of livelihood?

So the challenges are enormous.. 

At the same the processes of finding new forms of organisation and new methods of struggle can address not only the problems of today but unresolved issues that the labour movement has not resolved in the past. Issues like uniting workplace and community struggles; building a working class women’s movement; building more democratic forms of decision-making and uniting the diverse range of people who constitute the working class….

In this last of this three part introductory series we will look at examples of experimentation in various countries which have emerged in recent years.           


[1]Casual Workers Advice Office, together with Black Sash, the Maokeng Advice and Resource Centre and Ntombi Dladla won a case on 20 September 2016 on the rules of representation of the CCMA. The order of the Labour Court means that CCMA commissioners are now obliged to apply their discretion to allow other parties to represent workers at the CCMA. 

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