Labour Pains: Hotbeds of 21st-Century Labour

By Vicki Robinson, Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), 6 April 2004

South Africa can be an example of how labour will organise in the 21st century in other countries adjusting to globalisation.

Also, the scenes of labour unrest in South Africa during the 1980s are likely to be replicated in China, which is currently a leading recipient of capital. African Studies Center Outreach Program at Boston University

This is the opinion of Beverly Silver, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Silver spoke at a seminar hosted by the Sociology of Work Project at Wits University recently.

In South Africa, the labour movement is facing challenges from casualisation and privatisation. Now workers are found in call centres and contract agencies, or are part of the informal sector.

Four out of every 10 people do not have a job, in terms of the expanded definition of unemployment. While the labour movement was instrumental in dismantling apartheid in South Africa, Silver questions whether the same movement can now meet working-class demands to eliminate the country's economic inequalities.

If South Africa finds a creative solution to this it could be a very important demonstration for the world about how to deal with demands for equality and better standards of living in the context of limited resources, said Silver.

A popular thesis, which Silver rejects, is that labour is in terminal decline as nations compete globally. This has changed the way that goods are being produced, and as a result has driven down the costs of labour.

Silver argues that at the same time as the forces of labour in this country are declining they are mushrooming elsewhere the world, in countries undergoing economic transformation.

China's economy, which this year is expected to grow by 8,3% as a result of a trade, investment and consumption boom, is the ideal candidate.

In China, Silver says, the dictates of capital provide a groundswell for disenchanted workers and will replicate the labour unrest in this country during the 1980s.

Her concerns seem valid. This week a former International Labour Organisation expert, Mark Barenberg, told a US Senate hearing that Chinese managers of US corporations confirmed to him that 80% of [US] contractors flout labour laws.

According to Barenberg, they do not pay minimum wages or overtime, and they break China's maximum-hour laws.

Silver says it is in this context that labour is undergoing a continual renaissance based on various fixes, rather than spluttering to its end.

The first is the spatial fix, which is the relocation of capital to new sources of cheap labour in developing countries such as South Africa in the 1980s and China today.

The second is the technological fix, which is the transformation of the production process away from labour towards mechanisation.

Next, there is the product fix in which capital turns to new products that are initially highly profitable, and finally, there is the financial fix when capital turns to new financial outlets such as share markets.

The result of these fixes is that the working class is constantly made and unmade as workers' bargaining power moves to new sites of production as a result of capital's relentless search for profit and legitimacy.

The decline of labour militancy in one country and its parallel rise in other countries are also interlinked through the protest tactics adopted. Within this context China could be the next hotbed of industrial labour contestation, she said.

Silver is sceptical about the persistence of the north-south divide where the power of labour organisation is being undercut by income gaps between workers. For example, in South Africa, where the growth of the informal economy and the casualisation of the labour force is hollowing out union organisation, workers are more likely to protect their jobs than their political rights.