The current employment landscape in South Africa is characterised by fear and exclusion, writes Gabriella Razzano. Is the pandemic to blame? In fact, the impact of COVID-19 on the country’s labour market has everything to do with decisions and policies that were actively pursued prior to the arrival of coronavirus.
The contemporary moment for work and labour in South Africa feels like one marked by fear and “new”, growing forms of exclusion. Significant contraction in Gross Domestic Product in the second quarter of the year can be read alongside the latest data from the National Income Dynamics CRAM Wave 2 study showing that about a third of people in South Africa who were employed prior to COVID-19 then lost their jobs, within only some recovery as lockdown has eased. And the dynamics of those job losses have only served to exacerbate existing inequalities with women, Black/Africans, the young and the uneducated disproportionately impacted.
Yet the first step toward confronting the challenge of unemployment may be seeking to understand how we have been made to value employment. This economic moment is not the random result of an unprecedented disease. The impact that COVID-19 is having on the South African labour market is closely linked to decisions and policies that have been actively pursued.
It is in fact a result of an inevitable history, and should also not be disconnected from some of the concurrent challenges we see emerging from the digital economy. In their superb piece “After Labour”, Jean and John Comaroff address an essential paradox in capitalism: although the nature of capitalism is to, in practice, undermine the actual economic value of labour, at the same time it seeks to over-emphasise the social and cultural value of “work” and “wages”. It’s like a form of meta-gaslighting.
The Comaroffs introduce their work by noting how the modern political obsession with employment, read as waged labour, is in spite of the fact that “more people have always been wageless than waged”. This should be considered alongside the reality that in South Africa, while unemployment is a problem for inequality, so is the fact that earnings for households in the bottom percentile from wages have not risen in real terms since Apartheid. Consider, too, the devastating impact that “underemployment” has on the lived reality of waged workers in South Africa. Wages are not a magic salve to poverty and inequality here.
Yet we have inextricably tied innate human value to our capacity to “work”, while at the same time undervaluing – both economically and figuratively – a variety of other forms of labour. We only need to think, for instance, of the demeaning of domestic and reproductive labour. Consider how, during the COVID-19 crisis, just as much media time was spent describing how to work “better” from home, and romanticising the Instagrammable #wfhlife, as was spent on prioritising personal health outcomes. This has only exacerbated the disproportionately negative impact of COVID-19 on work loss for women in South Africa, who have been left, of course, holding the baby.
The prioritisation of waged labour as a metric for both personal and broader economic success is built on the exclusion of a whole variety of other forms of labour. Sociology has long described how we form social identity through this process of exclusion, but the exclusion in turn has a very fundamental impact of bias which we struggle to shake off. What if, however, this bias does not just influence how we culturally assess people who don’t “work” in the waged way we appreciate, but how we design policies to deal with work?
How we value “waged work” more than other work, in spite of its disconnection to actual impacts on income, matters substantially in terms of people’s lived reality. We certainly see the paradox across history that is raised by the Comaroffs, and how it has served to fuel industrial growth through the exploitation of labour. Yet is it still a relevant idea for the contemporary problem? Or is digital industrialisation “different”?
The spiral of influence that emerged from Marx and Engels’ discussions on dialectical materialism are a useful tool for understanding how capitalism can appropriate emerging practices for its own ends. This is important for thinking about whether modern economic practices, and in particular the “sharing economy”, require us to redefine our ideas around waged labour, or not. The Comaroffs give the example of how technology is facilitating peer-to-peer loan schemes, in a modern, digitalised system of stokvels. Yet the ability of people to turn themselves and their possessions into a “means of production” in this shared economy only removes them further from the bounds of labour protection, rather than further from exploitation.
Think, too, of other forms of gig work, such as car services and even domestic labour, that are now being facilitated by platforms like Uber. South Africa has a highly regulated labour sector from a legislative point of view. Yet even in a country where the definition of what constitutes a worker is broader than in many other jurisdictions, the platforms that profit from this labour frequently circumvent these definitions, leaving workers vulnerable, and especially during a crisis as severe as coronavirus. By redefining workers as independent, the legal responsibilities of employer to employee are avoided.
This is an interesting phenomenon – in a sense, Capital has sought to eradicate the gains of the labour movement and trade unions by simply undermining the meaning of “worker”. It is arguably an analogous response to the “post-truth” political paradigm: to undermine the prioritising of truth, why not simply change the meaning of the word truth? To undermine the value of work, why not simply change the meaning of the word worker?
This old exploitation by new means follows a pattern, and it is a result of the particular forces that dominate the emerging digital economy. Much of the “sharing economy” is facilitated by platforms that are significantly monopolised by a handful of global companies, chiefly emerging from the United States and China. The term “data colonialism” nicely captures the notion of the data ownership dominance that co-exists alongside the technology dominance, leaving us with new forms of global value extraction from the African continent (in terms of both revenue, tax, data and market share).
Yet how do these global, seemingly intractable, forces then link to our emphasis on certain types of labour domestically? Quite simply, South Africa cannot afford to design interventions that prioritise only the traditional forms of waged labour that have so far not served South Africans equally. Policy needs to prioritise labour as a whole, and not just waged labour. This doesn’t simply mean expanding definitions of workers, but also creating the enabling environment needed to sustain and promote other forms of income generation for households in a way that is responsive to the global dynamics of the digital economy. Enabling self-employment, whether informal or formal, must be a priority.
Centring better human outcomes in policy, within sustainable bounds, has long been the rallying cry of human rights discourse. When we centre human outcomes in the labour context, the preoccupation with promoting specific, exclusionary forms of waged labour seems an unhelpful distraction. We need to think broadly, and across policy areas, since “Indeed, in general, the improved aggregate poverty situation [in South Africa] is due to the increased support coming from social grants and not from the labour market”.
Social, technological and economic policy should coordinate for better outcomes. If COVID-19 has shown us anything, it is not that we are the subjects of external, uncontrollable phenomena – but rather that we are subject to outcomes born of the deliberate choices underlying policy, law and economics.
This piece is part of “Rapid responses for South African labour law in the post-corona labour market”, a research project currently being undertaken by Gabriella Razzano with the support of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity programme, the International Inequalities Institute, or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Executive Director, OpenUp
Gabriella Razzano is an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity and a human rights activist, lawyer, and researcher. She is currently the Executive Director of OpenUp, a civic technology hub in Cape Town focused on empowering people and government through data, technology, and innovation.
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