Organizing in the African Informal Economy

Dar es Salaam  Throughout my visits in Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania, I asked some of the same questions, particularly to union brothers and sisters and the comrades in the allied trades that supported unions in one way or another.   One question was always about density coupled with the system of dues collection and the level of dues resources received from the members — this question when to the area of union capacity in southern and eastern Africa.  The other question focused on whether institutional unions were involved in any pilots or direct organizing projects designed to organize workers in the informal economy.

 This was not the United States.  There was no fidgeting around.  There was no pretense about whether or not we both knew exactly what I was asking and why it was important.  A year before the question about organizing in the informal economy had been a harder struggle in India, but in Africa this was clearly at the heart of union discussion and the critical crossroads for the future of the labor movement.

 In Tanzania and South Africa institutional labor was very dense with concentrations hovering around 50%.   Kenya was no where close but could see open road for growth ahead of the movement. 

 COSATU leaders in South Africa though were quick to point out that even at near 50% density their glass was much less than half-full.  Why?  Because the incredible level of unemployment acknowledged by the Government to be nearly 29% and felt by common knowledge in labor to be at least 40% mean that organized labor really had half of what was left of the workers who were stably employed.  The simple math means that figure would translate into 30% of the workers who are trying to find work and make a living.   Labor leaders in Tanzania — and in India a year ago — made much the same point.  Density was largely a matter of concentration among public sector workers.  In many situations the only private sector collective agreements would be found in areas where the state still controlled the market or had leverage to assist labor unions. 

 There were interesting and exciting efforts to organize the informal sector, but these were often embryonic.  The largest was an effort in Cape Town by the Commercial and Industrial workers to organize household domestic workers.  I spoke to the woman who ran the union and listened to her story of organizing more than 30000 such workers and the painstaking job of trying to get collective agreements with more than a hundred thousand private employers — managers of individual households — who set the wages and working conditions for these domestic workers.  The law was an assist here in establishing sectoral bargaining on standards.   This was exciting and a breakthrough, but from the two person staff in the union one could feel the struggle these sisters had in keeping this up in the air and moving.

 In Johannesburg there were reports of a main line union striking to force a supermarket to reverse its policy of having “casualized” its entire workforce.   Fortunately with government intervention they were successful.  Observers spoke of the strike with some awe at the risks compared to the rewards.

 In Dar es Salaam I spoke with an organizer for the commercial workers who also told about organizing all of the sellers at the market place — classic examples of the informal sector at work.  In describing the drive it was clear that the central leverage turning the tide in a story still without an end was the fact in this instance that the government owned the marketplace.

 Over and over these themes seemed to echo against each other along the high walls of a canyon here in Africa — the informal sector and unemployed on one side whose very existence speaks to the challenge and the weakness of the union project and the lack of resources and capacity on the other side. 

 We know this challenge and threat only too well in the industrialized west, so perhaps one should take some heart that at least in Africa they have engaged the problem with heart and conviction, while we are largely trying to pretend in our decline that this sector is not also rising to overwhelm all of our work.  We have to find a way to deal with these issues, if we are going to survive, and in surviving, have a real meaning in society and the world of work.

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