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European Journal of
East Asian Studies 17 (2018) 181–191

European Journal

East Asian Studies

Capitalist Trajectories in Mekong Southeast Asia

Dennis Arnold
University of Amsterdam
[email protected]

Stephen Campbell
Nanyang Technological University and University of Bergen
Steph[email protected]

Recent scholarship on labour and development in the global South has
renewed critiques of modernisation theory along two main lines. The first
has highlighted the unsuccessful transition of peasant smallholders into wage
workers, whose incomes and employment benefits, it was once argued, would
both satisfy their social reproduction needs and allow for expanded consump-
tion. As a consequence of this apparently ‘stalled transition’ a contradiction
has emerged between modernisation theory’s valorisation of wage labour/full
employment, and the precarious reality of work and un/underemployment in
contemporary capitalism.

The second critique to emerge has focused on the failure of numerous late
industrialising economies to transition from low to high value-added manu-
facturing. In the face of this latter failure of the modernisation project, govern-
ments and non-governmental advisers have sought to adapt their strategies to
more effectively regulate growth in low value-added accumulation. Among the
more prominent illustrations of such adaptive responses, international finan-
cial institutions and development think-tanks have advocated expanded forms
of spatially regulated industrialisation—including export processing zones,
industrial corridors and integrated subregions, of which the Greater Mekong
Subregion (GMS) is a prominent example.

There is, however, limited evidence to date that the promise of well-remu-
nerated wage labour is likely to be realised anytime soon. The evident con-
tradiction between the promise and the reality of contemporary development
strategies has led to disillusionment with industrial and other forms of waged
and non-waged work. As a result, growing frictions at the point of produc-
tion and beyond have emerged, exposing tensions and fissures in development
models across the Mekong region.

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What happens, we thus need to ask, when low value-added export-oriented
factories that are central to long-term strategies for economic growth at a sub-
regional level fail to serve as a stepping stone to higher value-added manu-
facturing, as modernisation and global value chain theories would have us
believe? How do states, and workers and their families and communities, adapt
to and address the apparent lock-in of low-value, precarious subcontracting
economies at the national and sub-regional scale? If contemporary authoritar-
ianism in late-developing Southeast Asia utilises ‘pro-poor’ economic growth
paradigms to renew consent among its population, how can this be sustained
when these models are predicated on a low-waged, low value-added labouring
poor? This special issue seeks to address these and related questions.

Employing a wider comparative lens, the present trajectories of capitalist
development in Mekong Southeast Asia suggest similarities, as well as sig-
nificant differences, with late-capitalist developments in the global North,
and they raise important questions about emerging patterns of development
within the global South. We therefore look to Mekong Southeast Asia as an
important locus for questioning received narratives of ‘development’, ‘mod-
ernisation’ and ‘transition’, many of which—whether their roots lie in Marxian
or modernisation theory lineages—were derived from the historical experi-
ences of Euro-American industrialisation. One of the overarching questions
orienting this collection of articles is thus whether, and in what ways, the par-
ticular histories and trajectories of capitalist development in the global South,
and in Mekong Southeast Asia specifically, challenge such received narratives
(and continuing expectations) of capitalist development. Orienting our respec-
tive inquiries loosely around this question, this special issue aims to rethink
capitalist development in the global South from the vantage point of Mekong
Southeast Asia.

In taking seriously difference, particularity and heterogeneity in the his-
tories and trajectories of capitalist development in Mekong Southeast Asia,
this collection of articles follows the ‘materialist turn’ in postcolonial studies.1
We include Thailand for inquiry under a postcolonial rubric both because of
the developmental parallels it shares with other postcolonial countries and
because of its own ‘crypto-colonial’ history under the Bowring Treaty of 1855.2
A starting point of this ‘turn’ is recognising that the global dominance of mod-

1 Sandro Mezzadra, ‘Bringing Capital Back In: A Materialist Turn in Postcolonial Studies?’Inter-
Asia Cultural Studies 12, 1 (2011): 154–164.

2 Michael Herzfeld, ‘The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism’, South Atlantic
Quarterly 101, 4 (2002): 899–926; see also Thongchai Winichakul, ‘Siam’s Colonial Condi-
tions and the Birth of Thai History’, in Southeast Asian Historiography: Unravelling The Myths:

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ern capitalism seems more and more disentangled from any world order cen-
tred upon the primacy of the US, Europe or Japan ‘as the real invariable in the
axiomatic of modernity’.3 Pursuing this line of inquiry demands, as well, that
we attend to processes of subjectification, as they are shaped by the varied
experiences of capitalist development in the region. For it is out of this mul-
tiplicity of subjectivities, grounded in material experiences, that new forms of
politics and struggle emerge.

If the trajectories of capitalist development in Mekong Southeast Asia illus-
trate a heterogeneous unfolding of capitalist relations, this heterogeneous
unfolding calls for a more critical interrogation of ongoing claims of ‘transition’
to a predetermined liberal-democratic end-point. Indeed, the very concept of
‘transition’—born of a particular Western European historical experience—
carries with it historicist assumptions of shifts from traditional to modern,
informal to formal, agrarian to industrial and petty producer to wage worker,
which fail to sufficiently capture the dynamics and multiple trajectories of cap-
italist development in the postcolonial world.4

Our collective project is, however, of significance not only for theorising cap-
italist development in the global South, for the present trajectories of capitalist
development in the South may very well foreshadow emerging trends in the
North. Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden have, for example, argued that
contemporary manifestations of flexible and precarious labour in the global
North follow earlier patterns of casual and informal employment long preva-
lent in the South.5 More broadly, Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff have sug-
gested that ‘it is the south that often is the first to feel the effects of world-
historical forces, the south in which radically new assemblages of capital and
labour are taking shape, thus to prefigure the future of the global north’.6 Might
we then consider the frontiers of capital in Mekong Southeast Asia not as
marginal to global capitalist formations, but rather at the centre?7 How, in
addition, might a clearer analytical grasp of the dynamics, trajectories and het-

Essays In Honour of Barend Jan Terwiel, ed. Volker Grabowsky (Bangkok: River Books, 2011),

3 Mezzadra, ‘Bringing Capital Back In’, 157.
4 Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality

and Post-colonial Capitalism (New Delhi: Routledge, 2007).
5 Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden, ‘Informalizing the Economy: The Return of the Social

Question at a Global Level’, Development and Change 45, 5 (2014): 920–940.
6 Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff, Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is Evolving

Toward Africa (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 12.
7 Etienne Balibar, We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 2003).

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erogeneity of ‘frontier’ labour and capital stimulate critical analysis of capitalist
development in the global North, and of evolving capitalist relations between
North and South, whether these be through capital relocation, international
migrant flows or global supply chains? By working through notions of core–
periphery and North–South this line of inquiry points to a different vantage
of inter-state, institutional and other relations and networks, while also chal-
lenging inherited and readily accepted binaries such as informal–formal, rural–
urban and the like.

The articles collected for this special issue engage the issues and questions
touched on above through case studies from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thai-
land and Vietnam. Methodologically, the authors varyingly employ ethnogra-
phy, the extended case method and participant observation as operationalised
in anthropology, development studies, geography, labour and industrial rela-
tions, and sociology. Marxian approaches to labour and development comprise
a common blueprint for these interventions, with varying attention to post-
colonial studies, workerist/autonomist theory and critical industrial relations,
alongside cross-disciplinary debates around the multiscalar politics of power
in the global economy. In order to situate these papers within contemporary
debates surrounding late-capitalist development in the global South, we out-
line in the remainder of this introduction four thematic areas under which to
group the various topics covered by this special issue’s contributors. Specifi-
cally, these are: the truncated agrarian transition; informal, informalised and
flexibilised labour; stunted industrial upgrading; and emergent forms of poli-
tics and struggle.

1 The Truncated Agrarian Transition

Modernisation theory is predicated on a historicist narrative that sees peasant
smallholders move from the farm to the factory, with informal labour giving
way to formal employment—most significantly within expanding industrial
manufacturing sectors.8 Contemporary developments in Mekong Southeast
Asia challenge this historicist narrative. We see, instead, patterns of jobless
growth, ‘saturated’ industrial labour markets, the informalisation of industrial
production and the growth of surplus populations lacking access to formal
waged employment.9 It is for this reason that Henry Bernstein suggests a shift

8 Arthur Lewis, ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’, The Manchester
School 22, 2 (1954): 139–191.

9 Tania Murray Li, ‘Centering Labor in the Land Grab Debate’, Journal of Peasant Studies 38,

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away from the classic agrarian question, to ask instead a contemporary agrarian
question of labour.10 While the former considers the capitalist transformation
of agriculture in the service of growing urban industrial production, the latter
attends to the proliferating (and largely informal) ‘classes of labour’ and surplus
populations, as one-time peasants are expelled from smallholder agricultural
production without being fully absorbed into formal employment—industrial
or otherwise.

Despite the glaring lack—indeed, well into the foreseeable future—of well-
remunerated formal employment, regional governments and policy advisors
continue to valorise waged employment over redistributive social welfare pro-
grammes as the most effective means of meeting the social reproduction needs
of dispossessed populations. This discrepancy between the hype and reality of
(un)employment is by no means limited to Southeast Asia.11 But its persistence
in the discourse of the region’s politicians and ‘development’ actors pushes
us to ask what ideological ends such continued appeals to salvation-through-
employment serve in the context of the region’s ‘stalled transitions’.

2 Informal, Informalised and Flexibilised Labour

Modernisation theorists, such as Arthur Lewis, posited that a ‘modern’, ‘capi-
talist’ sector in developing countries would draw individuals away from rural
subsistence labour and into formal—particularly industrial—employment.12
When the concept of the ‘informal economy’ first emerged in the early 1970s,
it was understood primarily as self-employment, and as a temporary economic
strategy that rural-to-urban migrants drew on while they waited for their full
incorporation into formal, urban employment.13 In Mekong Southeast Asia,
like much of the global South, the formalisation of labour has not played
out as predicted. It has, in addition, been clear, ever since Jan Breman’s clas-

2 (2011): 281–298; Tania Murray Li, Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Fron-
tier (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

10 Henry Bernstein, ‘“Changing Before Our Very Eyes”: Agrarian Questions and the Politics
of Land in Capitalism Today’, Journal of Agrarian Change 4, 1–2 (2004): 190–225; Henry
Bernstein, ‘Is There an Agrarian Question in the 21st Century?’, Canadian Journal of Devel-
opment Studies 27, 4 (2006): 449–460.

11 Franco Barchiesi, Precarious Liberation Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizenship
in Postapartheid South Africa (New York: SUNY Press, 2011).

12 Arthur Lewis, ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’.
13 Keith Hart, ‘Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana’, Journal of

Modern African Studies 11 (1973): 61–89.

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sic critique of labour market dualism, that formal and informal labour mar-
kets are interpenetrated and that, far from being limited to ‘self-employment’,
informality has come to increasingly characterise waged labour across the

There is thus both a persistence and a proliferation of informal forms of
labour and production, including within sectors and enterprises that were
once iconic of formal employment, such as large-scale industrial manufactur-
ing. But what, specifically, are the emerging patterns of informal and infor-
malised labour in Mekong Southeast Asia? How does the present multiplic-
ity of forms of informal labour and production relate to, and interpenetrate
with, formal employment and legally registered enterprises? And how do the
de facto informal conditions of ‘formal sector’ employment force a rethink
of the formal–informal binary?15 Going further, what are the implications of
abandoning the idea that modern capitalism is defined by a ‘normal’ capital–
labour relation, or ‘free’ wage labour?16 Global labour historians have consid-
ered the heterogeneity of labour relations as a characteristic of the colonial
and postcolonial world, a sign of ‘backwardness’ to be overcome by devel-
opment.17 In the neoliberal era, the crisis of Fordism and global outsourcing
have contributed to a re-emergence of this heterogeneity that has been scru-
tinised under varying labels, including flexibilisation, informalisation and pre-

Despite aspirations for global relevance, much of the literature on labour
flexibilisation and precarious work is derived from the recent experiences of
the global North—Guy Standing’s The Precariat being a prominent example.18
Within this literature, flexibilisation is commonly linked, both historically and
structurally, to deindustrialisation, a shift to services and a sharp decline from
a highpoint of unionised industrial employment in mid-twentieth-century
Fordist–Keynesian North Atlantic welfare states.19To be sure, employment flex-
ibilisation and the expansion of precarious employment have been widely

14 Jan Breman, ‘A Dualistic Labour System? A Critique of the “Informal Sector” Concept: I:
The Informal Sector’, Economic and Political Weekly 11, 48 (1976): 1870–1876.

15 Dae-Oup Chang, ‘Informalising Labour in Asia’s Global Factory’, Journal of Contemporary
Asia 39, 2 (2009): 161–179.

16 Marcel van der Linden and Karl Heinz Roth (eds), Beyond Marx: Theorising the Global
Labour Relations of the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

17 Mezzadra, ‘Bringing Capital Back In’.
18 Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class (London: Bloomsbury Academic,

19 Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter, ‘Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Exception’,

Theory, Culture, Society 25, 7–8 (2008): 51–72.

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documented in Southeast Asia.20 Yet the regional experience is one of flexi-
bilisation overlaying industrialisation, rather than deindustrialisation. This has
consequences for the kinds of questions that need to be asked. How, for exam-
ple, do present patterns of flexible industrial wage labour in Mekong Southeast
Asia shape or limit popular demands for stable, well-remunerated industrial

3 Stunted Industrial Upgrading

Regional economies have demonstrated an inability to move, under the cur-
rent international division of labour, from low value-added to high value-added
industrial production. In Mekong Southeast Asia, consequently, there is a per-
sistence of low-waged, low value-added industrial production, especially in
apparel, footwear and electronics assembly. What are the effects of popular dis-
content over precarious employment and unemployment against the backdrop
of an unrealised promise to upgrade to well-remunerated industrial employ-
ment? How, in addition, have governments and private capitalists adapted
their accumulation strategies to maintain and increase profit in the face of this
stunted industrial upgrading? Among such strategies, one prominent example
in Mekong Southeast Asia has been the spatial relocation of capital to sites
that can exploit geopolitical and internal borders as means to regulate labour
mobility and workers’ organising.21 This has involved a proliferation of internal
regulatory borders, as well as the de jure and de facto segmentation—indeed,
fragmentation—of labour markets along lines of gender, ethnicity, citizenship
and legal status. On the one hand, such regulation elicits questions around
the role of regionally extended labour regimes in which East Asian capital
and states, as well as international organisations, including the ILO, operate.
Efforts to harness labour in the Mekong for Asia regional- and global-scale cap-
ital accumulation points to a need to understand the multiple and variegated
mix of ‘formal’ tripartite institutions as well as more informal and regionally
articulated state–state, state–capital and capital–labour relations. On the other
hand, heterogeneity is not only constitutive of the production of subjectivity

20 For example, Kevin Hewison and Arne L. Kalleberg, ‘Precarious Work and Flexibilization
in South and Southeast Asia’, American Behavioral Scientist 57, 4 (2012): 395–402; Dennis
Arnold and John Pickles, ‘Global Work, Surplus Labor and the Precarious Economies of
the Border’, Antipode 43, 5 (2011): 1598–624; Frederic Deyo, Reforming Asian Labor Systems:
Economic Tensions and Worker Dissent (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

21 Arnold and Pickles, ‘Global Work’.

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under capitalism: it may also shape the language and strategies of any project
of liberation and critique of capitalism.22

One response to limited livelihood improvements has been increasing
appeals to citizen workers to make short-term sacrifices for long-run national
economic development—with implications for spaces of protest. For instance,
in the case of China, Aihwa Ong provides a useful illustration of variegated
state strategies of rule.23 She points out that every day the Chinese state faces
numerous incidents of labour or peasant unrest, most of which are harshly
put down or left unreported. However, by tolerating recent worker demon-
strations against select foreign companies, the state permits mass resentment
against global capital.The selective political approach to worker unrest demon-
strates a complex state engagement with the still-resonant notion of people’s
or nation’s sovereign territory versus the threat of foreign capital. The state
goal is to manipulate the political situation in order to achieve an implicit
state–society bargain that trades acceptance of political authoritarianism for
sustained improvements in economic and social well-being. The authoritar-
ian state, in its multifaceted embroilment with global capital, she contends,
cannot be frozen in a posture of opposition to the masses, but must strate-
gically intervene in unstable conditions, one moment acting as a draconian
oppressor of workers, the next as a protector of labour against the depre-
dations of global capital. What happens, then, in contexts like the Mekong
where improvements in economic and social well-being are lagging or mov-
ing in reverse gear? The cases of Cambodia and Myanmar and the repression
of workers’ protests in export-oriented industrial zones is instructive in this
regard, as are widespread protests of rage by Vietnamese workers outside the
gates of ‘Chinese’ firms in 2014 that went largely unchecked by authorities.
What kinds of ‘mass’ protest do workers in the Mekong employ, what are the
logics and strategies, and what responsive strategies do workers’ movements

4 Emergent Forms of Politics and Struggle

The stunted agrarian transition and the de jure and de facto informalisation of
labour challenge political strategies and tactics derived from liberal and radi-
cal traditions that privilege workplace organising and struggle by a mass indus-

22 Mezzadra, ‘Bringing Capital Back In’.
23 Aihwa Ong, ‘Powers of Sovereignty: State, People, Wealth, Life’, Focaal—Journal of Global

and Historical Anthropology 64, (2012): 24–35.

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European Journal of East Asian Studies 17 (2018) 181–191

trial proletariat employed in large-scale factories and mines. To be sure, mass
strikes, both within and outside formal unions, continue in Mekong South-
east Asia, and they should not be treated as an outmoded form of struggle.
Indeed, the scale of industrial strikes in the GMS speaks to the divergent class
trajectories between the deindustrialising and post-industrial global North,
and industrialising Asia. Nonetheless, questions remain about the ways that
employment flexibilisation, including constraints on formal unionisation in
some contexts and its proliferation in others within the GMS, has shaped the
forms and dynamics of industrial strikes under the region’s particular precari-
ous conditions, highlighting the changing role of trade unions and other civil
society organisations operating from local to global scales.

At the same time, the contemporary proliferation of casual employment and
informal petty commodity production within the GMS demands a better grasp
of the forms of politics by dispossessed populations located outside formal
industrial employment. How, we might then ask, do the particularities of cap-
italist development in the GMS shape and make possible certain forms of poli-
tics and struggle among dispossessed and (often informally) exploited popula-
tions? Under such conditions, are emergent forms of struggle best understood
as popular claims on the state, shaped by the conditions of a dispossessed ‘polit-
ical society’?24 Has the fragmented spatial segmentation of regional labour
markets motivated migrants, both rural–urban and cross-border, to employ
their very mobility in order to contest such forms of spatialised regulation?
And what forms of struggle remain possible for those who are at once exploited
outside direct wage relations while also lacking the leverage of electoral mobil-


Arnold, Dennis, and John Pickles. ‘Global Work, Surplus Labor and the Precarious
Economies of the Border’. Antipode 43, 5 (2011): 1598–624.

Balibar, Etienne. We, the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

24 Partha Chatterjee, Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

25 The papers that comprise this special issue were initially discussed at a workshop held
at the University of Amsterdam in November 2016, with financial support provided by
The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (Veni grant no. 016.135.215).

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190 arnold and campbell

European Journal of East Asian Studies 17 (2018) 181–191

Barchiesi, Franco. Precarious Liberation Workers, the State, and Contested Social Citizen-
ship in Postapartheid South Africa (New York: SUNY Press, 2011).

Bernstein, Henry. ‘“Changing Before Our Very Eyes”: Agrarian Questions and the Pol-
itics of Land in Capitalism Today’. Journal of Agrarian Change 4, 1–2 (2004): 190–

Bernstein, Henry. ‘Is There an Agrarian Question in the 21st Century?’ Canadian Journal
of Development Studies 27, 4 (2006): 449–460.

Breman, Jan. ‘A Dualistic Labour System? A Critique of the “Informal Sector” Concept:
I: The Informal Sector’. Economic and Political Weekly 11, 48 (1976): 1870–1876.

Breman, Jan, and Marcel van der Linden. ‘Informalizing the Economy: The Return of
the Social Question at a Global Level’. Development and Change 45, 5 (2014): 920–

Chang, Dae-Oup. ‘Informalising Labour in Asia’s Global Factory’. Journal of Contempo-
rary Asia 39, 2 (2009): 161–179.

Chatterjee, Partha. Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. Theory from the South: Or, How Euro-America is
Evolving Toward Africa (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

Deyo, Frederic. Reforming Asian Labor Systems: Economic Tensions and Worker Dissent
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

Hart, Keith. ‘Informal Income Opportunities and Urban Employment in Ghana’. Jour-
nal of Modern African Studies 11 (1973): 61–89.

Herzfeld, Michael. ‘The Absent Presence: Discourses of Crypto-Colonialism’. South
Atlantic Quarterly 101, 4 (2002): 899–926.

Hewison, Kevin, and Arne L. Kalleberg. ‘Precarious Work and Flexibilization in South
and Southeast Asia’. American Behavioral Scientist 57, 4 (2012): 395–402.

Lewis, Arthur. ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’. The Man-
chester School 22, 2 (1954): 139–191.

Li, Tania Murray. ‘Centering Labor in the Land Grab Debate’. Journal of Peasant Studies
38, 2 (2011): 281–298.

Li, Tania Murray. Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier (Durham:
Duke University Press, 2014).

Mezzadra, Sandro. ‘Bringing Capital Back In: A Materialist Turn in Postcolonial Stud-
ies?’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 12, 1 (2011): 154–164.

Neilson, Brett, and Ned Rossiter. ‘Precarity as a Political Concept, or, Fordism as Excep-
tion’. Theory, Culture, Society 25, 7–8 (2008): 51–72.

Ong, Aihwa. ‘Powers of Sovereignty: State, People, Wealth, Life’. Focaal—Journal of
Global and Historical Anthropology 64, (2012): 24–35.

Sanyal, Kalyan. Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmen-
tality and Post-colonial Capitalism (New Delhi: …

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Review of African Political Economy

ISSN: 0305-6244 (Print) 1740-1720 (Online) Journal homepage:

From the shop floor to the kitchen table: the
shifting centre of precarious workers’ politics in
South Africa

Ben Scully

To cite this article: Ben Scully (2016) From the shop floor to the kitchen table: the shifting centre of
precarious workers’ politics in South Africa, Review of African Political Economy, 43:148, 295-311,
DOI: 10.1080/03056244.2015.1085378

To link to this article:

Published online: 23 Oct 2015.

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Citing articles: 18 View citing articles

From the shop floor to the kitchen table: the shifting centre of
precarious workers’ politics in South Africa

Ben Scully

Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

This article argues that, as wage work has become more precarious, the importance of
the household in the livelihood strategies of precarious South African workers has
increased. The shifting importance of the household in relation to the workplace in
the economic lives of workers has implications for the political strategies that these
workers adopt. The article draws on data from a national household survey combined
with insights from the author’s fieldwork across rural and urban sites in South Africa.
It contributes to the growing literature on the politics of precarious work in the global

Keywords: labour movements; precarious work; South Africa; COSATU; social
movements; livelihoods

[De l’atelier à la table de la cuisine : la base changeante des politiques en faveur des
travailleurs précaires en Afrique du Sud.] Cet article soutient que, puisque le travail
salarié devient de plus en plus précaire, l’importance du ménage dans les stratégies en
matière d’amélioration des moyens de subsistance des travailleurs précaires sud-
africains a augmenté. L’importance changeante du ménage en relation avec le lieu de
travail dans la vie économique des travailleurs a des implications sur les stratégies
politiques que ces travailleurs adoptent. Cet article se base sur des données de
l’enquête nationale sur les ménages combinées, avec des idées provenant du travail
de terrain de l’auteur dans des sites ruraux et urbains en Afrique du Sud. L’article
contribue aux publications sur la politique du travail précaire dans le Sud, qui sont en
nombre croissant.

Mots-clés : mouvements de main d’oeuvre ; travail précaire ; Afrique du Sud ;
COSATU ; mouvements sociaux ; moyens d’existence

The labour movement in the global South is in the midst of a prolonged crisis. Over the past
few decades the financialisation of capital, the globalisation of production and the rise of
ideologies of flexibility in the workplace have undermined the formal wage workers who
are the traditional base of organised labour. This crisis has sparked a wide-ranging
debate on the future of the labour movement. Many scholars and activists have turned to
the question of labour movement revitalisation, searching for strategies and tactics that
might allow existing unions to incorporate the growing ranks of unorganised and precarious
workers (Bonner and Spooner 2011; Milkman and Voss 2004; Turner 2005; Von Holdt and
Webster 2008). While these authors recognise the great challenge posed to unions by the
rise of precarious forms of work, they remained convinced that, as Bonner and Spooner
have put it,

# 2015 ROAPE Publications Ltd

∗Email: [email protected]

Review of African Political Economy, 2016
Vol. 43, No. 148, 295 – 311,

mailto:[email protected]

there are compelling practical and political reasons for trade unions to take the lead in [organ-
ising precarious workers] if they are to retain or rebuild their influence with employers and gov-
ernments, and their legitimacy as the voice and true representatives of the broad working class.
(2011, 87)

In contrast, other observers have taken the position that labour unions are unlikely to regain
their role as the primary organisational home of the working class. In this view, the erosion
of formal wage work has undermined the basis of the broadly shared material interests that
defined traditional labour politics. As a result, unions are seen as a form of political organ-
isation whose time is past. Guy Standing, for example, has argued that because unions were
built to represent workers in a specific type of formal work arrangement, ‘[p]rogressives
must stop expecting unions to become something contrary to their functions’ (2011,
168). In Manuel Castells’ words, the unions of today are doomed to ‘[run] behind the
new society, like dusty flags of forgotten wars’ (2004, 420).

In recent years, a third position has arisen in this debate which can be summarised as a
focus on what Ching Kwan Lee and Yelizavetta Kofman call a ‘politics of precarity’ (Lee
and Kofman 2012). This position starts from the observation that collective action around
issues related to work has not disappeared, and is unlikely to, despite the rise of precarious
forms of employment. However, in contrast to the labour revitalisation literature, this work
does not focus on precarious workers from the perspective of existing unions, but instead
treats them as important contemporary political actors in their own right. These authors take
as a given that precarious workers will continue to struggle, but not necessarily through the
same organisational forms and over the same issues as do workers of the traditional labour
movement. The declining relevance of the ‘traditional politics of labour’ (Paret, forthcom-
ing) to the majority of the world’s workers requires a shift in focus to the emergent politics
of precarity for scholars and activists who want to understand the future of economic

Although this literature is relatively new, it has begun to produce important insights
into the new forms that precarious workers’ politics are taking around the world. Jennifer
Chun (2009) has highlighted the way in which marginalised workers in South Korea and
the United States have turned to ‘symbolic leverage’ as traditional forms of workers’
power have been eroded. She argues that marginalised workers often attempt to ‘[redir-
ect] the site of struggle from narrowly defined workplace disputes to public contestations
over values and meanings’ (173), making appeals which are based in ‘moral and cultural
understandings [as much as] economic calculations . . . ’ (7). Marcel Paret finds a similar
style of claim making among precarious workers in Gauteng, South Africa whose
demands reflect a ‘politics of recognition’ centred on a struggle for dignity and social
worth rather than simply workplace-based demands (Paret, forthcoming). Rina Agarwala,
studying home workers in India, has shown that, in contrast to traditional labour organ-
isations that put demands to employers, precarious workers tend to see the state as the
actor responsible for providing for their well-being (Agarwala 2013). Similarly, Matteo
Rizzo’s study of taxi drivers in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, shows the role that appeals
to the state can play, not only for questions of general social protection, but as a lever
of structural power which precarious workers can use against their immediate employers.
Rizzo details the example of Dar es Salaam’s drivers who lobbied the government to
amend laws so that negligent taxi owners, rather than the drivers they employ, would
be held responsible for traffic violations associated with unsafe taxi vehicles (Rizzo
2013). Lee and Kofman, summarising the insights of this emerging literature, conclude

296 B. Scully

. . . in the global south, precariousness at work creates not just a crisis of job quality at the point
of production but also a crisis of social reproduction. Therefore, responses to precarious
employment almost always problematise the work – citizenship nexus, connecting labour poli-
tics to state politics . . . (Lee and Kofman 2012, 389)

From politics of labour to a politics of precarity

This analysis of collective action by precarious workers in the global South is essential
to understanding the changes taking place in class politics with the erosion of formal
wage labour. However, the emerging literature on precarious politics suffers from the
limitation that the examples of collective action on which it focuses remain, in almost
all parts of the world, relatively isolated and uncommon events. The vast majority of pre-
carious workers are not organised and do not make collective demands around issues of
work. It is still unclear what the implications of these innovative, but still numerically
marginal, precarious workers movements are for the unorganised majority of precarious
workers in the global South. Do these new forms of organising and making demands
point towards the possibility of a revitalisation of a labour movement that could rep-
resent the interests of the excluded majority of contemporary global capitalism? Or
will such experiments remain rooted in a small section of the swelling ranks of precar-
ious workers?

A more complete understanding of how the rise of precarious work has transformed
workers’ politics cannot come only from an analysis of scattered examples of precarious
workers’ organisations. Instead it must proceed from an analysis of the social and economic
conditions of precarious workers as a whole, which may (or may not) provide common
interests and experiences around which a precarious politics could form. In this way, the
concept of a politics of precarity should mirror the concept of a traditional politics of
labour which it is critiquing.

The concept of a ‘politics of labour’ conveys the idea that workers in capitalist econom-
ies share certain material and political interests by virtue of their position in the production
process. This idea is not drawn only from an observation of workers’ organisations and col-
lective action. Instead it is rooted in a set of clear assumptions around workers and their
experience of work. The ideo-typical workers who advanced the traditional politics of
labour were assumed to be fully proletariansed, that is, their livelihood depended on
their ability to earn a wage. Solidarity and commonality of interests were assumed to
result from the shared daily experience of a common workplace. In most cases of sustained
traditional labour movements, some form of social contract was assumed to govern the
relationship between employers and workers, setting limits on the terrain of labour –
capital conflict.

It is reasonable to assume that as the validity of these assumptions has been eroded, the
political interests of the working class have also changed. However, understanding the
emerging politics of precarity is not as simple as turning our attention from the common
experiences of traditional workers to those of precarious workers. The term ‘precarious
work’ is used to describe a broad and diverse range of experiences, from wage workers
in outsourced, part-time or temporary arrangements to the unemployed and self-employed
poor who make up what Michael Denning (2010) calls the ‘wageless’ segments of contem-
porary globalised capitalism. In order to understand what, if any, political interests this
broad range of workers shares it is necessary to ask what the common experiences are of
precarious work. This article takes up this question in a specific place, contemporary

Review of African Political Economy 297

South Africa. The article draws on nationally representative household survey data com-
bined with interviews and observations from the author’s field work among precarious
workers in both rural and urban sites in South Africa. It asks the question, are there
common experiences among the diversity of precarious workers that point towards some
general politics of precarity in South Africa?

The findings of the article both confirm and add specificity to the emerging concept of a
politics of precarity. The data from South Africa show that precarious workers have
complex economic lives, relying on a combination of diverse income sources including,
but not limited to, their own wage in order to gain a livelihood. The primary site through
which incomes are combined and livelihoods are produced is the precarious workers’
households. As a result, these workers’ material interests are centred on their household
livelihood strategies rather than their workplace. For many of these individuals, their
primary identity is not that of precarious worker but rather that of a family or household
member. Increasingly, class interests and identities are constructed not on the shop floor
but around the kitchen table. This shift has important implications for attempts to build
broad-based organisations or coalitions among precarious workers. What unites these
workers is not their experience of work, but their experience of precarity which requires
diversified household-centred livelihood strategies.

Precarious households: the hidden abode of reproduction

Traditional conceptions of the politics of labour have been rooted firmly in the workplace.
Workers’ material interests are thought to be shaped by their experiences in that hidden
abode of production. As ideo-typical formal wage work has been eroded, workers’ ties
to the workplace have been loosened and they have increasingly begun to rely on social
and kinship networks in order to gain a livelihood. The household, what Bill Martin and
Mark Beittel have called ‘the hidden abode of reproduction’ (1987), has become increas-
ingly central in shaping precarious workers’ material well-being. The importance of the
household is neither new nor exclusive to precarious workers. As Joan Smith and Immanuel
Wallerstein have argued:

the appropriate operational unit for analysing the ways in which people fit into the ‘labor force’
is not the individual but the ‘household’, defined . . . as the social unit that effectively over long
periods of time enables individuals, of varying ages and both sexes, to pool income coming
from multiple sources in order to ensure their individual and collective well-being. (Smith
and Wallerstein 1992, 12)

However, the rise of precarious work has increased the centrality of the household, shifting
a larger portion of the burden of social reproduction from the labour market to the

Given its importance to precarious workers’ livelihoods, the household is a key site in
which to think about the politics of precarity. For precarious workers the experience of the
workplace varies widely, ranging from something resembling a ‘standard employment
relationship’ to informalised sites of self-employment to periods of open unemployment
in which there is no workplace at all. The vast majority of precarious workers do,
despite this variation in workplace experiences, situate their livelihood strategies within a
social network that can be described as a household. Households are typically centred on
a common place of residence, but household connections, in the sense of Smith and

298 B. Scully

Wallerstein’s definition, can extend beyond a specific location, often, for example, stretch-
ing across spaces of migration.

In the analysis presented below, precarious workers are situated within households. This
is not meant to romanticise the household as a site of mutuality and cooperation. As has
been well documented, households are sites of conflict and subject to unequal power
dynamics. The increasing reliance on households as sources of well-being may be exacer-
bating such conflict (Mosoetsa 2011). However, despite this conflict, households are the
central site through which workers’ livelihood strategies are carried out, as the data
below will demonstrate.

Conceptualising households in the broad sense that Smith and Wallerstein have pre-
sented is easy enough. A much more difficult task is accurately analysing the dynamics
of households on a large scale. There is a wide range of household survey data available,
but much of it suffers from limitations which are especially important to consider when ana-
lysing precarious workers’ households. One key issue is determining how to define a house-
hold member. A household survey that does not, for example, measure connections
between urban migrants and their rural homes will severely distort the actual picture of a
worker’s economic situation. This is particularly true for precarious workers, whose house-
holds and livelihood strategies often extend beyond a single residential location.

A second problem is measuring all sources of households’ income through a survey.
Households are complex sites of cooperation and conflict in which multiple types of
income are combined and/or produced. Smith and Wallerstein defined five types of
income which households utilise in order to gain a livelihood over time: wages, market
sales, rent, transfers and subsistence (1992, 7). The first four of these can be measured
with a fair degree of accuracy and reliability through detailed household surveys. Subsis-
tence income, by contrast, is very difficult to quantify, yet it is essential to the livelihoods
of almost all households. Subsistence income is especially important for precarious workers
since their other forms of income tend to be low.

This article combines two sources of data in order to analyse the households of precar-
ious workers in South Africa. First, it uses quantitative data from the National Income
Dynamics Study (NIDS), a data-gathering project by the Southern African Labour and
Development Research Unit (SALDRU) at the University of Cape Town. The NIDS is a
large-scale, nationally representative survey of 8040 households containing just over
32,000 residents. Although the NIDS is a panel survey, conducted bi-annually since
2008, the data used in this article come only from the most recent wave, conducted in
2012 (SALDRU 2013). The NIDS was specifically designed to address some of the short-
comings in existing household data. It uses a very broad definition of household, counting
anyone who lives in a common physical place at least 15 days out of the year as a household
member. The survey also includes a number of questions that collect information about
additional economic ties that may exist with individuals who are not counted as household
members. However, despite these advantages over previously existing household surveys,
the NIDS data do not allow an accurate assessment of subsistence income. In fact, given its
complexity, a comprehensive and generalisable measure of subsistence income would be
virtually impossible. In order to illustrate the way in which subsistence income shapes
the material interests of precarious workers, this article uses data from the author’s field
work among precarious workers in three rural sites in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal
and from across multiple urban sites in the province of Gauteng. This field work, conducted
in 2010 and 2011, involved interviews and ethnographic observation focused on house-
holds’ economic situations with an emphasis on social connections and subsistence

Review of African Political Economy 299

Conceptualising and operationalising precarious work

Despite, or perhaps because of, its ubiquity in contemporary debates, there is no broad con-
sensus on the definition of precarious work. Standing (2011) identifies precarious workers
as a distinct and growing class within the labour force who lack forms of security associated
with the traditional working class. By contrast, Franco Barchiesi, in his study of precarious-
ness in South Africa, notes that ‘the vulnerability and precariousness of employment . . . are
not confined to the lack of formal jobs . . . . Even many workers enjoying the protections of
unionisation earn wages that often barely cover basic necessities’ (2011, 75). Barchiesi’s
findings seem to confirm Ronaldo Munck’s scepticism of the usefulness of the concept
of precarious work, especially in the global South. Munck laments that ‘[t]here is little cog-
nisance [in the literature that] the type of work described by the term “precarity” has always
been the norm in the global South’ (2013, 752).

Indeed, Munck’s critique could be extended beyond the global South. In a sense, the
vast majority of workers in a capitalist system are in a precarious situation, in that they
depend on the labour market in order to gain all or part of their livelihood. It is this inherent
precarity that is the underlying reason for labour laws which provide workers protections
from the market by, for example, banning arbitrary dismissal, guaranteeing minimum
wage or working conditions etc. While we may debate the novelty of this situation, it is
undeniable that in contemporary global capitalism a significant portion of workers work
outside of these protections. This precaritisation of work has been driven by two converging
processes. On the one hand, employers have found ways to exclude previously protected
workers from the framework of labour protection offered by the law. This is what Jan
Theron has called ‘informalization from above’ (Theron 2010). At the same time there
has been an ongoing ‘informalization from below’ (Ibid.) driven by the masses of individ-
uals who are excess to the labour requirements of global capitalism and who are forced to
make their own work in order to survive. Even if we reject Standing’s argument that these
workers constitute a distinct class, we can ask how the precarious reality of work shapes the
politics of the contemporary labour force.

In the quantitative analysis presented in this article, precarious workers are divided into
two broad categories. The first category contains primarily workers who are the product of
informalisation (or precaritisation) from above. These are workers who have a regular wage
job, but one which lacks the full range of legal protections available to workers under South
African labour law. These workers can be further divided into two sub-categories. First are
those workers in jobs that should be covered by the law, but that, in actual practice, do not
meet the minimum legal requirements. This group of workers will be called unregulated
wage workers. In South Africa, these workers are both the largest group of precarious
workers and the most difficult to quantify, since their extra-legal work arrangements
cannot be easily measured through survey techniques. The NIDS survey does provide
some questions which make it possible to determine if the respondents’ conditions of
employment adhere to basic South African labour law. For example, the Basic Conditions
of Employment Act (BCEA) requires that all workers who work more than 24 hours per
week must be provided a written contract. Therefore, those workers who report that they
work more than 24 hours a week but do not have a contract can be understood to be
working in an unregulated job. Similarly, full-time employees must have contributions to
the national Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) deducted from their pay check. Those
that report that they do not have UIF deducted from their checks are in jobs that contravene
the BCEA.1 While it does seem likely that such small violations of labour law are a reason-
able proxy for the larger forms of insecurity that define precarious employment, these types

300 B. Scully

of questions are unlikely to capture the full range of unregulated wage work that exists in
South Africa. Therefore it should be expected that unregulated wage workers are under-
counted in the data presented below.

These unregulated workers are in jobs that operate outside the legal framework of South
African labour relations. There is another group of workers who have regular wage jobs
which do adhere to the law but still qualify as precarious because their employers use
legal means to circumvent some of the protections provided by the legal framework.
This category includes outsourced workers, workers who are employed on a fixed-term
contract and workers who are employed part time. For all of these part-time/contract
wage workers, various aspects of the law can be circumvented (Theron 2003). Most signifi-
cantly, they are easier to dismiss. In contrast to unregulated workers, the NIDS data should
provide a relatively accurate measurement of part-time/contract workers.

Both unregulated and part-time/contract workers have something that looks like a
regular wage job, even if it is insecure and/or of limited duration. The second broad cat-
egory of precarious workers, which mirrors Theron’s concept of informalisation from
below, consists of those workers who have no regular employment and instead rely on
low-income survivalist activities. As with regular wage jobs, workers in survivalist activi-
ties can be divided into two sub-categories. The first category includes individuals who rely
on self-employment. Of course, not all of the self-employed are in precarious work. For
example, successful business owners or wealthy consultants should not be grouped together
with street hawkers or individuals offering haircuts in their backyards. For this article, self-
employed individuals are only counted as precarious workers if they earn R3100 per month
(�$310) or less from their business.2

The second type of precarious workers who rely on survivalist activities are those indi-
viduals who work as casual workers, day labourers or pieceworkers. Of course, these
casual workers do earn wages. However, unlike the regular wage workers described
above, they do not have consistent and reliable access to wage income. This includes indi-
viduals who find day work on the roadside or by approaching work sites. It might also
include individuals who are occasionally hired by relatives or neighbours for specific
tasks, but on an inconsistent basis.

A final small group of workers who are counted as precarious are those who report in
the NIDS survey that their main economic activity is helping a family member with his or
her business. This type of work begins to blur into other types of unpaid household labour
(such as childcare and food preparation) which are not included here as forms of precarious
work. However, these individuals are included because their unpaid work is oriented
directly towards market activities.

There are three groups of workers who should be mentioned who are not counted as
precarious workers in the data below, one of which is omitted for conceptual reasons,
the other two owing to the limitations of the NIDS data. The first and largest group is
the unemployed. The unemployed share many material and political interests with precar-
ious workers and should be considered important to the overall politics of precarity.
However, the central argument of this article, that precarious workers rely primarily on
household-centred rather than workplace-centred livelihood strategies, is obvious in the
case of the unemployed. If the unemployed are considered alongside the precariously
employed workers who are the focus here, the arguments of the article can only be

The second group is excluded from the analysis below because of limitations of the
NIDS data. When the NIDS fieldwork was undertaken some household members were
not available to be interviewed, often because they were migrant workers who lived and

Review of African Political Economy 301

worked much of the year away from their ‘sending’ household. In these cases other house-
hold members were interviewed as proxies for the unavailable respondents. These proxy
interviews asked a simplified version of the full adult survey. The proxy questionnaire
does not make it possible to distinguish workers who are unregulated or part-time/contract
workers from ‘non-precarious’ wage workers. Since these proxy respondents are primarily
migrant …

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