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We Need a New Conception of Labour

Khwezi Mabasa

Khwezi Mabasa argues that the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the economic policy debates on the need to rethinking the importance of work and labour in a period of economic instability characterised by the proliferation of technology in all fields of life.


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Employment has featured prominently in Covid-19 public policy debates. This discourse primarily focuses on employment security and measures for retaining existing jobs across the economy. The National Treasury estimates that our economy will shed close to seven million jobs in the following months. Thus, the heightened concern about jobs in South Africa is justified, given the persistent unemployment and inequality. The government has spent half a trillion as a form of economic relief package aimed to ameliorate the Covid-19 socio-economic impact. The economic relief was advanced as a response to the on-going public policy debates on employment and economic/ livelihood security. One factor omitted in these deliberations is a need for reconceptualising notions of work in society. Covid-19 amplifies the historical economic policy debates on new forms of work and labour conceptions. The global capitalist system has experienced several forms of restructuring over the past decades, and this impacts labour across varies societies. Covid-19 exposes the limitations of a narrow industrial labour regime, which overlooks technological change and social reproduction when debating labour policies.


The importance of care labour

The primary sign of this oversight is the undervaluing of care labour undertaken by nurses, the elderly, social workers, day care employees, community health care workers and early childhood development practitioners. Care work is at the centre of South Africa’s Covid-19 response, even thought it has been systemically underfunded over the past years. Structural Adjustment Programmes nudged governments to reduce expenditure on public goods, which subsequently resulted in precarious formal paid care work. However, not all care work is paid. The International Labour Organisation Care Work (2018) report highlights that a large amount of care work is unpaid. It takes place in homes and communities where women bear the brunt of social reproduction. This unpaid work is gendered because ‘women perform 76.2 per cent of the total amount of unpaid care work, 3.2 times more time than men’. Society needs an alternative conception of work and labour, which dedicates substantial support (finance and institutional) to forms of labour that operate outside industrial production sites. This policy shift will create additional income sources and other multiplier effects for human wellbeing. More importantly, it increases the nation’s resilience and responses during an epidemic.

The impact of technology: Beyond rigid productivism in labour markets

Another significant consideration is a need for an alternative conception of labour productivity. The current labour regime still views rigid control measures over employees as essential instruments for maintaining productivity. These include fixed working hours, time control schedules, controlled office work and hierarchical organisational systems, which afford employees minimal participation in managing how work is conducted or supervised in companies. There are several studies challenging this practice in workplaces, and these findings cut across different research fields like economics, industrial psychology and industrial labour studies. South Africa’s labour market paradigm neglects these contemporary public policy debates on the relationship between productivity and organisational structural change. Companies can achieve significant productivity gains while improving employees holistic well being through decreasing rigid workplace control measures. The use of technology in the transition towards digitisation in some economic sectors has the potential to facilitate a shift in labour productivity strategies.

There are varied technologies which are emerging as part of the transition towards a digital economy. These innovations use artificial intelligence and algorithms to make technology accessible to businesses , employees and customers. Increased digitisation, especially in the service sectors, creates market disruption and challenges regulatory frameworks. Our labour law regulatory regime is based on the Fordist industrial structure, which privileges the standard employment relationship. Several labour movement writers have studied how the restructuring of capitalist production systems over the past decades questions traditional work conceptions . They have tried to nudge trade unions and the broader labour movement towards developing adequate organising strategies. The preliminary evidence indicates that South Africa’s labour movement is still far from adapting to these structural shifts. But this regulatory challenge is not a trade union and labour movement matter only. The state, through its labour regime and institutions, also needs to be responsive to economic structural changes.

A clear example of this conundrum is the ongoing debate about the status and work of uber drivers. The company has attempted, with some success, to evade various regulatory frameworks. It argues that it is not a transport company and does not employ the drivers. This transnational corporation uses its peculiar business model, based on the algorithm-driven application to justify these claims. Uber states that the drivers are independent contractors who engage with the application. The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the Labour Court ruled differently on this matter over the past years. This conundrum has led to class conflict, violence and deepened inequality in the passenger taxi transport industry. South Africa’s labour movement, employers and labour regulatory authorities need to adapt to the changing industrial relations environment. Furthermore, society should value all forms of labour, especially the paid and unpaid care work that is essential for human well being in households or communities. The Covid-19 crisis amplifies these two points in several ways and shows that class struggle is constantly changing and class analysis should also adapt to these changes. It is, therefore, important to root our new conceptions of labour in these dynamics.

Khwezi Mabasa is Senior Researcher MISTRA and SALB Board Member.

© 2016 by SWOP

t: +27 (0) 11 717 4460   |   info@swop.org.za

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