Much of the analytical focus on the conditions of precarious work has been centred in the Global North. This can, in part, be explained by the novelty of the phenomenon in contrast to the Global South where paid work, to some extent, has always been precarious. In South Africa, new precarious forms of subcontracted and casualised employment proliferated after the advent of democracy in 1994. This was the result of the combined forces of South Africa’s reintegration into the global market economy and employers attempts to circumvent newly won rights by workers in the first post-apartheid Labour Relations Act (LRA).

Today it is estimated that 40% of workers in the formal sector are employed in some form of precarious work. Such workers earn, on average, half of what permanent workers earn and often without any form of benefits. In essence, the rise of subcontracted, casualised and other forms of ‘atypical’ work have enabled the colonial and apartheid regimes of cheap black labour to persist.

Like elsewhere in the world, the South African trade union movement has struggled to respond to the changing composition of the workforce. In the last membership survey of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) only 10% of the membership were atypically employed. Despite this, COSATU has been vocal in its demands to ‘ban labour broking’, the term used to describe those employed by temporary employment services in South Africa.

In response, the African National Congress introduced an amendment to the LRA that sought to restrict labour broking to work of a genuinely temporary nature and required that labour broker workers become permanent workers of the client company after three months. While this was not a ban on labour broking, it was a significant step forward in the rights for labour broker workers.

As activists and scholars we have been involved in working with the Casual Workers Advice Office, a NPO based in Germiston, Gauteng that is dedicated towards organising precarious workers and assisting them to access their labour rights. In a recent paper, we analyse how manufacturing capital has organised and reorganised the labour process in response to the new rights and analysed how workers have responded.

Precarious work in the manufacturing labour process

Through two case studies of manufacturing workplaces, we show that precarious forms of employment have become central to manufacturing capital’s valorisation strategy over recent decades. A key finding from this research was that employers were taking extreme steps to avoid the implications of the legal changes – i.e. of having to take labour broker workers on as their permanent employees. This, for us, indicated just how important precarious forms of employment have become for manufacturing capital and its contemporary valorisation model.

Each case study mapped the labour process in the workplace. This consisted of mapping both the technological and labour components of the production process, with careful consideration of the relation between the two. The focus of the research was ultimately drawn towards the ways in which capital chooses to organise its labour power through the factory, by creating divisions between workers at multiple levels but primarily on the basis of employment status.

We found was that each manufacturing firm utilised labour broker workers and other forms of casualised or subcontracted employment throughout the labour process. In other words, precarious workers were not only employed on the fringes of the manufacturing workplace to provide numerical flexibility (where management can move workers in and out of the workplace easily) in “non-core” or “auxiliary” functions. These workers also laboured at the very heart of production on a long-term basis and were responsible for the actual manufacturing of goods.

The cases we looked at were the factories of Reckitt Benckiser, a multinational that produces well-known household hygiene and medical products, and PFG Building Glass, a local producer of large sheets of glass used in construction. Both factories are situated in Johannesburg’s East Rand and fall under the chemical manufacturing industry.

At Reckitt we found that the labour process in the factory had been fractured along spatial and employment lines. Each function of the process was housed in a physically distinct part of the workplace, with a system of biometric scanners preventing workers from moving freely between them. We also identified at least eight different third-party agents employing workers throughout the workplace, with very few workers directly employed by Reckitt. The results of the tight control on workers movements and divisions created through employment status resulted in the extreme atomisation of the workforce.

At PFG we found that the labour process in the workplace had been artificially bifurcated between “production work” which is carried out by directly employed permanent workers, and “logistics work” that is carried out by subcontracted workers. Logistics work is the most labour-intensive part of the process and takes place within main factory at the workplace. It and consists of anything that does not take place directly on the highly automated production line.

Both Reckitt and PFG have been able to avoid the repercussions of the new rights for labour broker workers by claiming that they perform an “outsourced service”, even though we show that their work is integral to the proper functioning of the respective production processes. This has been a widespread and generally successful response from employers across industries.

Ultimately, precarious employment offers capital greater control over workers which uses to drive down wages, extend the working day and increase the intensity of work. In short, the popularity of precarious employment practices is driven by the logic of surplus value extraction. This fact has largely been avoided by the sociological literature that, for many years, presumed precarious employment to be a “non-core” or fringe activity. The importance of this research has been to demonstrate how central these employment practices have in fact become for the “core” functions of manufacturing firms.

Politically, this means that trade unions and other worker organisations can no longer afford to ignore these workers. They will have to be central to any attempts to rebuild a labour movement in South Africa.

Organising precarious workers

Our analysis also documented how, under conditions of precarity workers have attempted to organise. The fragmentation of the workplace makes it difficult for workers to know one another or even who their employer is.

Both cases illustrated the complexity of organising under such conditions and the contradictory role of trade unions. Reflecting wider experiences, trade unions often approach the organising of precarious workers for instrumental reasons – needing the numerical majority of precarious workers in the workplace to win collective bargaining rights but only utilising this in the interests of permanent workers. This often leaves precarious workers suspicious of the motives of trade unions when they approach precarious worker organising.

As a result, what we show is the multiple ways in which precarious workers organise inside, outside and in parallel to trade unions often through independent organising initiatives. Our critique of much of the current literature on worker organising is the centrality it places on the trade union form.

As precarious workers themselves are demonstrating, at this point in time trade unions are just one organisational strategy among others. By establishing the trade union form as the sole entry point for all labour studies we stand to miss the significance of the changes that have taken place in the manufacturing labour process and, as a result, we will be unable to appreciate the changing and diverse nature of the struggles that different groups of workers are currently fighting.

Lynford Dor is a researcher at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. He worked as a volunteer and then as the education and media officer at the Casual Workers Advice Office between 2017 and 2021.

Carin Runciman is the Director of the Centre for Social Change and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Johannesburg. She was a management committee member of the Casual Workers Advice Office between 2016 and 2021.

This article is based on Lynford Dor and Carin Runciman, “Precarious Workers and the Labour Process: Problematising the Core/Non-core.” Global Labour Journal  Vol. 13 No. 1 (2022): January 2022.

Image: The Alrode Brewery. Johannesburg South Africa. 23rd April 2008, via Flickr