Emilio and Charlie knew something about work...

In a recent post I argued that development work paid too little attention to the prospects of unionism as a method of protecting the poor and mitigating inequality in a rapidly growing economy. I mentioned that there have been a number of successful union movements historically that have served this specific purpose. In the comments, Lee (of Roving Bandit fame) made the very valid point that a unionism movement may actually harm some of the poor if it blocks out ‘Outsiders’ to the movement and prevents them from accessing the benefits of organization. These outsiders are, of course, likely to be the unemployed seeking work.

This is of course possible. But a union can function in a number of ways. The most common in the developed world is as a set of insiders seeking to protect their material conditions by collectively bargaining with employers and preventing outsiders from undercutting their position. This is the kind of unionism, relying as it does on an insider-outsider distinction and the coercive ability of the union to exclude outsiders from even entering the realms of discourse, which Lee worries about.

In the developing world, a different kind of unionism can be seen. In many cases the politically loaded term ‘Union’ may not even be the best descriptor for what is observed. We could rather call them ‘workers cooperatives’. Their aims are different: not only to create a better division of an industries surplus between capitalists and labour, but to protect basic rights which are poorly understood and poorly protected. This kind of unionism isn’t as widely required among the workers in the developed west because the state takes this role for all citizens through legislation on health and safety and so on (the obvious exception being for illegal migrant labour, who are denied access to the state’s protection or are operating under the radar and hence opt not to appeal to it).

What these unions or cooperatives exist for has less to do with bargaining and more to do with ensuring that legal frameworks are provided and that workers understand what their rights are vis-à-vis employers. One relatively well known historical example concerned migrant labour which entered South Africa for mining work. Many workers were under the misapprehension that their presence in South Africa was illegal and therefore accepted conditions well below the statutory minimum until a movement built up to ensure that all workers were aware of their statutory status.

Alongside this kind of unionism is another kind – the representation of a ‘captured’ population. The classic case here is of plantation labour descendent from migrants: these are workers who have historically formed a labour pool that is almost bonded, even after being freed. Bonded plantation labour of slave plantations were established across the globe: Zanzibar’s economy was in large part built on slave plantations, and Sri Lanka’s on bonded plantation labour. The case of Sri Lanka is particularly illuminating. Though the plantations were captured labour and virtually bonded through the lack of education and social mobility imposed on them, a number of union movements emerged, including the Ceylon Worker’s Congress. Under its original leadership, the CWC made enormous gains for all plantation workers – improved education, housing, healthcare and wages without apparently operating any penalizing system to punish either those who defected from the union or those who were members of other unions. Similar success stories are apparent in Southern India in particular.

Both of these models could be profitably applied to the African context. Such is the excess of unemployed (more accurately, underemployed) in Africa, that individuals are deeply reluctant to assert their rights to employers. Employers also use strategies to minimize the risk of this, particularly in rural areas, where employers often employ a calculated strategy of using day-workers, changing the individuals picked up regularly. Often, they target female heads of household, who are even less likely agitate, given their precarious financial situation. These areas need movements to educate individuals about their rights and the laws, but also need organizations to represent their voice collectively and therefore reduce the risk associated with individual agitation.

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The Contents of my Brain on a Friday (A Short Post)

1) The Roving Bandit recently posted this graphic (via Ryan Briggs) on his website:



Anyone familiar with Iliffe’s history of the continent, Africans, won’t be particularly surprised at this. It is quite an exciting prospect though: historically Africa’s internal transport links, internal trade and specialization were limited by the sparse population. It might also  be that the development of agrarian capitalism has also been limited by low densities of population. As Lee points out, we need to disaggregate further down than ‘Africa’ to individual countries and even districts, but this could be quite significant.

Of course, the counter-argument is that population densities have been increasing for a while without accompanying economic transformation. Perhaps the impact is mediated by other, missing, factors; perhaps densities need to cross a threshold in a specifically locally distributed manner to have an effect; or maybe they just don’t matter that much.

2) I came across this bio of Chea Mony through the Grauniad’s Achievements in International Development Awards. He’s a labour activist who, according to this short bio, has achieved pretty remarkable improvements in the standard of living for Cambodian textiles workers.

This is a topic close to my heart (and was the subject of my postgrad thesis). I’m a firm believer that responsible collective action by labour can alleviate the harsher aspects of the transition to capitalism, which is something labour tends to have a mixed experience of: better wages accompanied by terrible conditions.

Do any readers know anything about Mony, or know where I can learn more? I’d be particularly grateful for a heads up on any academic or semi-academic studies of the union movement itself.

3) Through Bill Easterly’s Twitter feed, I came across this article. The article itself isn’t very insightful, though the headline is great. It includes a line in it, though, that did make me think:

…bad ideas have the tendency of contaminating good ones faster than the good ones can cleanse the bad…

Is this true, or does it just seem that way because we notice and shout about the bad ideas?