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 â€˜Outsidersâ€™ 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 â€˜Unionâ€™ may not even be the best descriptor for what is observed. We could rather call them â€˜workers cooperativesâ€™. 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 isnâ€™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 stateâ€™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-Ã -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 â€“ the representation of a â€˜capturedâ€™ 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: Zanzibarâ€™s economy was in large part built on slave plantations, and Sri Lankaâ€™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 Workerâ€™s Congress. Under its original leadership, the CWC made enormous gains for all plantation workers â€“ 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.