Mobilising Migrant Workers in the South African Post-Migrant Labour Regime: Precariousness, Invisibility and Xenophobia

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 11:00 AM
Room: Booth 41
Oral Presentation
Aurelia SEGATTI , University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein, South Africa
Janet MUNAKAMWE , University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein, South Africa
The critical role played by the migrant labour system in allowing formidable levels of accumulation in core sectors of the South African economy (mining, agriculture) has been documented extensively over the past 30 years (First et al. 1972, Burawoy 1976, Legassick & Wolpe 1976, Arrighi et al. 2010, Crush, 2007). The mobilisation of this migrant workforce from within and beyond South African borders and its critical role in the emergence of independent Black unions in the 1980s are also well documented (Webster 1985, Sitas 1983). However, what most analysts have failed to capture is the shift from this highly formalised and disciplinary migrant labour regime, historically framed through government-to-government agreements, to the current reality of deregulated labour migration to South Africa. Following restructuring in the mining sector and political pressure to recruit locally, the share of contract workers plummeted in the early 2000s while at the same time, emerging sectors such as outsourced construction, hospitality, and domestic work started relying increasingly on foreign labour. This structural shift largely caught South African unions unprepared and very limited organisation has taken place. Drawing on research undertaken within MiWORC (www.miworc.org.za) over the past two years, this paper explores more specifically the mobilisation challenges posed by this regime shift and strategies developed by both unions and migrant workers. While some micro-local experiences of mobilisation point to unions' ability to conceptualise new forms of transnational solidarity, the study shows overall that current fragmentation in the South African union movement is a major obstacle to migrant workers' organisation, particularly in those critically precarious sub-sectors of the economy. In this context workers develop multiple solidarity networks (ethnic, religious, and at times political) and strategies to circumvent exploitative and discriminatory practices, albeit in a fragmented and mostly underground manner, including through deliberate avoidance of the historical unions.