Investment, Sustainability, Decent Jobs: Challenges and Promises for the Sub Saharan African Auto Industry

In a comparative research recently conducted for IndustriALL Global Union/ FES South Africa, we[1] tried to shed light on the high potential of the automotive industry in Sub Saharan Africa. At the same time, we explored the key challenges and pressing issues that need to be addressed for a sustainable industrial development path in the region. Our research report focuses on seven countries, identified as promising, fast-growing or broadly committed to supporting their Auto sector: Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.

First and foremost, the report claims attention towards these economies, and industries,  that are still largely underexplored, that still enjoy very limited visibility, whereas the largest portion of research on industrial development and on the Automobile industry is often addressed to traditionally established industries in the Global North (Europe, US, Japan) or to emerging giants in the Global South (China, Mexico, Brazil etc.). Our objective was thus to emphasise the increasingly important role that these seven industries, and the Sub Saharan African region more broadly, can play within the Global Auto Industry. Despite structural weaknesses that do persist, and despite the heavy impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, these seven countries share a willingness to own their industrial development trajectory, and to widen their participation in Global Production Chains. In this regard, the local auto industry remains an important bet.

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Informal employment and the social reproduction of value

In the last year, the rise and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the fictitious nature of some of the categories we deploy to conceptualise the world of labour. Indeed, it has revealed the contingent nature of the separation between productive and reproductive spaces, times and realms when it comes to labour processes.

According to estimates produced by Janine Berg, Florence Bonnet, and Sergei Soares, when the crisis hit, around 30% of North American and Western European workers were in occupations that could allow home-based work, as opposed to only 6% of sub-Saharan African and 8% of South Asian workers. This is to say that in the Global North, the pandemic could de facto manufacture million homeworkers overnight, following national lockdowns. In many cases, these would still be contributing to formal sectors of the economy.

It is rather unsurprising that this shift to homeworking could not materialise in the Global South. Labour relations here are largely characterised by informal employment, in its double character – namely, employment in the informal economy and informalised employment in otherwise formal settings. While homeworking represents one segment of informal employment, its major share is composed instead of precarious forms of casual employment, far more difficult to immediately insource in home-settings. By the time the crisis hit, according to the ILO, informal employment constituted 69.6 percent of employment in the Global South and, given the share of working people it hosts, it constituted over 60 percent of total employment on our planet.

One of the key characteristics of informal employment is the interpenetration between productive and reproductive dynamics, activities and realms. The ever-growing reality of informal employment forces us to reflect and revise theories of value generation and extraction, and ultimately the basis of exploitation worldwide. That is, they force us to re-engage in the study of key Marxian categories of analysis, in ways that may account for how the majority on earth labours. These ways must necessarily account for the centrality of social reproduction in the working of labour processes and relations worldwide.

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The partnership trap in the Indonesian gig economy

In the last three months, there have been three strikes by gig workers in Indonesia. Problems related to harsh working conditions, injustice, and the decline in the welfare of gig workers became the main issues in the three strikes. The biggest strike was carried out by GoKilat couriers (delivery service from the Gojek platform company) for 3 days on 8-10 June 2021 involving nearly 1,500 couriers or almost 80% of active couriers on GoKilat. A day later, couriers from Lala Move went on strike spontaneously for three days by mass deactivating accounts on their platform application.

Prior to the two strikes above, on April 6, 2021, a strike was carried out by Shopee Express couriers for 1 day in Bandung, Indonesia, involving around 1,000 couriers. The Shopee Express courier strike was motivated by a cut in the payment they received. The new rules reduce courier revenue from 2,500 rupiah (US$0.17)/package to only 1,500 rupiah (US$0.10)/package and that is the only income earned by the couriers. In other words, they did not earn basic income equal to the minimum wage in the province where they work. Moreover, they did not have health insurance, decent working hours, overtime pay, leave /holiday rights, and severance pay. The working conditions were worse due to the fact that the vehicles (motorcycle) used are theirs and they had to pay fuel cost.

With such a wage system, to be able to earn the minimum wage in Bandung City in 2021 of 3,742,267 rupiah (US$263.16) per month for instance, couriers have to deliver 2,495 packages monthly—not including fuel and maintenance costs they have to pay. It means that they would have to deliver about 104 packages per day to the customers. If, on average, a package is delivered in 10 minutes, they need 17 hours per day, far above the decent 8 hours work day. This oppressive work system for gig workers is possible and there is no prohibition from the Indonesian government, due to the courier’s status as an independent contractor ormitra” (partner) for the platform company, instead of labor.

The precarious and uncertain working conditions stem from the misclassification of their employment status. Companies classifies them as “partners”, so that they could avoid the obligation to provide the minimum wage, health insurance, overtime pay, severance pay, 8 working hours per day, and holiday rights if they were labor, although the working relationships between the companies and their couriers represents the employer-employee relationships as there are shift work for the couriers, work control by the companies, requirements in recruitment such as contracts of employment, and the companies unilateral rules established by the companies.

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“Are we all in this together?”: Reflecting on a year of COVID-19 marketing messages

In Spring 2020 the first signs of consumer and marketing messages related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic emerged. Like the virus itself, such marketing spread rapidly. The words “we’re all in this together”, and representations of such a sentiment, appeared in adverts and campaigns that were intended to invoke a sense of connectedness, community, and mutual care. Brands wanted people to relate to them and to seek comfort in the form of retail purchases during this time of crisis. Hence, taglines that alluded to togetherness cropped up amid the wave of content that companies created in response to COVID-19, including the marketing of supermarket giants Asda, Lidl, Marks & Spencer (M&S), and Tesco. When noticing this I found myself thinking about the relationship between COVID-19, capitalism, and consumer culture.

Although during the COVID-19 crisis brands have worked hard to cloak their capitalist activities in claims of connectedness, community, and care, to many people it is obvious that the main purpose of such promotional work is to keep the soul-grinding cogs of commerce turning. Despite their efforts to sometimes suggest otherwise, brands are not community organisers. They are not at the core of mutual aid and community care. If anything, brands are often a component of the very structural problems that community organisers strive towards dismantling as part of liberationist work. The imagined “we” that brands brazenly construct via adverts that are meant to tug on the heart strings of individuals during the pandemic is a “we” with money to spend. Such a “we” consists of consumption, not care, and profit, not people.

Are the often overworked and underpaid employees of such brands part of the imagined universal experience that they refer to in adverts about togetherness and weathering this storm with each other? Will such brands make meaningful shifts to substantially improve the precarious work and labour conditions of their employees or will they simply stick to surface-level representations of human connection and care rather than enacting change? There is nothing new about commercial organizations with track records of mistreating and exploiting staff arrogantly making sentimental and marketed claims about the experiences of “you”, “me”, “us”, and “we”. However, this does not detract from the reality that companies being so quick to create such crass content during this ongoing crisis was jarring. Furthermore, the way that some brands have implied that everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in the same way is outright inaccurate.

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Understanding development in a Global Value Chain World: Comparative Advantage or Monopoly Capital Theory?

By Benjamin Selwyn and Dara Leyden

The recent period of globalisation – following the collapse of the Eastern bloc and the integration of China into the world economy – is in essence the period of global value chains (GVCs). From low to high-tech, basic consumer goods to heavy capital equipment, food to services, goods are now produced across many countries, integrated through GVCs.

The big question in development studies is whether this globalised reconfiguration of production is contributing to, or detracting from, real human development? Is it establishing a more equal, less exploitative, less poverty-ridden world? To understand these complex dynamics, scholars rely on economic theories. These theories must be relevant to the GVC-world and equipped to tackle these pertinent questions.

In 2020 the World Bank published its World Development Report Trading for Development in the Age of Global Value Chains (WDR2020, or ‘the Report’) to address these questions. It confidently proclaimed that ‘GVCs boost incomes, create better jobs and reduce poverty’ (WDR2020: 3). Given the World Bank’s promotion of neoliberal globalisation, this conclusion is unsurprising.

However, before accepting the Report’s claims at face value, we should reflect on the findings of Robert Wade (2002: 220). These annual World Bank reports serve as “both a research-based document and a political document…. the Bank’s flagship message must reflect back the ideological preference of key constituencies and not offend them too much, but the message must also be backed by empirical evidence and made to look technical”.

When globalisation is booming it may be possible for the report’s liberal bias to appear to complement its data. However, the GVC world has generated such inequalities that the dissonance between the report’s liberal bias and its own data is stretched to breaking point.

Drawing on our recently published article, this blog post uses the Report’s own data to undermine its core claims. It shows that the GVC world enhances the dominance of transnational corporations (TNCs), concentrates wealth, represses the incomes of supplier firms in developing countries, and creates many bad jobs – with deleterious outcomes for workers.

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Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight: What the COVID-19 Pandemic has revealed and why we need to put Social Reproduction at the centre of a more just post-Covid world

By Sara Stevano, Alessandra Mezzadri, Lorena Lombardozzi and Hannah Bargawi

After over a year of suffering, death and profound transformations of everyday life, it is time to take stock of the COVID-19 crisis so far and craft visions for a future centred on the value of social reproduction. In our article ‘Hidden Abodes in Plain Sight’ recently published in the special issue on Gendered Perspectives on COVID-19 in Feminist Economics, a social reproduction lens is used to analyse the COVID-19 crisis.

What is social reproduction? Social reproduction is ‘the fleshy, messy, and indeterminate stuff of everyday life’ as well as ‘a set of structured practices’, as vividly put by Cindi Katz, that are needed for the reproduction of both life and capitalist relations. In other words, it encompasses all the work, unpaid and paid, and the socio-cultural practices, institutions and sectors that are essential for the regeneration of our lives and society. As such, it speaks about the organisation of work both within and outside households. This is a key vantage point, we argue, to explore the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

In fact, this crisis is fundamentally different from previous ones exactly because it shakes the foundational elements of our economies and societies: the organization of work, in its multiple forms. To fully analyse this process, we need to consider the interplay between reproductive and productive work, explore the effects of the crisis in the world of work, and map the interconnections with the reorganization of the role of the household within it. Notably, the tragic outcomes of the crisis should be understood as also dictated by the greatly damaging effects of decades of neoliberalization, austerity, and privatization of social reproduction, which as argued by Nancy Fraser, have produced a chronic crisis of care across the world economy. Households have been subject to a double squeeze. They have socialised this chronic crisis of care, while also being hit by declining income shares from paid employment. During the same period, in fact, labour markets experienced the feminization and informalisation of employment.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated an already critical situation in terms of socioeconomic inequality and the squeeze on social reproduction across the globe. However, the crisis may also lay the foundations for a rediscovered appreciation of the significance of social reproduction.

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Social Reproduction and Production in Capitalist Society: A Comprehensive Relational Approach

Although social reproductive work has historically been associated with women in different modes of production, with the spatial separation of reproduction from production in industrial capitalist society, women were further associated with the domestic sphere and reproductive work. The burden of reproductive work on women has increased even more in the last four decades as a result of neoliberal policies. Neoliberalism, which is characterised by the increasing privatisation of social reproduction and worsening labour conditions, has forced more women to accept low-paying, informal jobs while at the same time performing an increased amount of reproductive work in their families due to significant cuts in social welfare provisions.

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic has once again shown the great importance of social reproduction to international and national political economies, and the destructive effects of neoliberalism on lives on a global level. Thus, in both the academic and political arenas, we need once again to underline the centrality of social reproduction and women’s unpaid reproductive labour to society and capitalist production.

In my recently published article, I suggest a methodological-analytical approach to understand the relations of production and social reproduction: a comprehensive and relational approach that locates these social relations in their historical and geographical context and within the everyday.

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“Under pressure”: negotiating competing demands and desires in a time of precarious earnings

A few years ago, during a year of ethnographic fieldwork with young un(der)employed men in a poor shack settlement on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I found myself sitting in Senzo’s one-room shack on a foldout camping chair. It was a hot Wednesday afternoon. Popular R&B music was blaring into the air from the nearby tavern. Senzo sat on his double bed. Soon after I arrived, Senzo handed me an ornate invitation with gold foil on the sides and his name on it. It was an invitation to the wedding of his cousin that was set to take place the following weekend. I asked Senzo if he planned to go. “I’m not going”, he told me, explaining that he had declined the invitation because, as he put it, “I don’t want to put more pressure on myself” describing the difficulties he already had paying rent, keeping up with outstanding debts, and supporting his girlfriend and children. Going to the wedding would require him to buy a fancy suit and a gift for the couple. This required money he didn’t have. The “pressure” Senzo described was not just the monetary cost of attending the wedding. It was also the feeling (what Senzo called “stress”) of being overburdened by competing demands on his money including buying consumer items, sending his children to good schools, and supporting family members. To understand the continuous “pressure” young men like Senzo face requires we give attention to the changing nature of work and the changing world of families in contemporary South Africa. As I show below the pressures young black un(der)employed men experience are at once economic and social given the pressure they face to not only “provide” for themselves and their families exists alongside a pressure to improve or “upgrade” their lives. As such, I show how the   “income-demands gap” (a key catalyst of “pressure”) in young men’s lives is produced in and through specific (increasingly temporary rather than enduring) social relations and ties. 

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