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.

Read More »

Community Infrastructure and the Care Crises: An Evaluation of China’s COVID-19 Experience

This blog post was originally published on the India-China Institute/The New School’s Pandemic Discourses blog.

COVID-19 has exacerbated the gendered impact of care work globally, but lessons can be learned from countries like China that have relied on community organizations for solutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed a severe care crisis throughout the world. The measures to contain the infection – lockdown, social distancing, quarantine – severely disrupted activities crucial to the basic functioning of society from cooking to cleaning, childcare, elder care and more. The experience of China shows the critical role of the community in providing essential services.

Like in many other countries, women in China assume disproportionately more care responsibilities than men. With the care crisis intensified by the pandemic, women from different socioeconomic backgrounds were all significantly affected. Urban women mostly saw themselves shouldering more household chores when hiring domestic workers or seeking extra help from family members became impossible or difficult during the lockdown. As most female migrant workers are employed in the precarious informal sector, they had to endure job losses and economic hardship, in addition to extra childcare and household chores. Female healthcare professionals risked their health working on the frontline while having to bear the added mental stress of possibly carrying the virus and spreading it to family members.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

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.

Read More »

A crisis like no other: social reproduction and the regeneration of capitalist life during the COVID-19 pandemic

8M_Paraná_2019_13

Back to work!

As the COVID-19 health crisis deepens, it looks increasingly clear that the short-term collapse in global output is likely to exceed that of any recession in the last 150 years – that is, in the entire history of capitalism. The ILO estimates that the crisis will lead to the destruction of 195 million jobs. Hence, after discussing at length the epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic, media attention is now increasingly focused on how to restart the global economic engine. We may still be mourning our dead, but time seems to have come to discuss how we guarantee economic survival that, under capitalism, is based on production and work. Here in the UK, from where I am writing this piece, getting ‘Britain back to work’ is becoming the new mantra for the government, even if its own leader is still recovering from the virus. Similar concerns are debated across the world, as the pandemic has by now clearly turned from a planetary health threat into a planetary economic threat. Yet, getting the world ‘back to workain’t no easy endeavour, whilst maintaining social distancing. Global capitalism is based on social interactions. In fact, its global phase has aimed at erasing social distancing, not just between working people but also between countries, markets, commodities and consumers. But at present, the way in which we are used to regenerate life under capitalism would literally kill us, and this is no small print in explaining the impasse of the COVID-19 crisis. It should be the starting point to analyse it. Ultimately, before turning into a crisis of production, the current pandemic has created a systemic crisis of social reproduction. As argued by Tithi Bhattacharya, the pandemic has shown the centrality of life-making activities for the working of capitalism. Moreover, it has also shown the value of care, as well as the stark ‘care inequalities’ experienced by different communities and individuals across the globe. By all means, this is a reproductive crisis like no other before. Read More »

Re-thinking Social Reproduction: Crises, Contradictions, and Variegations 

showCoverImage

A new special issue of Capital & Class, edited by Isabella Bakker and Stephen Gill, sets out to broaden the analysis of social reproduction. Following their earlier volume on social reproduction – Power, Production and Social Reproduction (2003) – Bakker and Gill restate in this issue their commitment to ‘a novel methodological synthesis premised upon the mutual constitution of power, production, and social reproduction’ (2019, p. 510), and reassert the centrality of ‘the unfolding contradiction between the global accumulation of capital and the provision of stable and progressive conditions of social reproduction’ (p. 504) to their analysis. 

The key contribution of this issue, however, is twofold. First, it further develops the theory of social reproduction, advancing a conception of social ontology based around a new concept: variegated social reproduction. Second, it contributes to the analysis of contemporary neoliberalism as a whole – and in particular, to discussions around variegated neoliberalism – mapping out how this latter variegation is internally linked to that of social reproduction. In this post I will briefly review these contributions, focussing on the articles of the special issue that deal with cases outside of Western Europe and North America to highlight different geographies’ contributions to the discussion of social reproduction. Read More »