Alessandra Mezzadri: Informal labour, the majority world and the need for inclusive theories and politics

First posted June 28, 2019. Reposted in memory of MayDay

The majority of people on this planet labour in the informal economy, or are subject to labour relations that are greatly informalised. According to the International Labour Oganisation, 85.8% of total employment in Africa, 71.4% in Asia and the Pacific, 68.6% in the Arab States and 53.8% in the Americas is either informal – located in the informal economy – or informalised – in formal production realms but still de facto based on informal relations.

The total estimate of informal employment for the whole emerging and developing economies bloc is set at 69.6%. Given the considerable weight of this bloc vis-à-vis the world’s total workforce, even at a world level (i.e. including developed regions) 61.2% of total employment is classified as either informal or informalised. This huge world of informal and informalised employment includes casual labourers and the self-employed, who can either be highly vulnerable petty commodity producers or various disguised forms of wage labour, also known as ‘classes of labour’.  Once upon a time wrongly considered one of the key features of ‘backwardness’, and of the domestic ‘traditional’ socio-economic fabric of developing regions, informality has not only reproduced itself exponentially during the neoliberal global era, but it has also found new channels of transmission. 

These channels are systematically continuing to reproduce labour as a highly precarious relation in developing contexts, and are now also doing so in developed regions, with the rise of the gig economy, crowd-work and what has been called, rightly or wrongly, the ‘precariat’. The rise of global commodity chains and production networks, in particular, has produced endless circuits of propagation, redefinition and expansion for informal labour relations. In surplus labour economies like India or China, global commodity chains can rely on labour being informalised in myriad different ways. Informalisation can be based on rural-urban mobility and mediated by legal status, as in the case of China and its reliance on the hukou system, which mediates the movement of around three hundred million migrants from villages to cities every year…

The first is through their ability to deepen labour control far beyond work-time. Evidence from China, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, and also, more selectively, India, suggests that the rise of dormitories and industrial hostels is expanding the ability of employers to control labour well beyond the actual labour process. The tightening of labour control, on the basis of what Pun Ngai and Chris Smith have defined as the ‘dormitory labour regime’, has direct effects on the expansion of exploitation rates. In these contexts, any distinction between work and reproductive time becomes blurred, as social reproduction becomes fully individualised and subsumed into the value-generating process. Moreover, as noted by Hannah Schling with reference to the Czech Republic, in dormitories ‘non-waged time’ becomes fundamental to the production of compliant labouring subjects….

I am an Indian child worker. Hear me

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1938: the year Indian workers fought for themselves

The Currency of Sentiment: An Essay on Informal Accumulation in Colonial India

Gasping for Air, Bathing in Coal