Informal workers and flexible organisation: Seizing the Covid moment


Most workers in Africa labour in the informal economy. They do not constitute an industrial working class and seldom belong to trade unions.  Edward Webster explains that informal workers rather belong to hybrid forms of organization where unions can play a supportive role.  He argues that Covid-19 provides the opportunity to revitalize worker organizing.

The picture of unions in Africa is bleak. They are weak, fragmented and largely in the formal economy. Only about 5% are unionized. Where unions exist they are mainly in the public sector, although there have been some innovative responses in various sectors in recent times.  Often these responses are the result of support from global unions such as UNI-Global, International Transport Federation (ITF), and the Building Workers International.

The situation worsened with the surprise arrival of COVID-19. Its impact has been devastating for the livelihoods of working people.  The high number of informal workers in sub-Saharan Africa, about 80 %, has made the impact of Covid-19 especially harsh.  A street trader, for instance, could no longer make an income on the street.  COVID-19 has revealed the weakness, and in some cases non-existence, of social protection systems in Africa.

So what has been the impact of Covid-19 on workers organizing in Africa? Does the pandemic and responses to it present further weakening or an opportunity for the revival of labour organising?

Many people answer this question in a pessimistic way arguing that COVID-19 and new technology is replacing labour.  Workers will be displaced by machines. Constant technological innovation drives capitalism, beginning with the introduction of the steam engine two centuries ago, through to the current digitisation of the economy.

I want to approach this topic differently. Africa needs to advance technlogically but  it does not necessarilly have to go  through  the same   stages  as the advanced industrial world did. For example, Nigeria  has 150 million smart phone users and only 200 000 fixed line phones. Instead of first having fixed lines then going digital , it  It has leap-frogged  into the digital age.  Access to the internet is uneven in Africa and development has been uneven. Side by side with the introduction of advanced digital technology, there is also the use of pre-colonial tools such as  the zamazama in the mining sector.

We need to look at the changing world of work from an African perspective. This article makes three points. Firstly, it outlines the nature of the labour market in  Africa.  Secondly, it suggests that workers are organising but not always into traditional trade unions.  Finally, it suggests five ways in which COVID-19 has opened new opportunities for worker organizing.

The African Labour Market

In Africa the industrial working class is a minority of wage earners. The labour market is divided into ‘classes of labour’. In other words, there are men and women who sell their labour either directly on a wage labour market, or indirectly through a product market.  In this way they support themselves and their families. Categories like worker, peasant, employed and self-employed merge. Working people earn a living through wage labour and make a living through various livelihood activities. They combine employment and unemployment. In shantytowns people are sometimes unemployed and sometimes work in wage labour in small workshops or doing service work.

It is possible to identify five urban ‘classes of labour’, as the diagram and explanation below show.

core periphiry

With the exception of South Africa, in Africa a minority of workers are in formal wage employment or in Standard Employment Relationships (SER) often in the public sector. These jobs have some security through an employment contract, a regular wage, social protection in the form of benefits, and some form of workplace representation. The ILO calls this decent work.

The majority in the cities do casual paid wage work, either temporary or part-time, sometimes paid in kind, and often employed by a third party such as an employment agency or labour broker. This includes dependent contractors – people like Uber workers and other gig economy workers.

Gig workers are ‘so called’ independent contractors  who do short-term work and often depend on one organisation for work.  This is not traditional wage employment but has some features of wage employment because they depend on the owners of, say, Uber.

There are also ‘own account’ or self-employed workers. These workers are involved in informal survival activities such as street traders, waste pickers, and small businesses making clothes or selling goods and services, and often employing family members. These ‘self-employed proletarians’ engage in complex employment relationships.

For example, workers at bus terminals in Dar es Salaam cover many occupations such as callers, supervisors, agents, loaders, sweepers, vendors, money-changers (often women who sell small change to the conductor for a fee). There is also the ‘pigga setti’ or seat-warmer (the bus won’t leave till it’s full), and side-mirror menders.

Then there are the unemployed with few or no unemployment benefits. They survive in households where they share economic resources, or engage in various survivalist activities. They are part of an informal security regime.  

Finally, there are peasants or smallholders based in agriculture, using mostly family labour. They are often dependent on remittances from household members who move between town and countryside.

This uncertainty about what class these workers belong to raises difficult questions for union organisers. Who is a worker? Is a person who owns one minibus and drives it themselves a worker? If they own two minibuses and hire a person to drive the second one, what are they? If they own 200 minibuses, what are they? Is a street trader a worker or an entrepreneur?   

Let’s look at the responses of working people to this unclear nature of work in Africa. 

Informal Workers and Hybrid Organisation

The lack of clarity on who is a worker leads to hybrid (a combination) forms of organisation. Organisation combines the function of a trade union using collective bargaining with a cooperative or jointly owned, democratically run enterprise.

The diagram below shows this.  

Source: Webster, Ludwig, Masikane, Spooner, 2020.

At the top of the diagram is the traditional trade union. But side by side are associations of workers such as the Kampala Operational Taxi Stages Association and the Kampala Metropolitan Boda-Boda Entrepreneurs. These associations represent casual wage workers and self-employed operators who want to become successful entrepreneurs. 

There are also NGOs and labour support organisations such as the Casual Workers Advice Office in Johannesburg that provides legal, educational and organisational support for precarious (insecure) workers attempting to organise. The new workers in the gig economy also organise themselves into WhatsApp groups that act like union support groups, sharing information on work, working conditions and also operating as stokvels (informal credit groups).

Informal workers are developing hybrid organisations to address far wider needs than those of formally employed wage workers.

Traditional unions remain important as they provide support and access to institutions that have resources (institutional power) which can assist emerging organisations. It shows that the traditional form of a trade union can be organisationally flexible. 

For example, the Amalgamated Transport & General Workers Union (ATGWU) and the ITF give support to informal associations in Kampala.  But in Johannesburg unions and informal workers do not have an alliance.  This makes it difficult for gig workers to build sustainable organisation.

Current trade union organisation cannot meet all the needs of informal workers and new workers in the digital economy. To meet these unions will need to transform, and rediscover their power.

New opportunities for worker organising

COVID has brought opportunities to revitalise worker organising.

Firstly, new technology opens up the opportunity for digital organising.  This does not replace face to face organising. However on-line organising can reach a larger number of people and hugely reduce costs.

But use of the internet is uneven in Africa.  In South Africa, for example, only 56% of the population, and only 11% of households, have access to internet. South Africa has higher internet coverage than most countries in Africa, but access to the internet covers a minority of households. The graph below compares access to digital technologies in some countries in Africa.

Access to digital technologies. Source: Ruth Castel-Branco, Sandiswa Mapukata and Edward Webster, 2020.

Secondly, COVID-19 has broadened workers’ demands.  It has highlighted the key role of the state in providing support and that workers need to focus demands on the state.  Already the state is discussing the possibility of a Universal Basic Income Grant which until recently was dismissed as unrealistic  

Thirdly, COVID widened what we think of as labour.  There has been a major shift in the recognition of the informal economy, for example in food production and distribution, in services, and in paid and unpaid care work.  These ‘essential workers’ are often women including in retail and hospitality. They need a strong voice and are ready to be organised.

Fourthly, the growth of working from home during COVID-19 opens up an opportunity for worker organising. Home-workers are workers and should be recognized as such as the ILO did in 1996 in its Home-Work Convention. Trade unions must recruit them as members, and employers need to recognise home workers in their value chains and ensure they get a fair income. Governments should include home workers in national statistics on the labour force and give them a voice in decision making.

Fifthly, the pandemic provides an opportunity to increase worker participation and ownership of the workplace. One of South Africa’s largest unions has developed a counter strategy to retrenchment consisting of four pillars:

  • The establishment of Workplace Recovery Committees that must include managers, workers, unions, staff , and non-union members
  • Work-sharing instead of retrenchment for up to twelve months
  • Reskilling of workers through training programmes
  • Wage concessions and debt to equity swap. What the company owes can be turned into worker shareholding through a debt equity swop. This is the idea of Employee Share Ownership Schemes (ESOPS).


The future will be fought over and hotly debated. 

On the one hand, labour displacement may increase rapidly and unemployment and inequality will deepen. On the other, a situation may unfold similar to post-war Europe. There was a push for equality which led to important advances for workers and the unemployed in education, health and transport through the welfare state. The period also saw advances in human rights, beginning with the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, and major changes in the rights of women.

But Africa is different in important ways from Europe and the global North as it has higher levels of informal work, serious public debt, and under capacity of the state.  This means responses to Covid-19 will be different. In particular, the ability of the state to implement redistributive projects will be a challenge.

 In spite of these difficulties, the current moment offers some important opportunities.

Already, some policy responses have been implemented. For example, the South African government agreed to a grant for workers in the informal economy and to the unemployed. The rollout was disappointing, but the idea only arose because of the COVID environment.

If we want to achieve a more equal society, labour must take advantage of this moment to introduce new ways of organising, and to rebuild the labour movement from below.

Edward Webster is a researcher at the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand.

This is a shortened version of an address to the annual conference of the alumni of the Global Labour University, University of WitiID-19 has opened new opportunities to istence of pre-colonial type tools being used in some sectors such as mining.  of the watersrand, 26th November 2020.

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About the author

Edward Webster
Distinguished Research Professor at South Centre for Inequality Studies

Edward Webster is the Distinguished Research Professor at the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies and the founder and past director of the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP) at the University of the Witwatersrand. His current research interests are on the production and reproduction of inequality in the workplace and the use of labour power as a strategy for reducing this inequality.

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