Growing informality and women's work in South Africa

Hameda Deedat

I. Introduction

The South African labour market landscape is rapidly changing from a once highly formalised labour market to one that is informalised. Key industries such as mining, manufacturing, retail and the services sector are both shedding jobs and transforming to rapid informalisation of formalised work, characterised by the accompanying precarity and downward variation, and even deindustrialisation as some proponents argue. As the formal market both sheds jobs and reconfigures, its inability to absorb the increasing number of unemployed skilled and unskilled becomes more evident.

This transformation is characterised by informalisation of employment in both the traditionally formal sectors of the South African economy, that is, manufacturing, retail, nursing, transport, security, cleaning, refuse removal, agriculture amongst others. Simultaneously, expansion within sectors of the informal economy such as street vending, waste pickers, domestic workers, transport (Uber and Taxify services) online sendees and artisans such as carpenters, painters, mechanics and so on are on the increase. This dual economy is not surprising, given the high levels of income disparity between the rich and the poor in the country. South Africa has been identified as the most unequal country in the world as measured by the Gini Coefficient. Nevertheless, South Africa has recently been reclassified as a developed country, despite the poverty, high levels of food insecurity, malnutrition, lack of access to water and sanitation, healthcare, education services, high levels of unemployment and poor quality of life for the majority of South Africans. According to the recent STATSA data, the informal economy has started to play an increasingly important role in the overall growth, whereas the formal economy appears to be shrinking and shedding jobs; the informal economy is growing and increasing job opportunities.

Another significant factor (which is not given specific attention in this chapter) is the influx of migrants and refugees from neighbouring African countries as a result of war, poverty and climate disasters, into South Africa, in the attempt to seek employment. Many informal economy workers were once employed in the formal economy and organised by trade unions. Many have held on to the traditions of organising; hence, as early as the 2000s, they began organising themselves. One of the first organisations organising informal traders and street vendors (Self-Employed Workers Union or SEWU) was formed by Pat Horn. It no longer exists but has evolved into Streetnet, which has become an international network of street workers and is still currently active. It drew inspiration and modalities from the Self-Employed Workers Association, the formidable association of informal women workers in India.

The aim of this chapter is to share insights on South Africa’s trajectory from formalisation to greater informality with a gendered perspective; and to consider how the South African government has sought to bring in processes to formalise the informal economy to address the challenges brought about by this shift. The chapter will tease out the gendered impacts of these processes on workers and patriarchal relations, identifying and assessing the initiators and drivers. The legal and policy frameworks will also be interrogated to evaluate their intent and extent to which they have facilitated meaningful benefits particularly for women workers in the informal economy. These points are illustrated with reference to case studies of women informal workers in the municipal waste/refuse sector, street vending, informal mining, domestic work and agriculture. The chapter concludes by linking this analysis to policy implications and recommendations for future work.

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