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Review of Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transitional Organizing in Urban Africa


By Anne Tallontire

Africa’s Informal Workers: Collective Agency, Alliances and Transitional Organizing in Urban Africa. Ilda Lindell (Ed.). Nordiska Afrikainstitutet and Zed Books, London and New York, 2010. Pp. 238. ISBN. 978 1 84813 452 2 (pb). £21.99.

This book is a collection of essays from a conference held in Uppsala in April 2007 that brought together academics from across the world with a common concern to explore the nature of agency of workers operating in the informal sector across Africa.  A key achievement of the book is uncovering the rich diversity of experience of workers in the informal sector, such that one wonders as to the usefulness of the term ‘the informal sector’ which covers such a complex reality.

A central issue for many informal workers is recognition; even for those wishing to be left alone and unharassed, recognition of the right to a livelihood and their assets is critical if the powerful are not to push them aside in the name of modernity.  Many of the chapters focus on how workers may organise to put forward their interests, but the book is not a simple celebration or exhortation to organise.  The perils of organising – elite capture, clientelism, internal divisions- are well described, particularly in the chapter by Kate Meagher which focuses on organisations of small scale manufacturers in Nigeria.  Such chapters highlight the vulnerability of such organisations, but do not dwell solely on problems but aim to explore pathways to a more positive future, including how to draw on support from trade unions, NGOs, government local, national and international scales.  These linkages may at times be problematic, including co-optation or dependency; there are examples of where linkages with the powerful have led to greater recognition, for example in terms of how micro-entrepreneurs are defined in legislation in Kenya.

Whilst many chapters in the book deal with the day to day lived experiences of people making a living, it also reaches across borders not only in terms of international production and trade networks but also transnational ties of solidarity to highlight the multiple scales at which informality operates and is reproduced.  The book seeks to increase recognition of the significance of the informal sector not only for poverty reduction but also for sustaining the formal economy.  The informal sector is not invisible or insignificant, rather intricately connected to the formal sector; they are mutually dependent at a number of levels.

Part Two grapples with the thorny question of the role of trade unions in representing the informal sector.  An overarching theme is whether and how the experience and resources of trade unions can be tapped to help organise informal workers, partly in recognition that the traditional constituency of trade unions is shrinking in the face of globalisation, out-sourcing and deregulation of labour markets.  This is approached from two directions.  The first perspective argues that trade unions are adept at representing workers and negotiating for terms and conditions of work but they have to face conflicting roles with respect to  micro and small entrepreneurs, especially those who may be employers too.   Can trade unions offer the mutual support and welfare services that entrepreneurs seek?   Chapters by Andrea and Beckman and by Jimu drawing on experiences in South Africa, Nigeria and Malawi highlight the structural challenges associated with trade unions representing micro entrepreneurs. A more positive perspective on the potential of trade unions to effectively represent people in the informal sector is offered by Boampong who focuses on the situation of informal port workers organised into labour gangs in Ghana.  Perhaps then the trade union role in the context of informality is with respect to certain forms of informality – the casualised worker and those at the end of chains of subcontracting rather than self-employed traders and craftspeople who may be better supported to organise themselves.  That said, the distinction between the self-employed and the sub-contracted own-account producer on a piece rate can be hazy in practice.

The book highlights the diversity of the informal sector and the myriad dynamics of informalisation and challenges the view that the formal sector is the usual state of affairs. It is testament to the fact that informality is part and parcel of the African economy and it is not something that will disappear with ‘modern’ development.  In fact this book points to exactly the opposite, highlighting the growth of the informal sector with tranches of retrenchment, through post-colonial and structural adjustment policies and more recently value chain out-sourcing.  Globalisation through open markets and transmigration feeds this process, as do increased flexible labour strategies; as a result people are looking to diversify livelihoods strategies which may involve activities in the formal and informal sectors.

The book is a rich source material for scholars, including a comprehensive introduction which goes beyond describing the chapters to overview theoretical debates, and also provides material for those seeking to engage in promoting organisation of and by workers in the informal sector.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 73 (December 2011), pp. 93-95]

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