Association pour l’anthropologie du changement social et du développement
Association for the anthropology of social change and development

The Responses of Indigenous Trade Unions to the Deepening of Neoliberalism in Africa

Auteur(s) : McQuinn Dr Mark ; McNamara Dr Thomas ;

English summary

This panel analyses the responses of African trade unions to the changing neoliberal political economies across the continent. Africa has become a focal point in recent years for research on the struggles between labour and capital. The panel will examine, in particular, the dynamics of state and capital formations in the late neoliberal period, focusing on responses and initiatives by labour organisations and how struggles play out in context-specific ways, leading to a variety of political-economy formations and relations. Individual life histories and struggles of unionists will be examined, along with structured settings in which labour organisations are embedded.


English argumentary

The panel will examine, in particular, the dynamics of state and capital formations in the late neoliberal period, focusing on responses and initiatives by labour organisations and how struggles play out in context-specific ways, leading to a variety of political-economy formations and relations.  In some African countries, labour leaders and individual union members have formulated innovative policies and strategies to defend the rights of workers, while in others, workers at the point of production have been active in fighting for basic rights.

The panel uses case studies illustrating ways in which labour organisations have been confronting authoritarianism and changing capital formations to enrich conceptual frameworks surrounding neoliberalism and labour politics. We seek papers focusing on agency in relation to African trade unions, which is a significant element of the panel. The individual life histories and struggles of union activists and leaders are important to examine, as well as the structured settings in which labour organisations are embedded. Thus, papers examining the extent to which intersectionality (based around the experiences of union members through the lenses of gender, age and cultural factors) are welcomed.

The panel also welcomes papers analysing issues such as labour struggles to protect workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, union involvement in moves towards a just energy transition in different countries, the growing informalisation of labour, the treatment of migrant workers, lack of enforcement of labour laws, attempts to attract more youth into unions and the combination of state controlled force and legal-bureaucratic methods to repress labour organisations. In concluding, the panel will summarise strategies and actions by which African labour organisations and transnational allies are defending and promoting workers’ rights.

Recent conceptual frameworks have moved examinations of labour beyond the pessimism that marked studies in the first decade of the 21st century. The panel, thus, seeks to examine the work of trade unions in Africa through the lenses of some of these conceptual frameworks to shed new light on key issues for labour in Africa. Papers illustrating ways in which African labour organisations are utilising the increasing amount of available data on labour issues, in formulating strategies to defend the rights of workers are encouraged. These include the Africa Labour Research and Education Institute (ALREI), started in 2014 by the ITUC-Africa and the digitisation  projects that the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam is conducting with organisations of African workers.


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