Trade Unions and Non-Standard Forms of Work: A Shifting Modus Operandi

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2009

34 Pages, Grade: 83%










Drawing on information gathered by means of one-on-one interviews, and supplemented and supported by a vast depth of literature in the respective field, this study aims to identify and discuss the effects of non-standard work on the modus operandi of trade unions in South Africa. The study makes use of a relative small sample of seven experts in the field of industrial relations/industrial sociology, and research interviews were conducted based on an interview schedule, but not limited to it. Although the South African trade union movement operates in much the same if not entirely same manner as it did pre-1994, a number of factors have been identified and discussed which have impacted on and affected the labour movement at both organisational and grassroots level.


South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994 was not only significant in political terms, but the transition can generally be referred to as a “triple transition” (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 4) encompassing political, economic and social dimensions. In terms of political transition, one sees a move away from an overtly authoritarian state to a democracy; economic in a move away from a locally focused economy to one that has become globally integrated and social in that there has been wide scale redistribution of access to resources and power, skills and occupations (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005:4; Ballard, Habib, Valodia & Zuern, 2005:615). Each of these transitions has had significant implications, but for the purposes here, further attention will only be given to the political and economic. With regards to the political transition, for its purposes here, it created a platform for the creation of a vast range of social and democratic rights for workers. For instance, it created a platform for the establishment of legitimate institutions for consultation and negation between the state, employers and labour such as the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) as well Bargaining Councils at industry level (Buhlungu, 2002:14). As mentioned above, the economic transition allowed the South African economy to become globally integrated, which has gone hand in hand with a process of workplace and corporate restructuring (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 4).

Thus, although the political transition has created a platform from which the organised labour movement has won considerable gains for workers, in terms of a floor of minimum standards which are solidified in legislation, the forces of globalization and the need to remain increasingly competitive in the global market has forced employers to search for ways and means by which to bypass labour legislation providing them with relative flexibility. In this search for flexibility employers have discovered innovative means to undermine labour legislation as well as the minimum floor of rights of workers. This process has given rise to new, non-standard forms of work such as casualisation, externalisation and informalisation (Theron, 2005: 301-302). To put this into context, workplace and corporate restructuring has simply re-organised patterns of exclusion and inclusion, which were so evident in the apartheid workplace, along new lines, brought about through the establishment of three clearly distinguishable zones, namely the core, non-core and periphery zones (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005:5). Workers engaged in non-standard forms of work fit into the two latter zones.

South Africa has experienced an increasing trend in the use of non-standard work. The result is that an increasing number of workers become increasingly vulnerable, as those in the non-core and periphery zones are not protected by labour legislation as well as trade union rights (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005:5). This exclusion from trade union rights and loss of protection by labour legislation explains the increase of this trend in terms of the continuous search for flexibility. This is where my research question comes from; if the labour rights won and championed by trade unions are based on the standard employment relationship, but are increasingly being undermined by the use of non-standard forms of work, what implications does this increasing trend have for the modus operandi of the labour movement? A further vitally important question is that if the labour movement is unable to promote and defend the rights of non-standard workers, what use is there for these workers to become members of trade unions? In other words, if the labour movement can no longer fulfil its traditional role of championing the rights and interests of a large portion of the country’s labour force, one can argue that trade unions have become organisations simply collecting monthly subscriptions and offering no real services in return, what benefit can workers draw from trade union membership?

In an age of an increasing pace of globalization, the trends witnessed thus far with regards to labour appear to be increasing as well. It is in light of this that I regard the questions I have raised as critically important for they deal with the future of the labour movement, as well as with the plight of a large group of workers within the South African economy (both the formal and informal). I see these trends as an unintended by-product of South Africa’s triple transition, but however remain an important issue as a large part of South Africa’s workforce remains in a condition where they are continually exploited, which ultimately has a devastatingly negative impact on their ambitions for economic and eventually social emancipation. It must also be noted that workplace and labour market restructuring in response to the pressures and demands of the global economy, is not a phenomena that is restricted to South Africa. Trade liberalisation has facilitated significant changes to the nature of the capitalist system of production on a global scale, and as a result one can see the restructuring of work in a large number of countries (Theron, 2005:300). This is evidenced in large part due to the introduction of “flexicurity” into labour legislation in a number of European states (Benjamin, 2005:32). Although I have mentioned above that these trends are to a large extent an unintended by-product of South Africa’s triple transition, these trends are experienced in a global scale as foreign investors constantly aim for countries with relatively flexible labour legislation, and where this does not exist, the search is for labour markets that have restructured to such an extent that labour legislation is effectively undermined (Benjamin, 2005:32).

It is within this context of industrial relations that my research takes place. The aim of the research project is to identify and explain the effect that non-standard forms of work have on the trade union movement, and especially the manner in which the labour movement has reacted to non-standard forms of work. The research furthermore aims to provide an understanding of why the labour movement has had only limited success in organising non-standard workers and whether or not there are any concrete strategies towards this aim in place. Finally, the research will aim to provide an answer to the question of whether or not there is any advantage for non-standard workers in joining a trade union. The research aims to provide insights and generalisations that could have useful practical application, and as a result is not strictly academic. The principle research questions are as mentioned above:

(i) What effects have non-standard forms of work had on the modus operandi of trade unions?
(ii) Why have unions had limited success in organising non-standard workers?
(iii) Are there realistic strategies in place for organising non-standard workers? and
(iv) Are there any real benefits for non-standard workers in joining trade unions?

The general hypothesis of the research is that non-standard forms of work have induced a change in the ways in which trade unions operate. I have mentioned above how the shopfloor has traditionally provided the platform from which the labour movement recruits and organises workers (Theron, 2005:305). This in combination with the shifting meaning of the workplace described above, the trends which allow employers to “replace the industrial relations relationship with a commercial relationship” (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005:18), the increasing trend of informalisation in the South African labour market as noted by Webster and Buhlungu (2004:234), and the restructuring of patterns of inclusion and exclusion to create the core, non-core and periphery zones have created for the labour movement a crisis of representation. This crisis arises out of the lack of capacity on the part of the labour movement to provide a voice to the concerns of an increasing number of non-core and peripheral workers. Due to the fact that labour legislation is premised on a SER, and that South Africa is facing a growing trend towards non-standard forms of work, unions will have to undergo changes on a number of fronts in order to cater to the needs of a growing number of non-standard workers (Clarke, 2004:565-566; Webster & Buhlungu, 2004:234). These changes will be brought about by the labour movement’s need to revitalise itself and in the process recruit and organise more members as well as make itself and its cause attractive to workers in the core, non-core and periphery zones. As mentioned above, South Africa’s democratic transition created the space for the establishment of democratic and social worker rights, as well as central institutions for negotiation and consultation. However, the trends of globalization and the increasing need to remain ever competitive in a global economy have kick started a process of restructuring of work and industrial relations. This restructuring has provided a challenge to the labour movement in that the rights which it has won for workers are based on an SER. It is based on this situation that I have chosen this specific area for my research as I believe the answers and insights that the research could provide could be of valuable use.

In acknowledging that there is something such as non-standard forms of work, it logically follows that there must be standard forms of wok. In order to tie these two concepts together and to understand the relationship between them, it is necessary that one explores the restructuring of the world of work in South Africa. Von Holdt and Webster (2005:5) have identified that work has been restructured to produce three main zones, namely the core, non-core and the periphery. The core zone is made up of workers engaged in the formal-sector and has relatively secure employment relations. These workers enjoy benefits and wages, and have access to and are covered by trade union and worker rights (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 5). These workers are said to be in a Standard Employment Relationship (SER) (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 5). The non-core zone is made up of workers engaged in externalised and casualised work, where employment relations are less secure; in some situations these workers may have part-time or temporary contracts with the core organization, and in other situations they have more precarious agreements with intermediaries such as informal factories, labour brokers or subcontractors (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 5). Finally, those people in the third zone, the periphery, engage in “informal-sector activities ranging from those that permit a degree of petty accumulation through subsistence activities to full unemployment” (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 5) whereby they ‘make a living’ as opposed to “earning a living” (Webster, 2005a: 61).

Traditionally, the workplace, or the shopfloor has provided a platform from which trade unions could recruit and organise members (Theron, 2005:304). The corporate and workplace restructuring mentioned above has induced a reconceptualisation in the nature of the workplace. This is important here as a shift in the meaning of the workplace has implications for trade union recruitment and organising. Theron (2005:304) notes that as a result of externalisation, the meaning of the workplace is no longer clear, for what is the workplace of a worker provided by a labour broker to a client, a homeworker or a franchisee? In the case of the labour broker, it is the client who actually provides the work and to whom the worker is primarily accountable, and what is of significance here is that although the client is not the employer, it is the client who provides and controls the workplace (Theron, 2005:304). This is important for my purposes, for as mentioned above, the shopfloor has traditionally provided the location for labour organisation, and furthermore, it is generally only within the workplace that is provided by the employer that worker’s rights can significantly be exercised (Theron, 2005:304). Another consequence of externalisation is that the workplace has ceased to be the social and physical space in which the relationship between an employer and his/her employees is located (Theron, 2005:304). Furthermore, with regards to externalisation, the restructuring trends taking place in South Africa allows the employer to “replace the industrial relations relationship with a commercial relationship” (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005:18). These trends furthermore aim to weaken the labour movement and segregates workers along core/non-core lines, facilitating further exploitation of the latter by employers (Von Holdt & Webster, 2005: 18)


This research study is qualitative in its entirety, and makes use of the structured interview as a primary means of gathering information. The study has taken this approach due to the fact that in order to answer the research questions and gain insight into the effects of non-standard forms on the labour movement, what was needed were in-depth perceptions and accounts from individuals who had done extensive work in the field of industrial sociology/industrial relations as well as from individuals currently working in the field as labour consultants. The interviews are structured precisely because they followed an interview schedule, but were not limited to this. Secondly, the study makes use of secondary data such as related literature to support and supplement the information gained from the interview process. This secondary data is not only important in terms of the information gathered, but also formed the basis on which the interview questions were developed, and more importantly, the literature used is to a large extent produced by individuals who have been interviewed for this study. However, due to the fact that some of the participants are not located in Cape Town and due to time and financial constraints, not all the participants could be interviewed as was initially intended. In these cases, the participants were informed that it would not be possible to conduct an actual interview, but rather what occurred was once the participants had agreed to partake in the study, the interview schedule was forwarded to them via email. In much the same way as a self-administered questionnaire would be, so the interview schedule was administered to a number of the participants. Although this method of gathering data was/is not as desirable as the interview itself (simply forwarding the interview questions to an individual eliminates the ability to form discussion and ask questions based on responses provided to questions), it nevertheless provides for a means of gathering the initial information sought. What is important though, is that the data which was obtained from these participants was in a qualitative form, this is because the questions themselves are open ended and therefore require the participants to provide input.

With regards to the interviews and the actual means of gathering the data, the participants were each sent an email in which they were informed about the research study, briefly stating what it was about and what it aims to do. The email sets out that the principle means of data gathering is the interview and requests involvement by way of participating in the interview process. A copy of the email can be seen in Appendix B. Interviews were this arranged and confirmed electronically. The interviews themselves were conducted in a one-on-one setting and based on an interview schedule consisting of twelve questions. The questions were asked orally and the participants were required to respond orally as well. The interview schedule was drawn up before the interviews themselves and as a result, the participants did not see or have access to the interview questions before hand and could not prepare answers to the questions. As mentioned above, an interview schedule was prepared and the interviews were conducted according to this, however, the interviews themselves were not limited to the schedule. As the discussion developed between myself and a participant based on the pre-formulated questions, other questions came to light out of the answers which the participants provided. The interviews were roughly half an hour long, and were conducted generally informally – although there was an interview schedule, there was no urgency to keep to this as there was a heavy emphasis placed on discussion, as I thought that this would provide me with a chance to gain valuable information that may not become explicitly available through the answers of the questions posed.


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Trade Unions and Non-Standard Forms of Work: A Shifting Modus Operandi
University of Cape Town
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Trade, Unions, Non-Standard, Forms, Work, Shifting, Modus, Operandi
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Nico Smit (Author), 2009, Trade Unions and Non-Standard Forms of Work: A Shifting Modus Operandi, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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