Discussing labour organising and 'non-standard' employment in the Global South
Dr Michaela Collord is an Assistant Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations with a specialist interest in the history and politics of sub-Saharan Africa, particularly east Africa.
Research the things you care about, whatever that may be. Find people who think like you and work with them
How would you explain your research?
My current research focuses on labour organising and urban politics in the Global South. Along with my Tanzanian research partner, I do fieldwork in Dar es Salaam and Kampala, the commercial capitals of Tanzania and Uganda. Both cities are at the forefront of a global rise in informal or “precarious” labour, associated with low pay, insecure work, dangerous conditions, and no social protections. We want to understand whether and how informal workers can organise both to access better livelihoods and more political voice.
We focus mainly on street vendors and motorcycle-taxi drivers, who are experimenting with many kinds of organising, eg associations, co-operatives, and trade unions. To understand the success (or not) of their bottom-up efforts, we also explore the response of state actors, who often try to co-op or repress worker organisations. Ultimately, we want to understand what organising strategies and what policy approaches could help ensure that these precarious workers and their contributions are recognised and valued, rather than ignored or even criminalised as is often the case.
How will your research affect the average person?
Who counts as “average” is always an interesting question, including who counts as an “average” worker. Academics and policymakers talk about the “standard employment relationship”, which basically refers to a secure job where someone may work eight hours a day, five days a week for their boss. But in the global south, this “standard” was never the norm, and in the global north, more and more people are working non-standard jobs, ie jobs that are less secure, involve irregular hours, and the like.
This growth in “non-standard” employment raises many challenging questions. Among these are questions about how workers can organise, which is where my research comes in. When we think about labour organising, we typically think of trade unions. They may well have a role to play, but they often focus on workers who are in “standard” or “formal” jobs. How then, to take one example, do motorcycle-taxi drivers in Dar es Salaam organise? They have no formal employers, although they do rent their bikes from people they call “boss”. To take a different example, how do street vendors—often threatened with violent eviction—negotiate with city authorities so that they can trade peacefully, selling low-cost goods to eager customers?
Questions like these are especially urgent in a city like Dar where, estimating conservatively, 63 percent of the labour force are in “non-standard” employment. But these questions are not just important in Dar and the global south. If we relocate to Nottingham, we could ask similar questions about Deliveroo riders, uber drivers, or casualised cleaners.
I hope my research can contribute to better strategies for labour organising and better policy to accommodate informal workers, making cities more just and sustainable. By the same token, I hope my work will affect the “average” person; in today’s world, that person is living in the global south and working a non-“standard” job. As for workers in the global north, they are increasingly likely to be a woman, migrant, or young person doing the same.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Research the things you care about, wherever that may be. My research of course has an international focus, and for various reasons, I was encouraged and enabled to go down that path early on. But I am just as interested in what is happening closer to home. Also, some of the most exciting moments in my work have come when I can connect the two, like when I see ways that labour organising in the global south could influence the global north, Dar es Salaam influencing Nottingham, or vice versa.
So again, research what you care about. Find people who think like you and work with them. Explore global issues if they interest you. Equally, it may be local issues—which are no smaller or less important—that really grab your attention.