ICAS:MP TM 2 & 5 Workshop on Rethinking Labour: Gender, Informality and Politics

8-9 January 2024
Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India

Informalization is a key feature of contemporary capitalism. Until a few decades ago, the informal sector had been cast as an aspect of economic backwardness, to be rectified by ‘modernization’ and development. The very trajectory of development was conceived as moving towards formalization. Historical trajectories, however, have flowed in the opposite direction. The informal sector continued to coexist alongside processes of growth and ‘modernization’ in the global south and offered tremendous potential for absorbing the unemployed and poor populations. This led to a shift in the global perspective and it began to be viewed as a sector that had the potential to generate employment and create entrepreneurial business.

Even as informal labour persisted in the global South, formal employment and secure jobs in the global North began to erode over time. Informalization is now the dominant trend in labour markets across the world. The types of work available in advanced capitalist economies bear little resemblance to jobs in a standard employment relationship, which was the foundation of the welfare state in the twentieth century. This relationship had become a critical feature of the post-war compromise that characterised capitalist accumulation and strategies of economic development, as well as in resolutions of the ‘social question’. We now have a proliferation of informality across the developed and developing economies.

Informality, however, has a multiplicity of definitions. The most common designation is of work outside the framework of effective regulation, characterized by the whittling down of social security and the decline of the older standard employment relationship. Through the intervention of the ILO, we also now have a distinction between the informal sector and informal workers. It is possible to analytically distinguish between three interlinked processes of informalization: a) the increasing presence of informal workers in the formal sector; b) the expansion of the informal sector itself; and c) the rapid shrinking of formal-sector arrangements, with the characteristic rights and immunities they conferred upon workers. In India in the recent past, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the scale and centrality of informal labour to the Indian economy, as well as the constitutive precarity of its conditions of existence.

In labour studies, feminization and informalization have sometimes been equated. Indeed, it could be said that one meaning of the term ‘feminization’ is informalization. These processes were associated with the advent of post-Fordism and the new international division of labour, which have broadened and deepened in the new millennium. The intersection of gender and informality has emerged as critical in other ways too, with a high concentration of women in more economically vulnerable and insecure forms of employment. The concept of informality and the lens of ‘informalization’ are also significant for feminist theorising on unpaid domestic labour, care work and other forms of ‘work’ which have escaped the ‘formal’ definitions of work. There is at present a need to connect women’s experience with new processes of gendering, and with men’s experience of the erosion of the ‘single male breadwinner’ model. Thus, experience and structure, discourse and policy, are linked in shifting social constructions of gender relations.

This informalization is a product of a strategic convergence of global capitalism and state policies. The emergence of new economies such as digital, creative, sharing, gig and platform, for example, have encouraged the glamorisation of entrepreneurialism and ‘innovation’. We have today an unprecedented significance accorded to technological determinism in both social sciences and social policies. The global creative economy, providing high skill, knowledge intensive employment, is estimated to include 1.2 million informal jobs worldwide (EY, 2015).

The question of informalization is related also to changing forms of collective organization. In neo-Marxist formulations, new kinds of work and new employment conditions have meant the obsolescence of older ‘working-class’ collective identifications, and trade unions are no longer the historically validated vehicle of social transformation. Given women’s association with informality and their exclusion from working-class solidarities, questions of feminization, informalization and unionization have been troubling and, indeed, politically controversial. The threat posed by feminization/informalization to conventional means and modes of collective struggles of workers has been a challenge for at least the last four decades. At the same time, new forms of organization, geared specifically towards women in informal employment, have emerged in the same period.

And yet, to say this alone is to miss out the complexities of contemporary trends in employment and work organization. Within a broader thrust of informalization, there is also a process of unionization and regulation within the informal sector. New and historically unfamiliar modes of organization, geared specifically towards women in informal employment, have also emerged with important social and policy consequences: the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India is a prime instance. How do we characterize these trends? Are they a new phase of formalization, or do they represent a new historical formation for which we do not yet have an adequate conceptual vocabulary? How do we understand new kinds of labour mobilization, premised on political ideologies in which the centrality previously accorded to working-class identity has been replaced by a different set of priorities and discourses? How does the presence of women in the informal sector challenge old ways of understanding labour politics? How do we deal with categories of race and caste in the context of feminization, informalization and new modes of labour mobilization?


Cite this blog post
sukritimanocha (2024, January 4). ICAS:MP TM 2 & 5 Workshop on Rethinking Labour: Gender, Informality and Politics. ICAS:MP. Retrieved April 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/veka

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