Emerging insecurities: casual employment relations and institutional dynamics in the Indian and South African auto industries

Publication Type:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Sao Paulo (2018)


employment relations


Emerging insecurities: casual employment relations and institutional dynamics in the Indian and South African auto industries

While in the past few years the global auto industry has seen emerging labour movements and new forms of organising, especially in recently industrialised countries, the overall picture seems to be one of progressive precarisation of employment relations and generalised onslaught on labour institutions. Besides a few strongholds of ‘decent’ work, mainly situated in the Global North, atypical forms of employment have proliferated, labour laws and collective bargaining systems are under widespread attack, and anti-union behaviours are frequent. Against these trends, traditional unions appear to hardly keep up with the changing scenario, while employers actively contribute to such race to the bottom. Between them, state institutions too often represent a silent actor, or alternatively, proactively support corporate needs in order to secure an investment-friendly climate for their industry.

By adopting a political economy approach to labour relations, this project aims at analysing recent employment trends and institutional dynamics that have affected the auto industry in two emerging economies, India and South Africa. Whilst being characterised by structural differences – in terms of market size, policy trajectories, competitive advantages, the two country-cases provide equally interesting insights on how employment relations in the auto industry are evolving. Ultimately, their local specificities and the different ‘shades’ of casualisation the two countries are experiencing allow for a deeper understanding of global trends, where the precarisation of employment relations seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Thus, on the one hand, India shows a case of extreme casualisation of the workforce, indiscriminately penetrating all the previously organised and protected productive segments. Overall, it constitutes a clear example of instrumental use of the contract labour system, allowing to fragment and depoliticise labour, and to hamper labour organising. At the same time, the Indian case is paradigmatic at two levels: for the degeneration of the industrial relations system towards forms of institutionalised violence, and for the emergence of new types of labour organising, arising beyond traditional unions. On the other, South Africa represents one of the traditionally most protected and most widely organised auto sectors in the world. However, while its powerful metalworkers union maintains a strong hold of the industry and a sound position within the bargaining system, areas of contention and ‘insecurity’ are surfacing nonetheless. Here, the work focuses on two main aspects: the still frequent use of labour brokers disguised behind service provision, and the incremental attack to the existing labour legislation channelled by the proposed labour amendments.

In both cases, under different shapes, ‘insecurities’ are emerging, the system of labour relations faces serious threats, and the need to re-establish industrial relations more favourable to labour is of uttermost importance. Overall, the paper claims, no advancement will be possible without a serious consideration of casualisation processes, of the impact of changing labour laws on the most vulnerable layers of the workforce, and of the necessary renewal of traditional union organisations in order to embrace – and urgently counter – such changes.

The present work contributes to a comparative study of employment patterns and labour relations within emerging economies. For this purpose, it builds on comparative fieldwork based on a similar research design. With regard to the Indian case, it rests on different rounds of fieldwork conducted in the Indian National Capital Region (Delhi) in 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2017. There, a questionnaire survey on working and living conditions of NCR auto workers was carried out, and interviews and focus groups were conducted with academic scholars, business associations (CII, SIAM, ACMA), unions and workers. In South Africa, fieldwork took place in 2016-17 and is still in progress. So far, this involved different rounds of interviews with academic scholars working on the auto industry, government officials, the metalworkers union, workers in the Pretoria - Rosslyn area and sectoral business associations (NAAMSA, NAACAM, AIDC etc.).

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