Labour Politics and South African Retail Workers: Enduring Collectivities in the Face of Precariousness

  • Bridget Kenny
Part of the Work, Organization, and Employment book series (WOAE)


Examining retail workers, one of the most precarious workforces within South Africa, this paper asks why workers have consistently maintained a politics around the workplace. It interrogates how and why in the context of intensifying precarity, and the resulting fragmentation of the labour market through casualisation and subcontracting, retail workers themselves sustain ongoing attachments to a collective labour politics. This paper critiques labour sociology which seeks out ‘spectacular’ protest or which explains labour politics in terms of bargaining power. It argues that both strands offer teleological explanations of worker action and political aims. Through research covering twenty years of work with retail workers in Johannesburg, as well as a focus on several sites of current retail labour politics in Massmart/Wal-Mart subsidiaries, this paper shows the persistence of workers’ collective political subjectivity in Johannesburg stores. Forms of action and collective subjectivity endure in complicated relation to the trade union. Retail workers’ labour politics within this local labour market offer us a context in which to trace the constitution, reproduction and contradictions of class identities under conditions of precariousness, which build from the concrete to explain workers’ experiences and labour politics.


Retail Labour politics Precarious labour Wal-Mart Massmart 


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentUniversity of the WitwatersrandJohannesburgSouth Africa

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