Precarious Workers and the Labour Process: Problematising the Core/Non-core


  • Lynford Dor University of Johannesburg
  • Carin Runciman University of Johannesburg



This article recentres labour process theory in the analysis of the South African manufacturing sector to challenge the perception that precarious workers in the formal economy are largely “flexible extras” unrelated to the “core” of production. Through case study analysis of two manufacturing workplaces in Gauteng, South Africa, we demonstrate how precarious workers are both core to production and to the production of surplus value. Our analysis demonstrates how employers have increasingly restructured work through reclassifying large parts of the labour process as “non-core”. This trend has accelerated in recent years as employers seek to evade new legal responsibilities following amendments to the Labour Relations Act in 2014. Despite employers’ attempts to redefine the labour of precarious workers as non-core, we demonstrate that these workers nevertheless play an increasingly central role in the valorisation regimes of manufacturing companies – rendering them core to the production of surplus value for manufacturing capital. Our analysis problematises Von Holdt and Webster’s (2005) core/non-core schema for analysing the South African labour force, which locates precarious workers in the formal sector in the non-core. We argue that while this schema has some utility in describing the make-up of the labour force, its abstraction from an analysis of the labour process obscures the fact that precarious work has become central to manufacturing capital’s valorisation strategy. Finally, the article reflects on how precarious workers are attempting to organise within and in parallel to trade unions. This analysis highlights the importance of going beyond analysing trade unions if we are to contribute to rebuilding the labour movement under conditions of precarity.

KEYWORDS: labour-process theory; precarious work; surplus value; labour movement; manufacturing; South Africa

Author Biography

Lynford Dor, University of Johannesburg

Lynford Dor is a researcher at the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg. Prior to this, he was the Education and Media Officer at the Casual Workers Advice Office.