From informal worker to African legal subject: thinking through and beyond COVID-19

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From informal worker to African legal subject: thinking through and beyond COVID-19

Amy Niang

Lionel Zevounou

Ndongo Samba Sylla

26 Jun 2020

6min min read
  • Economic development--Social aspects
  • Epidemics--Economic aspects
  • Labour market

Ndèye is a young woman who is employed as a domestic worker in Dakar. Like most domestic workers, she is not a native of the capital of Senegal. Having lost her parents at a young age, she was raised by her aunt who is also her guardian. Like many other young women, Ndèye migrated to the capital city for work. Her income helps to support her two brothers under the care of her aunt. Given their low wages - generally below the minimum wage (around EUR 84 per month) - domestic workers cannot afford to rent a single room. They often share crowded accommodations with several others in order to limit expenses. The poor living conditions expose young women to sexual predation and many other forms of abuse.


Ndèye lost her job amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. At the beginning of the outbreak, many middle-class households ended the employment of domestic workers out of fear of infection; particularly given the latter’s living conditions. This was unfortunately the case for Ndèye's roommates. Having lost their income, they were forced to return to their villages. Even though Ndèye was not formally fired, she faced the very same situation. Without roommates with whom to share expenses, she could no longer afford to rent a room on her own so she too had to return to the village. Like the thousands of young girls and women employed domestic work, she is likely to remain without a job for the foreseeable future and she does not have access to any form of financial compensation.

Africa’s informal sector

Domestic workers are amongst the economic victims of the pandemic. The Senegalese state has not made any arrangements to assist people in Ndèye’s professional category and in the absence of strong trade unions to defend their rights, domestic workers are part of the informal economy and will live through the pandemic in anonymity, silence and destitution. Moreover, the spectre of famine will hang over their heads, as holding a job means in their case the possibility of getting free meals from their employers. The only form of public solidarity they can expect is the food aid promised by the government, assuming food parcels reach their villages.

Ndèye’s professional and social life is precarious. Her status as a worker without labour rights and a citizen without welfare cover is emblematic of the condition of Africa’s largest yet neglected labour force.

The nature and size of the informal sector in Africa are both the product of its colonial history and the pursuit by African governments of policies informed by “sound finance” principles (low public deficit, reduction of inflation, attracting foreign finance, etc.) rather than principles of domestic resource mobilisation which would require the minimisation of foreign debt, the development of local finance, a reform of the economy based on the mobilisation and transformation of available resources, and a focus on full employment.

Despite its creativity and resilience, the informal sector is but a key manifestation of a disarticulated economy whereby coherent sectoral linkages, for instance between agricultural and industrial services, are absent. In most African countries, agriculture is not the supplier of raw materials for an industrial sector that is often embryonic or missing. As a result, many urban informal workers, often rural migrants, sell imported goods on the streets instead of being employed in factories that produce the same products domestically. Despite the best efforts of post-independence governments, this economic disarticulation was expanded with the implementation of the Structural Adjustment Plans (SAPs) from the 1980s. Subsequent policies aimed at ensuring an orderly repayment of external debts contributed to massive layoffs in the public sector as well as in the private sector. As they weakened both the agricultural sector and the industrial sector, SAPs fed the development of informal employment in a context of strong demographic growth.

In the past few years, several initiatives have sought to bring the informal work into the fold of the traditional, formal labour system. However, when we look at the case of Ndèye, it is clear this has failed. Indeed, according to official data, 99% of job creation in Senegal between 2001 and 2009 occurred in the informal sector. While the Senegalese economy recorded a strong 6% average annual growth rate between 2012 and 2018, it did not create additional jobs in the formal sector during this period. In fact, formal sector jobs were destroyed in net terms. By and large, ‘jobless growth’, in other words economic growth without the creation of jobs in the formal sector, has been the story of the continent for the past two decades. This pattern follows to some extent the extraverted development model pursued by African policy-makers. Desperate to attract external financial flows (i.e. foreign debt, official development assistance and foreign direct investment), policy-makers have had to play by the book of foreign investors and international financial institutions. The latter are in favour of an economic environment where labor cost are low (thus diminished workers’ rights) and where governments strive to maintain financial equilibrium and low inflation rather than pursue full employment policies based first and foremost on the mobilisation of local finance.

The African legal subject

In this context, one issue of interest to us is how we can rethink the situation of the African working classes through a notion of an African legal subject — as developed by Olufemi Taiwo — within the matrix of African legal systems. This kind of perspective requires us to move away from a vertical, hierarchical vision of legal relations inherited from the colonial era. It also requires us to challenge the particular ways in which African public policies are shaped by the constraints of the global economic system. We can do so in three ways.

Firstly, there is a need to reshape African economies towards more self-sufficiency and the prioritisation of domestic needs; for extraversion often means that resources normally devoted to social welfare are either diverted into the repayment of foreign debt that cripples states’ financial stability, or siphoned off by rent-seeking leaders. The maintenance of a good financial standing and the fear of defaulting the debt both result in a neglect of a citizen-centred economic policy.

Secondly, social protection and economic welfare have to be turned into the drivers of public policy despite the structural constraints that drastically reduce African states’ autonomy in devising policy measures that befit their specific context. Provided African countries make a judicious use of their sovereign monetary powers and of real resources at their disposal (i.e. land, labour, and raw materials), they can finance social programs such as job guarantee schemes in their own currency, with the potential to improve the living conditions of the majority. Policy autonomy also requires an overhaul of African judicial systems. This overhaul must move away from the colonial legacy in order to meet the needs and expectations of African citizens. One avenue to explore in this respect could be the adaptation of classical legal categories (property, contract, labour) into the main languages used on the continent.

The third issue is one of the global economic environment that is fundamentally inadequate for the specific structure of African economies. Foreign aid commitments, global development objectives such as the SDGs, and humanitarianism have all turned into political rituals that exonerate leaders from radical reforms that necessarily have to operate at the global level in order for them to have any tangible effects on livelihoods. However, the principles of global solidarity, the redistribution of capacity and social justice, all constitutive of multilateralism, never really made it past the sterile charters that exalt a right to life (what kind of life?).

There is a need to hardwire an emancipatory ambition in African citizens and state commitment to change social reality can go a long way to enable this. This means, first of all, to dispel the mystifying effects of words: ‘aid’, ‘humanitarianism’, ‘debt relief’, etc., and to work with African populations to help to recover a capacity to build decent livelihoods in abandoned rural areas. For these slogans escape both the intellectual capacity of Ndèye and her experiential subjectivity.

Every crisis entails a choice between an attachment to the “known real”, i.e. the status quo, or the recovery of a morsel of sovereignty. None of these two choices is absolute but they both are a function of a desire to either protect a few or uplift the many.

Given what we said above about the dominant structure of African economies, African policy-makers should reject the external imperative for ‘sound finance principles’ and actively pursue an economic model that rearticulates priorities around the basic configurations, the needs, and the potential of their citizens and workers to drive economic innovation for the benefit of all. This change in economic orientation goes hand in hand with the (re)definition of a real African legal subject.

(Main image: Thierno Mamoudou, a local corner shop owner, in Dakar, Senegal poses for a picture on 22 April 2020 during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. — John Wessels/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.