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The struggle for social equality between men and women remains an area of continuing relevance to any quest for a holistic understanding of economy, society, culture and politics in contemporary Africa – as, indeed, in every other region of the world. In fact, it can be argued that it is an arena whose construction is a permanent work in progress. And yet, the general, instinctive but misleading assumption has persisted, even in otherwise knowledgeable circles, that any reference to gender is little more than a code word for raising narrow, even parochial concerns that are specific to the interests of women only. In a bid to correct this erroneous instinct and, in so doing, open new frontiers of reflection on gender issues among African social researchers, CODESRIA has decided for the strategic plan period 2007 – 2011 to continue to build on its tradition of critical and innovative gender research by strategically focusing its annual Gender Institute on themes that will both contribute to an erosion of stereotypes about gender studies, and advance the frontiers of gendered knowledge as knowledge that is holistic. To this end, the 2008 CODESRIA Gender Institute will focus the attention of participants on the construction and functioning of labour markets in Africa in terms of their impact on, and consequences for gender relations. In doing so, participants in the Institute will be encouraged to locate labour markets and the gender relations woven into them in their geo-historical contexts. The refraction of global-level labour market developments into African labour markets and vice versa will also be explored.
Mainstream academic research on African labour markets – as, indeed, labour markets elsewhere in the world - has been dominated by concerns over the basic nature of the markets themselves; the degree of flexibility and/or rigidity they exhibit at different moments in time; the reforms that are called for in the light of the problems identified with the functioning of the markets; and the changes which they experience as these pertain to worker productivity and national/sectoral competitiveness. Where attention has been paid to labour market conditions in the context of export-led industrialisation in the global South, the main concern has been more with productivity and competitiveness deriving from low wages than to the human and social welfare costs that arise. In the light of the preoccupations of mainstream labour market research, it is perhaps not too surprising that attention to the gendered nature of labour markets has been a rarity in spite of the fact that women have had a long history of participation in paid and unpaid employment. The reasons for this lack of interest in the gender dimensions of labour markets are multiple. They include the fact that labour market studies have been mostly monopolised by the discipline of Economics which also exhibits inbuilt biases against gender concerns in the construction of economic models and policies. Also, formal labour markets have, historically, been disproportionately dominated by men. Furthermore, the overwhelmingly patriarchal ideological underpinnings of labour markets very easily translate into the instinctive subordination of women in the system. Little wonder then that even when they entered into the (formal) labour markets, women were generally placed in the lower rungs as to be easily consigned to a policy and research “invisibility”. Finally, the massive role played by women in informal labour markets has been an issue which has not been of direct interest to most economists who, for a very long time, were more interested in formal sector activities, perceiving these as constituting the real, perhaps even exclusive arena where policy and action take place.
While theory and policy remain underdeveloped with regard to gender relations in labour markets, tremendous changes continue to occur in the markets which make it ever more untenable to pursue research on the nature, dynamics and implications of the markets without fully integrating the gender dimensions. For one, the numbers of women who have entered into the formal labour market has, anecdotally at least, undergone a tremendous expansion over the last two decades. The history, economics, demographics and sociology of this expanded presence and role in labour markets need to be examined closely as important areas of research and policy interest in their own right. For another, contemporary labour markets themselves have become even more segmented than ever before, producing new gender dynamics that call for attention. These new dynamics speak to hierarchies of power in the markets, the degree of social protection available to different categories of workers, and the gendered ways in which opportunities are distributed among different layers of employers within and between economic sectors. Furthermore, within the overall framework of the expansion of the informal economy and of the complex interfaces between the formal and informal sectors, women’s participation in informal labour markets have witnessed a continued growth that cannot be ignored. The interfaces between formal and informal labour markets, including the ways in which they are straddled by specific gender relations, call into question some of the categories that are predominant in the study of labour markets. They also broach upon the question of the ways in which informal and illicit labour markets “subsidise” formal labour markets, mainly drawing in an exploitative way on the sweat of girls, women and boys.
Also, as women’s trade union/industrial relations consciousness has grown, there has been an increased contestation of discriminatory employment terms and conditions in labour markets. This contestation has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of new social movements of women organising to struggle for better recognition, remuneration and safety standards for women in formal and informal labour markets. The intensification of cross-border migrations and the restructuring of global labour markets have thrown up new structures of labour market opportunities and constraints that affect men and women differently, and carry consequences for the local and global configuration of labour market gender relations. Participants in the 2008 CODESRIA Gender Institute will be challenged to, among other things, explore the many conceptual, methodological and empirical challenges which are posed by the changing nature of local and international labour markets in terms of their implications for gender relations.