Working paper number: 472

Author(s): John Spyropoulos
Unit: CSSR


This paper provides an account of the experience of low wage intermittent employment among a cohort of young South African men and women, aged 25 to 35, in Khayelitsha, a mainly poor, Black African residential area of Cape Town. It explores the subjectivity of the individual vis-à-vis their domestic obligations and personal aspirations. The phenomena examined here are little studied, despite their centrality in the lives of several million young South African workers. This paper draws primarily on qualitative case study research conducted in 2016 that overall raises the question of what constitutes ‘economy’ and provides a critique of statistical employment and earning categories as a basis for understanding the economic and social life of young adults.

The study found a prevalence of voluntarily quitting without an alternative job to go to despite poverty at home, and episodic personal impoverishment and dependence on the household. This paper shows that it is precisely the economic fact of intermittent employment, with its low wages and variable income, which lays down the material and affective conditions for voluntary quitting employment and for participants’ domestic social and economic life. Furthermore, voluntary quitting characterises high levels of churn in the South African labour market, indicating a wider economic impact. The research is framed analytically in terms of the notion of Polanyian ‘embeddedness’ of the economy, in this case, in the form of labour market conditions within the domestic moral economy (DME) of the household of the study group. This research adds to current scholarship a case study demonstrating that the extant structural conditions, of variable low wage and unreliable employment, ‘metabolized’ in individual workers in the fields of their domestic domain and peer milieu.

 Publication file: WP472Spyropoulos.pdf