SOAS University of London

School of Law

Re-Imagining Labour Law For Development: Informal work in the global North and South

El Anatsui - Man's Cloth

Date: 15 September 2016Time: 10:00 AM

Finishes: 16 September 2016Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Sq Room: L103 and L104

Type of Event: Conference

Set against the challenges posed by informal work, this conference brings labour law scholarship into conversation with development thinking.   

  • What shape does or should labour law take in light of the refashioning of the economies of the global North and South? 
  • In what ways does the persistence of informality in the South and the declining prevalence of formal work in the North challenge prevailing narratives within labour law scholarship?
  • To what extent can labour law’s conceptual and normative agendas offer alternatives to orthodox thinking about development, and the role of law in development? 

Participants are invited to a conference reflecting on the place of labour in the project of ‘Telling Stories about Law and Development’.

Presenters include: 
  • Pamhidzai Bamu
  • Lizzie Barmes
  • Adelle Blackett
  • Nicola Countouris
  • Simon Deakin
  • Hitesh Dhorajiwala
  • Ruth Dukes
  • Judy Fudge
  • Antara Haldar
  • Petra Mahy
  • Deirdre McCann
  • Liam McHugh-Russell
  • Tonia Novitz
  • Lorena Poblete
  • Kerry Rittich
  • Supriya Routh
  • Dzodzi Tsikata

Diamond Ashiagbor 


It's free, but registration is essential as places are limited. To register, email Centres and Programmes Office:

Conference themes

The aim of this conference is to explore labour law’s conceptual and normative narrative. If labour law, as Arthurs puts it, ‘takes its purpose, form, and content from the larger political economy from which it originates and operates’, what shape does or should labour law assume in response to the transformation of the political economy in countries of the global North, with the declining prevalence of the postwar model of full employment within a formal welfare state regime? Correspondingly, what is the proper role to be played by labour law and labour relations institutions in the development process within industrialising countries of the global South?

Dominant narratives within labour law scholarship reflect and give legitimacy to the traditional regulatory mechanisms and institutions of labour relations, and also shape which types of employment relationships are deemed suitable for regulation. These prevailing narratives, and the scholarly framing of the discipline which have originated in the ‘hegemonic’ countries of the global North, have in large part been transplanted to the global South. Yet these narratives are closely allied to a particular economic history of regulation of primarily Fordist productive relations; regulation which has evolved along with the protective capacities of industrialised states during the 20th century. Thus, traditional regulatory frameworks for governing work relations have taken as their starting point and as their main (sometimes, only) subject of regulation, the post-war ideal type of the ‘standard’ employee within the formal employment relationship, buttressed by institutions of social citizenship.

In contrast, informal employment has long been the predominant form in the labour markets of developing countries, and predictions that work would become formalised as these economies modernised have proven incorrect. In particular, the Polanyian trajectory predicted within economic sociology of the creation of a link between wage labour in the formal economy and social citizenship at the core of the welfare state, has not occurred in the South; industrialising states have never enjoyed the protective capacities witnessed within the North. One of the questions for this conference is thus to what extent labour law scholarship offers alternatives to the dominant (modernisation) thesis with regard to economic development. The assumption that there is a universal path towards economic development is one which has been adopted by the World Bank and other international financial institutions, which have co-opted Weber’s ideal type of ‘logically formal rationality’ as a prerequisite for economic growth and development. Thus, in the view of the World Bank, the key to economic development is converting the ‘informal’ into the ‘formal’. This approach, that developing countries should adopt formal legal institutions – in particular the rule of law and protection of private property – so as to ensure the predictable and effective enforcement of ‘background’ rules necessary for capitalist economic growth, also requires them to eschew labour market institutions, which are assumed to have a largely negative impact on growth and economic development. 

How does or should labour law respond to these apparently incommensurable aims: of promoting formalisation whilst retaining (labour market) flexibility? 

Further, the process of informalisation is not confined to developing countries. It is increasingly arguable that, even in the global North, the model of formal employment existed only for an elite group of mostly male workers, and is now unravelling. Accordingly, dominant narratives, which were never particularly apt for the South, are becoming less relevant for the North. This conference will therefore ask what shape does or should labour law take, in both industrialised and developing countries, in light of the refashioning of economies as a result of trade liberalisation and the related rise of market rationality as the governing metric of economic life?


View the draft programme


Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, 17 Russell Square, London, WC1B 5DR, rooms L103 and L104