In a newly published book, The Political Economy of Post-COVID Life and Work in the Global South: Pandemic and Precarity, editors, Sandya Hewamanne, Professor of Anthropology at the Department of Sociology, University of Essex and Smytta Yadav, ESRC Fellow in the School of Education, Environment and Development at the University of Manchester shine a light on the impact of the pandemic on the lives of workers in the informal economies across the Global South.

This edited volume highlights cascading effects of the pandemic and lockdown on workers such as women in the construction industries in India, the sex industry, domestic and hospitality workers, garment and supermarket workers. The contributors analyse how the effects of the pandemic on these low-paid, economically vulnerable people are compounded in the context of neoliberalism.

Why is this publication important at this time?

Uneven development after colonisation, imperialism and externally influenced conflict, have caused many countries in the formally colonised or semi-occupied countries in the world to lag behind in wealth accumulation, investments in manufacturing and technology.

Forced to compete in the world markets on an equal footing with already developed countries, inequalities have been exacerbated and we are now seeing the rapid burgeoning of informal economies across the Global South. COVID-19 and lockdown of western countries unravelled the global production chains. This resulted in hordes of workers in the Global South losing their livelihoods. Even people engaged in traditionally locally-bound economic activities such as domestic work and sex work found their livelihoods disappear.

The book brings together case studies from India, Brazil, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka to analyse the impact of global economic disruptions on informal sector workers who have already been largely invisible within the state development policies. We look at how informal sector workers in the global south are constructed as essential workers while at the same time being practically rendered expendable by being forced to work in congested conditions during the pandemic.

We also question whether existing models of neoliberal development are still conducive within the post-pandemic Global South as it grapples with rebuilding economies, livelihoods, institutions, and systems of governance. The contributions crucially expose the inherent unfairness and weaknesses of neoliberalism and, by providing powerful evidence from several countries in the Global South, call for efforts at strategising alternatives to existing development models.

What did the contributors find?

We found out that the neoliberal development models that many of the countries in the Global South (not to mention the poorer communities and ethnic minorities in the Global North) had been forced to follow do not ensure human security or sustainable livelihoods.

We found that the livelihoods of both the people who have been pushed out of stable jobs in national economies due to structural adjustment policies of the world financial institutions and the younger generation that was duped by the glittery allure of the global outsourced, digitised gig economic opportunities, have been severely affected by the pandemic.

Further, the contributions highlight the fact that the neoliberal development model does not contain any safety measures to protect people who are doing the heavy lifting to support the globalised economy. When global value chains unravel, as happened with the pandemic and lockdown, the countries at the top of the chains retract inwards protecting their own citizenry while turning a blind eye to the sufferings of the millions of people who made their affluent lifestyles possible by sweating at global assembly lines, both in manufacturing and technical capacities.

The chapters weave through global economic disruptions as they affected workers in the informal sector who have already been largely invisible within the state development policies and programs. Several chapters address how precarious workers face grave health insecurities and how such conditions were exacerbated during the pandemic. One chapter specifically theorises the ‘politics of exposure,’ demonstrating how the most economically vulnerable are left to face the pandemic full on with minimal to non-existent access to health care. My own chapter demonstrates how forced labour in congested workplaces signposts a form of necrocapitalism – in other words – profit before human wellbeing or survival.

What should happen because of what you found?

The contributions identify actions that would protect the livelihoods of the precarious workers in the Global South in three phases:

Immediate: Some financial support for workers who have lost precarious job opportunities

As what poorer countries in the Global South can provide as financial assistance is meagre and leads to increasing inflation, responsibility for the most part should lie with the affluent countries in the Global North which benefit from the slave labour within global value networks. If multi-national corporations are not stepping up and fulfilling their corporate social responsibility (CSR) pledges, it is up to the governments where such MNC are based to pick up the bill.

Intermediate: Loan and interest rate readjustments for the developing countries so that they can realign their resources in building livelihoods and supporting communities

Human security foregrounded plans and programs through international financial institutions (overseen by global civil society) to support developing countries to come up with appropriate austerity programs, auditing and rebuilding. This should not be the easy model of austerity used earlier which cut off welfare programs for the most vulnerable, but one that is focused on stemming waste and corruption and increasing auditing and transparency. While these projects should ideally come from within the countries and overseen by local independent commissions, in practice, the involvement of the global institutions and civil society seems the best way to ensure that progressive changes are made so that equitable and sustainable livelihoods for all will be a reality.

In the long run: Strategise alternatives to neoliberalism

Use knowledge of small revolutions against capitalism throughout the world to learn ways of going against capital and creating sustainable and equitable livelihoods. Many scholars have been demonstrating for a long time that late capitalist models are skewed toward benefiting already affluent western countries and that people in poorer societies are being used to reproduce the already existing hierarchies. It is time to apply this knowledge to practice in changing the existing economic structures. Flexible capitalism was made possible for the most by the internet and it is time to use the same to revamp the economic structures in creative ways. For example, creating ‘rogue’ marketing networks with equity and sustainability minded citizens of the Global North. A rethinking of fair-trade movement etc.

What are the next steps?

The co-editors are planning a sequel to this volume which would bring about a collection of works covering the July 2021-July 2023 period. We plan to bring together scholars working on several other countries of the Global South (for example Vietnam, Guatamala, and Sierra Leone). We also would like to encourage works co-authored with members of grassroots organizations in the countries covered, with the envisioned volume having a greater focus on policy interventions and positive policy outcomes toward sustainable livelihoods, better labour practices and overall economic structural changes.


The Political Economy of Post-COVID Life and Work in the Global South: Pandemic and Precarity is published by Palgrave Macmillan and can be ordered via this link