Informal Employment – 12 Theses

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Informal employment
WIEGO Organization and Representation Program: Organization and Representation of Workers in Informal and Unprotected Employment – Twelve Theses

Prefacing Statement

Over the past two decades, the informal economy has expanded in most countries of the world, including developing, transition, and developed economies. Over the past decade or more, informal work is estimated to account for more than half of the new jobs in Latin American and over 80 percent of new jobs in Africa. As a result, the informal economy today accounts for a significant share of employment – from 10-30 percent in different developed countries to 55 percent in Latin America to 45-85 percent in different parts of Asia to nearly 80 percent in Africa – and is comprised of a wide range of informal work arrangements, both resilient old forms and emerging new forms.

Economists did not anticipate the notable shifts in recent years from mass production to flexible specialized production or back to sweatshop production. Neither did they predict the ways in which global integration and competition would serve to erode employment relations and the willingness or ability of governments to provide social protection and guarantee worker rights. Due varyingly to the pattern of economic growth, to economic reforms, or to economic crises, traditional forms of non-standard wage work (e.g. casual jobs) and self-employment (e.g. street vending) have persisted and new forms of non-standard wage work (e.g. piece-rate subcontracted jobs and temporary or part-time jobs) and self-employment (e.g. high-tech home-based work) have emerged. Today, there is increasing recognition among development scholars and practitioners that the informal economy is here to stay, in both new and old guises.

The persistence and expansion of old forms of informal employment and the emergence of new forms of informal employment pose both a challenge and an opportunity to the international labour movement. Informal workers, almost by definition, do not receive worker benefits and are not covered by social protection measures. Most informal workers work from their homes, on the streets, or changing work sites, rather than in factories or firms. Organizing informal workers is, therefore, quite demanding and requires innovative approaches.

(1) Workers in informal employment do not have a social identity separate from other workers and should not be identified with other social classes or groups, regardless of their employment status.

(2) Workers in informal employment aspire to decent and secure incomes, access to basic social services, such as housing, education and health care, and a social and political environment where their rights are respected and guaranteed. They form organizations, including unions, in order to secure the social, economic and political power necessary to achieve these objectives.

(3) Voluntary organizations of different types, including unions, have historically played a role in providing social protection to their members, and organizations of informal workers today in some cases provide a broad range of social protection measures for their membership. This should not obscure the basic responsibility of the State to protect the rights of its citizens, including their social and economic rights, nor the responsibility of employers to provide work under conditions consistent with internationally accepted standards and social obligations (insurance, pensions).

(4) Unions are self-help organizations created by workers to defend and advance their interests through collective action. The right to form unions is a fundamental human right of any workers anywhere. Workers in informal employment, like all other workers, have the right to protect themselves through organization and to resist, through their collective action, the exploitation to which they are subjected.

(5) In order to establish unions, or to conduct union action, workers do not need to be in a formal or direct employment relationship. Unions may engage in collective bargaining with specific employers or employers’ associations, but they may also engage in social and political bargaining with public authorities or legislative bodies. In either case, they meet the needs of their membership through collective action.

(6) A larger share of women workers than men workers are in the informal economy worldwide. Because women are often marginalized at all levels of social life, including in the labour movement, women in informal employment have in some instances created their own unions and may again do so whenever appropriate. This in no way reflects a form of gender isolationism but rather the need to preserve the capacity for advancing the specific priorities of women workers as forcefully as may be necessary, also in the context of the wider labour movement.

(7) Workers in informal employment, as other workers, depend on collective action, through unions, associations or cooperatives, to advance their interests as individuals and as a group. This is also true for self-employed workers, where the great majority needs mechanisms of mutual aid and solidarity to rise out of poverty and dependency.

(8) Macro-economic policies and processes often serve to undermine the bargaining power of the informal workforce. Without organizing the informal workforce, both the self-employed and waged workers, no amount of technical services, such as micro-finance and business development services, will eliminate poverty.

(9) In their efforts to organize, workers in informal employment welcome assistance from any source (unions, churches, advocacy groups, public authorities, international organizations, foundations, etc). However, it should be stressed that the objective of organizing is in all cases to establish self-sustaining organizations based on membership and accountable to their membership by the mechanisms of representative democracy.

(10) Workers in informal employment organizing may opt to join existing unions originating in the formal economy of they may decide to form their own independent organizations. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. Independent informal sector organizations ensure that issues facing informal economy workers receive undivided attention. Inclusion in unions based on formal sector employment assists informal-formal worker solidarity. Internationally, there are clearly advantages in informal employment workers being organized and represented within trade sectors (through ITSs), within national union centers (through the ICFTU) and independently through informal employment workers’ own international organization(s).

(11) Workers in informal employment have a right to be represented through their own organizations and to express their views and demands without self-appointed intermediaries. The usefulness of conducting seminars, symposia, conferences and working parties about workers in informal employment, but in their absence, can be doubted. There is a real risk that, through lack of serious knowledge and experience, such meetings may result in misleading conclusions and in the hardening of ideological misconceptions.

(12) Workers in informal employment need to be represented at all levels where decisions are made that affect their situation. In the first place they need, of course, to be represented in the institutions of the labour movement, i.e. in the governing bodies of the international trade union organizations (ICFTU, ITS, ETUC) and of the labour NGOs (IFWEA, SOLIDAR). Some limited representation at that level already exists (IFWEA and IUF); much more is needed. In the second place, they need to be represented at the ILO, i.e. in the Workers’ Group.


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