Notes on trade unions and the informal sector (Dan Gallin, Martha Chen, Renana Jhabvala, 18 October 1999)

An International Symposium on “Trade Unions and the Informal Sector”, organized by the Bureau for Workers’ Activity of the ILO (often referred to by its French acronym ACTRAV), was held in Geneva from October 18 to 22, 1999.

The meeting was attended by 31 trade unionists from as many countries (Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America and North America), 16 observers from five ITSs, the ICFTU and the WCL, moderators (from the ILO), speakers (from the ILO, ITSs, ICFTU and WCL) and ILO officials. The following notes are a contribution by WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing) to the discussion. They were prepared by Dan Gallin (Global Labour Institute) with contributions from Martha Chen (Harvard University), Renana Jhabvala (Self Employed Women’s Association, India) and Jane Tate (HomeNet, UK). The table on p. 12 was supplied by Jacques Charmes (Université de Versailles, Centre d’Economie et d’Ethique pour l’Environnement et le Développement).

WIEGO is an international coalition established to support organizing of women workers in the informal sector, also at international level. It includes already existing women workers’ organizations, some of which are themselves international networks, such as HomeNet (homeworkers) and StreetNet (street vendors), or national unions, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (India) and the Self-Employed Women’s Union (South Africa). Some of the unions participating in WIEGO are members of national trade union centres in their home countries and some are affiliated to one or several ITSs. WIEGO organizations (in particular SEWA and HomeNet) have worked closely with the international trade union movement in securing the adoption of the Home Work Convention, 1996 (No. 177).

The purpose of this document is to identify some of the issues which need to be addressed in order to advance the organization of workers, and in particular women workers, in the informal sector at international level.

The document frequently refers to the background paper of the ILO Bureau for Workers’ Activities (under reference BP/TUIS/99). This paper, entitled: “Trade Unions and the Informal Sector: Towards a Comprehensive Strategy”, is a valuable resource for anyone interested in the issue.

It can be obtained from the ILO :
Bureau Publications,
International Labour Office,
CH-1211 Geneva 22,
fax: (+41 22) 799 69 38,
or from

The Bureau for Workers’ Activities
Route des Morillons 4,
CH-1211 Geneva 22,
fax: (+41 22) 799 67 50,

Why organize the informal sector?
It should not be taken for granted that the importance of organizing informal sector workers is recognized equally by all sections of the trade union movement. Part of the reason for the ILO Workers’ Group and ACTRAV organizing the present Symposium is, in fact, the confused and contradictory perception of the informal sector by the trade union movement (see chapters 3 and 4 of BP/TUIS/99).

We would argue that organizing informal sector workers needs to be a priority of the international trade union movement because: (1) it is here to stay; (2) it is growing, whilst the formal sector is declining in terms of organizational potential; (3) these two trends are linked and are irreversible in the short and medium term; (4) consequently, the stabilization of the formal sector organizations and building trade union strength internationally depend on the organization of the informal sector. Organizing the informal sector serves the interests of the majority of workers worldwide.

Without wishing to belabour points which have been made elsewhere, we need to remind ourselves of some basic facts underlying the above propositions.

It is impossible to conceive at the present time of organizing a majority of workers at world scale without serious organizing in the informal sector. The vast majority of the world’s workers, including the poorest – who most need self-defense through organization – are in the informal sector. In India, for example, the proportion of the active population in the informal sector (including agriculture) increased from 89 percent in 1978 to 92 percent in 1998. In Africa, Asia and Latin America the informal sector accounts for a share of employment ranging from significant to prevalent (BP/TUIS/99, Table 1, p. 3, Table 2, p. 5). For Central and Eastern Europe data are generally not available, but anecdotal evidence indicates that the informal sector is rapidly growing as State enterprises close down or are privatized and unemployment increases (the same applies to China). Such statistical data as are available for OECD countries (the industrialized world) indicate that also there the informal sector represents a significant part of the labour force: about 11% in Ireland and New Zealand, 19% in Germany, 20% in Italy (excluding agriculture).

It is no longer accurate today to describe the informal sector as “atypical”. In most so-called developing countries it is the formal sector (regular direct employment with a formal sector company) that is “atypical” in the literal sense and in many of the older industrialized countries the informal sector, although it does not occupy a majority of the labour force, is becoming increasingly significant, particularly for women (see table on p. 12).

Equally, it is not appropriate to identify the formal sector as the “modern” sector, as opposed to the informal sector which is supposed to be “non-modern”. What is “modernity”? Is factory work more “modern” than teleworking? As deplorable as it may be, it is a fact that sweatshops producing garments or components for the automobile industry, or assembling printed circuit boards, in back alleys in Paris, New York or Macau, are a more “modern” phenomenon than a steelworks in Indonesia, Romania or in South Chicago.

The growth of the informal sector since the 1980s has two main causes: the global economic crisis is one, the way production is being organized by transnational capital is another.

The world economic crisis is the result of political decisions: it is political decisions which have led to the debt crisis of the so-called developing countries, driven the structural adjustment programs of the IMF and the World Bank (dismantling of the public sector, deregulation of the labour market) and led to the global crisis which started in Asia in 1997, continued in Russia in 1998 and hit Brazil at the beginning of this year. According to an ILO estimate, this crisis destroyed 24m. jobs in East Asia alone, mostly in the “modern industrial” sector (in the terminology of the report).

To take Indonesia as an example: unemployment rose from 20m. in 1998 (when it represented 22% of the labour force) to 38m. at the beginning of this year. As for the population living below the official poverty line (meaning an income of USD0.55 in urban areas and of USD0.40 in rural areas, or about half of internationally comparable rates), it went from 37% of the total population in the middle of 1998 to 48% at the end of that year and without a drastic upturn which is unlikely, projections are for 66% this year and 70% next year.

Comparable trends have been reported from Korea and Thailand. As for Russia and the other successor States of the USSR, in addition to the millions unemployed, there are millions of workers still in formal employment who are not getting paid for several months at a time. For all of these, in the absence of serious social safety nets, the informal sector provides the only possibility of survival.

These are not short term trends, nor trends that are reversible in the short term. Even if they are the results of policy decisions which are by their nature reversible, a reversal involving the adoption of different macroeconomic policies at a global scale depends on a fundamental shift in global power relations between labour and capital, and whether such a shift can be brought about depends in turn, at least partially, on the very question whether the informal sector can be organized by unions. Even assuming that a shift of global economic policy can occur in the short term, its effects will be felt at the earliest in about a decade or two. Meanwhile, the labour movement cannot afford several decades of continuing decline.

The other factor that has contributed to the growth of the informal sector in the last twenty years or so has been the changing structure of transnational enterprise. The modern enterprise is essentially an organizer of production carried out on its behalf by others. Its core will include the management and the employees at corporate headquarters and possibly a core labour force of highly skilled technicians. This core directs production and sales, controls subcontracting, decides at short notice what will be produced where, when, how and by whom and where certain markets will be supplied from and it may also perform key manufacturing processes but the company’s real product is the label, design, marketing, its skills in organizing production and distribution and quality control.

Most of the production of the goods it sells and in any case all labour-intensive operations, will be subcontracted, also internationally. This type of company will be the coordinator of cascading subcontracting operations which will not be part of its structure but will nevertheless be wholly dependent on it, with wages and conditions deteriorating as one moves from the centre of operations to its periphery.

The footwear company Nike does not regard itself as a manufacturer, but as a “research, development and marketing company.” Toyota, in 1991, had 36,000 subcontractors. A significant part of the production of companies such as General Motors, General Electric, Kodak, Caterpillar, Bull, Olivetti, Siemens is carried out by others. United Brands has turned a large part of its banana plantation workforce into “independent farmers” who continue to produce for it and are wholly dependent on the company buying their product.

By cutting down on the hard core of permanent full-time workers, by decentralizing and by subcontracting all but the indispensable core activities, by relying wherever possible on unstable forms of labour (casual, part-time, seasonal, on call, etc.) management reduces its labour costs through the deregulation of the labour market. The outer circle of this system is the informal sector: the virtually invisible world of micro-enterprises and home workers.

The informal sector is an integral part of global production and marketing chains. What is particular to the informal sector is the absence of rights and social protection of the workers involved in it; in every other respect, and particularly from the economic point of view, the formal and informal sectors form an integral whole.

The deregulation of the labour market is also a strategy for eliminating the trade union movement. Sub-contracting is a well-traveled road to evading legal responsibilities and obligations. The fragmentation and dispersion of the labour force, its constant destabilization by the introduction of new components (women, youth, migrants of different origins) in sectors without trade union tradition (computerization, services), the pressure for maximum profits (productivity) together with management intimidation – all these are obstacles to trade union organization.

The decline of trade union density in most industrialized countries in the 1980s and 1990s is less due to transfers of production and relocations to the South and to the East than has been often assumed (although such transfers have of course played a significant part). More important, however, has been the deconstruction of the formal sector and the deregulation of the labour market in the heartland of industrial trade unionism.

Japan and the United States, for example, have lost half their trade union members over a period of 40 years, whereas New Zealand and Portugal have lost half their trade union members in only 10 years, and Israel lost three quarters of its trade union membership in the same 10 years.

In Japan, union density declined from a high of 56% in 1950 to 28% in 1990, essentially because of subcontracting, and it continues to decline (by 16.7% between 1985 and 1995). In the United States, union density peaked at 35.5% in 1945 and now stands at 14%. Some other examples of the decline of union density in the decade 1985 to 1995: Argentina: 42.6%, Mexico: 28.2%, United States: 21.1%; Venezuela: 42.6%, Australia: 29.6%, New Zealand: 55.1%, Austria: 19.2%, Czech Republic: 44.3%, France: 37.2%, Germany: 17.6%, Greece: 33.8%, Hungary: 25.3%, Israel: 77.0%, Poland: 42.5%, Portugal: 50.2%, United Kingdom: 27.7%. (2)

The unions which have resisted this trend are those in countries where most of social regulation has been maintained (between 1985 and 1995 union density increased by 2.3% in Denmark, by 16.1% in Finland, by 3.6% in Norway, by 8.7% in Sweden, by 35.8% in Malta) or where unions have benefited from a favourable political situation (in the same decade, union density increased in South Africa by 130.8%, in the Philippines by 84.9%, in Spain by 62.1%). These are exceptional situations.

The deconstruction of the formal sector through outsourcing and sub-contracting is a long-term trend which cannot be reversed unless we can change the cost/benefit calculations of companies when it comes to their employment policies. In practice, this means organizing the global labour market to an extent where companies – and governments at their service – no longer have either the power or the incentive to create and maintain inequalities.

Together with the impact of the economic crises, the deconstruction of the formal sector has led to a decline of trade union organization everywhere: in leading industrialized countries as well as developing countries and transition countries. This means that the stabilization of what remains of the trade union movement in the formal sector now depend on the organization of the informal sector. Only by organizing the informal sector can the trade union movement maintain the critical mass in terms of membership and representativity it needs to be a credible social and political force.

It should be stressed here that any strategy based on the gradual re-absorption of the informal sector into the formal sector, let alone on the “elimination” of the informal sector (by decree? by extermination?) is programmed to fail (see also BP/TUIS/99, p. 19 and 30). In the current global economic and political context, no state or regional grouping of states has the ability or the political will to set in motion the macroeconomic changes that would create universal full employment under regulated conditions. On the contrary, for the foreseeable future we can expect more deregulation and a further growth of the informal sector. The issue is therefore not “formalizing” the “informal” but protecting the unprotected.

What is the informal sector?
The informal sector covers a multiplicity of activities and different types of relationship to work and to employment (BP/TUIS/99, Chapter 1.3, pp. 5 to 7). WIEGO’s working definition of the informal sector includes: self-employed (in own account activities and family businesses), paid workers in informal enterprises, unpaid workers in family businesses, casual workers without fixed employer, sub-contract workers linked to informal enterprises, sub-contract workers linked to formal enterprises.

It is, however, possible to define it in several ways and general statements that apply under one definition will cease to be valid under another. In our view, its definition and the general propositions that follow should be functional (in terms of our purpose, which is organization).

The point of departure of our definition should be the situation of the worker as the worker perceives it. It should include not only self-employed workers but all those who are not directly employed with a formal sector firm (even if the end product of their work is connected, three or four times removed at the end of a subcontracting chain, to a formal sector firm). Informal sector work takes place in a rural as well as in an urban context and is as important in agriculture (BP/TUIS/99, p. 28) as it is in certain industries.

At the end of the day, everyone who works in a dependent situation is a worker: street vendors, homeworkers, tenant farmers, artisans, fishermen (or fisherwomen), collectors of forest produce are workers. The traditional concept of a worker, reflected in the legislation of many countries, is based on a direct employee/employer relationship. As this relationship is being replaced by a variety of more diffused and indirect – but nonetheless dependent – relationships in the process of production, trade union organizing can no longer focus primarily on the employment relationship but should focus instead on the worker and on his/her needs for protection and representation.

The most important general statement that can be made about informal sector workers, which is valid under any definition and crucial in terms of organizing, is that the majority of them are women workers. A majority of workers expelled from the formal sector by the global economic crisis are women. As the ICFTU has reported (“From Asia to Russia to Brazil – The Cost of the Crisis”, May 1999), women are the principal victims of the precarization of labour and the pauperization created by the crisis and have therefore massively entered the informal sector in the last two years.

Even before the crisis, however, women constituted most of the informal labour force (child labour is also strongly represented). The very great majority of home workers are women (and home work represents as much as 40 to 50% of labour in certain key export sectors, such as garments and footwear, in Latin America and Asia); women are also the great majority of street vendors in informal markets (which in certain African countries represent up to 30% of the urban labour force).

Although export processing zones (or free trade zones) do not fall into the terms of reference of this symposium, it is worth noting here that also 90% of EPZ labour are women and that in the majority of cases workers’ rights and social protection are non existent also in EPZs. What they have in common with informal sector workers is that they are in both cases unprotected, largely unorganized, female labour. In Central America, organizing women workers in the EPZs has come about mainly as a result of work by women NGOs who have always supported unionization of women workers (see also BP/TUIS/99, Box 10, p. 50).

How to organize the informal sector
The obvious points of departure in seeking to organize informal sector workers are the successful experiences of this kind of organization that already exist. What is true of all workers is also true of informal sector workers: they are best organized by their own.

Two general cases exist: the first is that a traditional union extends its field of activity to include informal sector workers. For example, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) is successfully organizing homeworkers in its sector. UNITE in Canada also organizes homeworkers in the garment industry. Another example (BP/TUIS/99, p. 49) is the Timber and Woodworkers’ Union of Ghana. Or, a national trade union centremight create an organization for informal sector workers, as the national centre UDTS did in Senegal. (BP/TUIS/99, p. 46). In Hong Kong, the HKCTU assisted in the establishment of the Asian Domestic Workers’ Union (mostly Filipino and Thai women). Unions in Benin, Brazil (Força Sindical), Colombia, Germany (IG Metall), Italy (FILTEA-CISL) and the Netherlands (FNV Vrouwenbond), among others, also organize and/or bargain for home workers. SIBTTA, the embroiderer’s union in Madeira, has been organizing homebased workers for 25 years and currently has about 8,000 members; it may be the union with the longest history of organizing homeworkers.

The second case is that of new trade unions created specifically to organize informal sector workers. An early case, and an example to many, has been the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India, which started twenty-five years ago with a few hundred members and now numbers over 210,000 members in four Indian federal states. SEWA organizes homeworkers, street vendors, paper pickers and refuse collectors, etc. It has created an infrastructure of flanking services: a bank providing micro-credit, a vocational and trade union training programme  at different levels, producers’ cooperatives (artisans, agricultural producers), service cooperatives (health, housing).
SEWA is affiliated to three ITSs (ICEM, ITGLWF, IUF) and has joined with other unions to establish a national trade union centre in India concentrating on informal sector workers.

In South Africa, the Self Employed Women’s Union (SEWU), a COSATU affiliate, has been organized along the same lines and, recently, moves have been made to set up a similar organization in Turkey.

In addition to its ITS affiliations, SEWA is active in two international networks of informal sector workers. One is the International Alliance of Street Vendors, or StreetNet, which includes organizations or support groups in eleven countries. It was founded in 1995 and adopted, the same year, the “Declaration of Bellagio” on the rights of street vendors. Its coordinator is Pat Horn (SEWU, South Africa). The second one is HomeNet, a network of unions, such as SEWA, SEWU, TCFUA and SIBTTA, which represent homeworkers, as well as other associations of homeworkers (in Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand). Its coordinator is Jane Tate (Leeds, UK).

HomeNet and StreetNet, together with SEWA, certain other unions and support groups at universities and in international organizations, have formed another international network, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing) (see Introduction). WIEGO seeks to work at different levels: research, policy proposals, coalition building.

Partnerships between unions and NGOs have helped organize informal sector workers. At European Union level, the European Homeworking Group has brought together a coalition of those involved with homeworkers (unions, NGOs, church organizations, researchers). The work of this group was one factor in influencing the majority of European governments to support the ILO Home Workers’ Convention in 1995 and 1996.

In the UK, there are many local projects (NGOs or local authority schemes) and a national campaigning organization, the National Group on Homeworking. This group has led the campaign for homeworkers to be included in the national minimum wage and has been a major influence on government policy, public awareness and trade union policy on home work.

There are other examples. At one stage in Greece, street committees were organized to represent homeworkers. In Portugal (mainland) work is being done through local rural organizations as well as trade unions. In the UK, a homeworkers’ association was set up in one area.

In rural areas, and for obvious reasons in predominantly agricultural countries, there are a number of informal sector unions. SEWA, for one, also organizes rural informal sector workers, such as gum collectors. In India itself, another example, and there could be several, is the HKMP (BP/TUIS/99, Box 16, p. 59). Another example in Latin America is the landless workers movement of Brazil (Movimento Sim Terra – MST), which is currently facing repression in its struggles to occupy unused land belonging to large landowners. In the Brazilian federal state of Parana, the MST has established 82 encampments on unused land, with 7,000 families involved and has resisted police efforts to dislodge these encampments. Since 1980, over one thousand people have been killed in Brazil by hired killers and police in the struggle over land, including many organizers of the MST and of other unions. Very few of these murders have been cleared up. On August 19, a court in Rio de Janeiro acquitted three commanding officers of a military police commando which killed 19 MST members on April 17, 1996 at Carajas. The MST is a member of an international network of landless peasants and small peasants called Via Campesina. (see also BP/TUIS/99, pp. 6 and 28).

In summary: informal sector workers are already organizing, partly in existing union structures originating in the formal sector, partly into new unions created by themselves, partly into associations which are sometimes described as NGOs but which are often in fact proto-unions. International networks of informal sector workers already exist. The experience, activities and organizational structures created in this way are valuable resources and points of leverage for the entire trade union movement, also at international level. They are either already a part of the trade union movement, or they are its closest partners and allies. Any discussion and planning on organizing the informal sector should include as a matter of course those who are already doing the job.

Notes on a programme for the informal sector
A programme of organizing the informal sector and at the same time defending the informal sector workers’ interests has to have two aspects: an external and an internal one. The external programme consists of the demands directed outside of the labour movement (to employers, public authorities, international organizations, etc.). The internal programme focuses on what the labour movement itself has to do to improve its capacity to organize and represent informal sector workers.

External programme
WIEGO proposes that the following points be included in a labour movement agenda of demands for the informal sector:
International Labour Standards: several international labour standards relevant to the informal sector exist (BP/TUIS/99, pp. 15-18 and 31). They should be used as organizing and campaigning tools. For example: in 1996, the International Labour Conference adopted the Home Work Convention (No. 177) and Recommendation No. 184 thanks to vigorous and coordinated lobbying by three ITSs (ICEM, ITGLWF and IUF), the ICFTU Equality Department, the FNV, SEWA and HomeNet. It is a matter of regret for WIEGO that this coalition, which proved effective and powerful, did not remain in place as an action group after the adoption of the two international instruments, which have so far only been ratified by two countries (Finland and Ireland) – enough to take effect, but not nearly enough to get the attention of a majority of governments and international organizations.

The ratification of Convention No. 177 and Recommendation No. 184 should be a continuing campaign theme for the international trade union movement and its allies.

The Bureau for Workers’ Activities points out – for the consideration of the participants in the symposium – that “the absence of a similar degree of coordination and cooperation was a factor in the failure to adopt an ILO instrument on contract labour in 1998.” It suggests that “the experience with Convention No. 177 should be examined with a view to mobilizing international support to bring contract labour rapidly back onto the agenda of the International Labour Conference and working towards the adoption of a strong Convention on this issue.” (BP/TUIS/99, p. 32). WIEGO wholeheartedly endorses this suggestion.

Social Protection and Services: the guiding principle on social protection should be that all workers need social protection (health, life and property insurance, old age security and safety nets) as well as social services (health, education and child care), irrespective of their position in the process of production. This also applies to homeworkers who are own-account (self-employed) workers, i.e. do not have an easily identifiable single employer, even though they may be a part of chains of production leading to big companies.

Micro-enterprise development has been seen by some as the answer for own-account home-based workers. We regard these views as inspired by neo-liberal doctrine without any relationship to what happens in the real world. As the Bureau of Workers’ Activities has pointed out, “for the vast majority of dependent and own-account workers the informal sector is not a stepping stone to improvement but a strategy for survival.” (BP/TUIS/99, Preface, p. iii).

HomeNet has stated that its experience has shown that collective organization is essential not only for piece-rate home workers, who may have a more direct relation to an employer, but for the majority of own-account workers as well: “In today’s international trading environment, a growing number of workers are outside legal regulations as ‘workers’ or ’employees’ and collective organization is becoming increasingly important.” It follows that also in the case of own-account workers social protection schemes need to be discussed and negotiated with organizations.

SEWA’s work shows that workers themselves can provide better social security systems than the State and the ILO’s STEP programme is “based on the assumption that the extension of social protection to the informal sector is not feasible through national systems of social security.” (BP/TUIS/99, pp. 36 and 37). Whether this is generally true, and to what extent, remains to be proven. In any event, however, the State remains responsible.

The question then is how can the State strengthen and help develop alternative systems that may be developed by informal sector organizations, through funds, political and technical support, and making the employers accountable. Political support includes providing the legal space and framework for trade unions and informal sector organizations to provide social support services for all workers. In such cases, the State would remain responsible but would play an enabling rather than an implementing role.

At the same time, it remains “vital to ensure that formal sector employers do not see (voluntary grass roots schemes) as a cheap substitute for social security and thus as an encouragement to informalize more of their activities” (BP/TUIS/99, p. 37). Extension of the State systems already in place must remain on the agenda of all workers’ organizations.

The ILO could be a forum for a discussion amongst trade union organizations including informal sector workers’ organizations on the evolution of social protection systems to ensure social protection for all workers.

Internal programme
Organizing Strategies: The ILO could also be the most appropriate facilitator for meetings involving all those involved in the issue (unions already organizing informal sector workers (see above), other informal workers’ associations, supportive NGOs, international trade union organizations and international networks of informal sector workers) for the purpose of developing coordinated organizing strategies and practical cooperation in organizing as well as building coalitions and alliances and developing a programme of common demands.

There is a need for an international meeting of this kind (probably the first of several) as well as regional meetings. For example, given that the ILO is running a major programme on homework in eight Latin American countries, it would seem appropriate for the Bureau for Workers’ Activities to convene a regional meeting to be held in Latin America.

Coordination: International trade union organizations should have a contact person for the informal sector that all others involved in the issue can refer to. Every ITS, with the possible exception of the Education International and the Communications International, could have activities and membership in the informal sector. In the ICFTU, the Equality Department has already functioned in practice as a contact point. Such contact points are necessary to provide permanence and continuity to co-operation in organizing and in pushing common demands.

Cooperatives: the creation of cooperatives can be an important flanking support measure for informal sector workers organizations (see also BP/TUIS/99, p. 52) as it already is for unions in many countries. This role of co-operatives and their relevance to informal sector organization could be discussed with information and advice from the International Co-operative Alliance and the ILO Co-operative Branch, among others. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Germany, for example, has a co-operatives department.

Education: BP/TUIS/99 suggests (pp. 52 and 53) that study circles have proved a successful didactic method in organizing women workers in the informal sector. In this context, it may be relevant to note that the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) has recently (starting in 1997) developed an international study circle programme (local study circles linked through Internet discussing the same issue simultaneously in different countries). It may be objected that informal sector workers are unlikely to own a computer or be able to access Internet (unless they are teleworkers), but this strengthens the case for organization: they can be members of organizations that do have access to such technologies, also at local level. In that respect their situation is no different from that of formal sector workers in low paid and low skill jobs. The IFWEA experience has shown that such obstacles can be overcome. One of the international study circles currently under way deals with “Women and the Global Food Industry”.

Others, also conducted in partnership with ITSs, deal with transnational corporations. The programme is described in an IFWEA brochure “Responding to Globalization – International Study Circles” (July 1999). Information about the programme is also available from the IFWEA-ISC website: The IFWEA will work with any labour movement organization and pro-labour NGOs interested in organizing informal sector workers and therefore – of necessity – conducting workers’ education.

At national level, a number of workers’ education institutions and organizations have worked with informal sector workers in their own countries. For example, this year the Workers’ Education Association in Zambia has been instrumental in organizing the Lusaka Street Traders’ Association, which then affiliated to the Zambian Congress of Trade Unions.
HomeNet/StreetNet/WIEGO could produce an educational package to be used with ITSs, the IFWEA, national trade union centres or national unions in organizing campaigns. Popular materials about existing organizations could be developed, people from these organizations could be identified who could talk about their experience and, resources permitting, exchange programs and visits could be organized.

Representation: As we have seen, informal sector workers spontaneously organize, sometimes with the help of unions or supportive NGOs. After the initial stages, they then face the difficulty of sustaining and developing their organizations. One of the main problems is that these organizations usually remain unrecognized by those with whom they need to bargain (public authorities, contractors, etc.). For example, street vendors’ organizations should be recognized by the police and municipal authorities and home workers’ organizations by the labour department, the contractors and the employers. Their international networks should be recognized by the appropriate international institutions. In general, this is not the case today.

A related issue is that policies that affect informal sector workers are made without consultation with their organizations and therefore against their interests. For example, urban planners never consult street vendors and hence never plan for them. In some cases, collectors of forest produce have to sell to forest departments at prices determined by committees where the collectors have no representation and no role. Except for as yet rare instances where they have achieved genuine bargaining power and legal protection, homeworkers and domestic workers remain unprotected from employers who offer work on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. This lack of visibility and recognition has been an obstacle to the growth of informal sector organizations and in some cases a threat to their survival.

A successful organizing strategy therefore requires securing recognition and representation at the different levels required, in the first place for the organizations that already exist. The trade union movement is in the best position to help informal sector workers secure such recognition and representation. The first step would be to make a start in the movement itself and in the institutions where it is represented.

At the present time, informal sector workers are generally not represented in the institutions and organizations of the labour movement. Even though individual trade unions do organize informal sector workers in an number of cases (see above), national trade union federations make no provision for their representation within their structures. The same is true for the international trade union federations. Within the ILO structures informal sector workers are not represented.

National trade union centres, the ITSs, the ICFTU and the ETUC should examine ways in which appropriate forms of representation of informal sector workers can be introduced in their structures, as well as ways in which formal cooperation with existing informal sector organizations can be established. The contact points suggested above could be a starting point. A working party could also be formed for that purpose, with a clear mandate to bring the organizations in, not to keep them out.

The ILO should establish a special section to service informal sector workers, preferably within the Bureau for Workers Activities.






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Total employment outside formal sector