A global economy that relies on low-wage production to keep profits high has pushed more and more workers out of good jobs and into the informal economy. Around the world, work is increasingly outsourced, subcontracted, temporary, and part-time—leaving workers with no benefits or social protections. This trend has increased the size of the informal economy and forced many workers out of the political, legal and economic mainstream, without a voice in their workplaces or communities. In some developing countries today, the informal economy exceeds 90 percent of total employment.
||Working with union partners and other allied groups around the world, the Solidarity Center helps empower informal workers to stand up for their rights and raise their living standards. Photo by Solidarity Center
Informal workers clean houses, collect refuse, park cars, drive taxis, sell food on the street and sew garments in their homes. In construction and agriculture, they seek out jobs as day laborers. At worksites, in factories, and even in schools, they are temporary or contract employees, hired over and over, always short-term. Informal employment is irregular and unreported.
Informal workers often have no single employer, no contract, no set wage, and no health care, pension or other benefits that formally employed workers enjoy. Informal work exists in every country. It supports and is often the very foundation of the formal economy. Women and migrant workers make up a disproportionate share of informal workers.
Because unions are the primary promoters of worker rights and social protections worldwide, their support for informal workers is crucial. By supporting informal workers’ organizing efforts, unions enable these workers to build power and gain an economic and political voice. By working together on common goals, formal and informal workers help ensure that all work is fair, secure, and protected.
In 2002, the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed a resolution, “Decent Work and the Informal Economy,” that recognized the huge barriers to organizing informal workers. The resolution called on member states to treat the goal of decent work as an equal aspiration for all working people, formal and informal workers alike, and for governments to create conditions for all workers to achieve decent work and a decent life in conditions of dignity and equality.
In June 2011, the ILO passed Convention 189, "Decent Work for Domestic Workers." Convention 189 sets international labor standards for domestic work. The convention requires governments that ratify it to ensure that domestic workers are covered by the ILO core labor standards, which include the freedom to form unions, elimination of forced labor, abolition of child labor and elimination of discrimination.
The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement to raise awareness about the informal economy. Working with union partners and other allied groups around the world, the Solidarity Center helps empower informal workers to stand up for their rights and raise their living standards. The issues, needs and experiences of informal workers were the focus of a December 2011 conference held in Cape Town, South Africa, and organized by the Solidarity Center. With the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the conference brought together informal workers, union leaders and researchers from around the world to explore ideas and strategies for helping precarious workers improve their lives and livelihoods.
Solidarity Center Reports
- Trade Unions Organizing Workers "Informalized from Above": Case Studies from Cambodia, Colombia, South Africa, and Tunisia (Rutgers, 2013)
- Trade Union Organizing in the Informal Economy: A Review of the Literature on Organizing in Africa, Asia, Latin America, North America and Western, Central and Eastern Europe (WIEGO, 2013)
- Informal Workers and Collective Bargaining: Case Studies from India, Georgia, Brazil, Liberia and Uruguay (WIEGO, 2013)
- Informal Workers' Organizing (WIEGO, 2013)
- Legal and Policy Tools to Meet Informal Workers' Demands: Lessons from India (WIEGO, 2012)
- Tools for Organizers in Export Processing Zones and Industries (2007).