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.
ILO Report: 52 Million Domestic Workers Worldwide.
January 9, 2013—Some 52 million people over age 15—primarily women—labor as domestic workers around the world, according to a report released today by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Of those, 83 percent are women. The vast number of domestic workers, 21.4 million, are in Asia and the Pacific region, with 19.6 million in Latin America, 5.2 million in Africa and 2.1 million in the Middle East.
South African Fights for a New Generation of Domestic Workers.
December 12, 2012—Gladys Mnyengeza has been a domestic worker in Cape Town, South Africa, for about 40 years—and knows full well the problems and rewards that come with a job traditionally undervalued and performed by workers at the margins of society. Her experience has made her a tireless advocate for the rights of domestic workers. Mnyengeza, like domestic workers everywhere, holds down several part-time positions providing critical household support for families. Across the world today, domestic workers like Mnyengeza are mobilizing to promote ratification of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
South Africa Domestic Workers Hold First-Ever National Meeting.
December 7, 2012—Dozens of leaders of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) gathered recently in Cape Town in a first-ever national conference to plan organizing and advocacy goals.
"12 by 12" Campaign: Uruguay First Country to Ratify C189.
April 26, 2012—Trade union activists, as well as domestic workers, are thrilled to see a breakthrough in the "12 by 12" campaign: Uruguay made history by being the first country to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention No. 189 (C189), Decent Work for Domestic Workers.
Georgia: Establishing Formal Agreements for Workers in Informal Markets.
January 31, 2012—With a labor code that disadvantages workers and an increasingly hostile attitude toward the rights of working people, the Republic of Georgia is no easy place to join or persist in a union. This is particularly true for people trying to eke out a living in the informal economy. Still, the Trade Union of Self-Employed Commercial and Independent Sector Workers of Georgia, begun in August 2011, has established roots and is working to protect the rights of its 200 members, primarily market workers, according to Miranda Mandaria, the union’s acting president.
A Meeting with Mr. Tikka Khan.
January 12, 2012—Tikka Khan is the lifelong secretary general of the All-Pakistan Akhbaar Farosh Federation (APAFF), an 80,000-member union of newspaper delivery persons affiliated with the Pakistan Workers Federation. Khan is the proprietor of M/S Modern News Agency, which delivers around 600 newspapers daily. He is also the editor of the Daily Mussalman, which prints 50,000 copies daily.
Organizing Workers in the Informal Economy: A Global Challenge and Imperative.
December 5, 2011—The majority of workers around the world eke out a living in the informal economy, left vulnerable to exploitation and caught in a hand-to-mouth existence. They are largely unprotected by the laws of their country and excluded from the social benefits that formal workers consider their right.
Solidarity Center Publications