Georgia: Establishing Formal Agreements for Workers in Informal Markets

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.

“In Georgia, 60 percent of workers are in the informal economy, the majority of them in Tbilisi (the capital). They have no social protections or benefits. They are precarious workers and, while they are very hard to reach, they have rights and deserve protection,” said Mandaria, a lawyer by training who also works for the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).

All of the union’s members today have contracts with their employers. In Georgia, Mandaria added, it is normal for permanent employees to have a contract, which establishes work hours and conditions, but the concept is new for people working in market stalls. In some cases, the Georgian legal code acts against workers, either because of its lack of recognition (i.e., in the case of domestic workers) or because of its draconian treatment (i.e., of street vendors).

“It is good the market workers have a contract, though the working conditions are not always good. At least it offers them some protection,” she said.

The union has faced intimidation by employers. Its biggest difficulty, however, is reaching workers who, like domestic workers, work alone or who cannot count on a fixed location as their workplace.

“It is very difficult to organize street vendors,” she said. “They do not have regular workplaces, and there is no law regulating their rights. They have no paid leave, no insurance, no social protections. They get nothing from the government.”

Exacerbating street vendors’ day-to-day struggles is a law enacted in 2006 that mandates street vendors move to a single location to sell their wares. “And the law makes them pay a tax for that privilege,” Mandaria said. “The fine for violators is the confiscation of their products.”

In 2010, the GTUC drafted a labor code aimed at protecting street vendors. It proposed that street vendors be exempt from taxes until 2012, Mandaria said. The government did not respond to the proposal.

“Street vendors cannot afford taxes, but the government is not interested in social dialogue,” she said. “So I am thinking all the time about what I can do for street vendors, for domestic workers. They need social guarantees to protect their rights.”