The issues, needs, and experiences of informal workers were the focus of a two-day 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 December 2–3 meeting 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.

View the Conference Agenda, with links to presentations and resource materials.

Download the Conference Summary and Proceedings

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.

Caught up in a daily struggle to make ends meet, workers in the informal economy—among them domestic workers, street and market vendors, agricultural and day laborers, and workers who have been pushed from permanent jobs into short-term, temporary work—often cannot organize and fight for better working conditions, fair pay, and a life with dignity.

The global reality is that the number of workers in the informal economy is growing. They are increasingly marginalized and poor. And their situation has serious human rights and economic development implications for workers everywhere.

Workers, union representatives, and academics who participated in the conference all agreed that the very nature of informal work—including its unpredictability, lack of legal protections, mobility of workers (e.g., street vendors), and the tendency to isolate them (e.g., domestic workers)—complicates efforts to bring them together under a traditional organizing model. Still, participants concurred, it is imperative that they organize so that they may fight for and defend their rights and be active participants in their societies.

“For the global working class, it is through organizing that working people can make their voices heard with employers and governments. And it is through organizing that once-isolated and exploited individuals can come together and challenge their conditions—and improve them,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center.

Some informal workers are finding their voice and coming together to address injustices. Many unions and worker organizations are stepping up to the challenge of reaching out, organizing, and supporting these workers.

Despite the odds against them, workers and representatives of worker organizations described how they have overcome significant challenges and wrought key victories. For example:

  • Domestic workers—integrating into a national trade union center in Asia, and winning a new convention on decent work at the International Labor Organization.
  • Female beer promoters—mitigating stigma and integrating into the supply chain of a formal-sector beverage company.grant workers—creating the Migrant Workers’ Front under the national union center in Sri Lanka.
  • Newspaper deliverers—organizing a nationwide network and winning improved wages and status for workers who deliver newspapers in Pakistan.
  • Self-employed workers—implementing new marketing and production models to help small cooperatives sell their products in Brazil.
  • Market venders—establishing the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations and kinking the group to the national trade union center.
  • Taxi drivers—organizing as a union of “independent contractors” with the New York Taxi Workers Alliance in the United States.
  • Agricultural workers—organizing migrant farm workers worldwide through a global union federation.

Researchers from Solidarity Center partners Rutgers University and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) also presented preliminary results from what will be multiyear studies on various aspects and sectors of the informal economy.

“The process of globalization has, in effect, put all of the labor market structures that we know at risk. No one is safe,” said Sue Schurman, acting dean of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. “Globalization is driving workers from a high-wage economy into a more precarious, informal economy.”

Over the coming years, the Solidarity Center and its partners will work to better understand the issues and commonalities of informal workers and the economy they support around the world. It is an organizational priority, said Bader-Blau, to support their fight for social justice and to seek innovative solutions and linkages that will help them earn a more dignified life.

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