Among the world’s most vulnerable workers are those marginalized within their economies and societies, namely the women and labor migrants who predominate in the informal economy, where they perform valuable work in low-wage jobs as janitors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, home healthcare workers, market vendors, day laborers and others. Today, many of these workers are on the coronavirus front lines, risking their health without benefit of paid sick leave, COVID-19 relief programs or personal savings. Others are working where they can, if they can, to survive.
Although more than 2 billion workers globally make their living in the informal economy and can create up to half of a country’s GDP, they have limited power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work, and never more so than during the current pandemic when informal-sector workers are disproportionately falling through the cracks. Due to the failure of governments to build systems of universal social protection, the world is facing the pandemic with 70 percent of all people lacking a safety net, says International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Also, despite their vast numbers—61 percent of the world’s workers work in the informal economy and, in developing countries, that number can rise to 90 percent of a country’s workforce—informal-sector workers are consistently overlooked by legislators and policy makers for economic assistance and legal protections during the current crisis.
A new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that workers earning their livelihoods in the informal economy in 2020 are being forced “to die from hunger or from the virus” and offers a raft of immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations for governments and employers’ organizations to address the crisis. Without urgent action, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points, according to the brief.
The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic have expanded global calls for a new social contract by worker rights organizations that are championing a “build back better” campaign as well as by some businesses that recognize the unsustainability of economic and social structures in which workers absorb the burdens of our economies but not the benefits.
Unions and worker rights activists are stepping into the breach, giving voice to workers’ struggles during lockdown, providing relief where resources allow and banding together to urge governments to provide financial and other social support for informally employed workers, as well as protection from harassment.
- The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer to workers before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce.
- In Zimbabwe, informal economy association ZCIEA is giving voice to vendors’ struggle for survival under quarantine and advocating for their right to operate. In Harare, even though markets are legally open and deemed essential for citizens to secure food, ZCIEA Chitungwiza Territorial President Ratidzo Mfanechiya says that ZCIEA has had to intervene with the town manager, town council and local police to protect Jambanja market vendors’ right to operate free of harassment and forced removal during the five-week lockdown. She is also speaking out against gender-based violence, given that many women are reporting incidents of abuse while trapped at home with partners during lockdown.
- The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
- Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses including small-scale farms.
- Leaders of multiple women’s worker rights movements banded together in May to make a joint call on the world’s governments to collaborate at all levels with domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers during the COVID-19 crisis so that some of the world’s most important systems traditionally propped up by informally-employed women—including food supply, the care economy and waste management—are preserved.
- In India, where an estimated 415 million workers, or 90 percent of the country’s total workforce, toiled in informal-sector jobs in 2017–18, trade unions lobbied Labor Minister Santosh Gangawar for income support and eviction support for more than 40 categories of informal workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, the workforce in informal employment in Africa was 86 percent; in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab states, 70 percent; in the Americas, 40 percent; and in Europe and Central Asia, 25 percent.
Taxi drivers in Ghana, tortilla vendors in Honduras and Asian domestic workers in countries across the Gulf region—all are part of the world’s informal economy, comprising 2 billion workers or 61 percent of the global workforce.
Although informal economy workers create more than one-third of the world’s gross national product, most are either not covered or insufficiently covered by laws or working arrangements guaranteed to formal workers, and have little power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work.
But by joining in unions or other worker associations, workers in the informal economy can gain the collective power they need to make change, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) study.
“Interactions Between Workers’ Organizations and Workers in the Informal Economy: A Compendium of Practice,” highlights 31 examples of how unions around the world have reached out to workers in the informal economy, improved their working conditions, and supported their transition into the formal economy.
“Most people enter the informal economy not by choice but as a consequence of a lack of opportunities in the formal economy and the absence of other means of livelihood,” according to the ILO’s 2015 Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation (No. 204). “The transition to formality is essential for inclusive development and decent work for all.”
Collective Power for 100,000 Zimbabwe Informal Economy Workers
The vast majority of workers in Africa, nearly 86 percent, depend on the informal economy to make a living.
While globally, more men (63 percent) than women (58 percent) work in informal employment, in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the reverse is true. In Africa, nearly 90 percent of employed women are in informal employment compared to 82 percent of men. Women working in the informal economy are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts, for example, as domestic workers who labor in private homes away from the public.
In Zimbabwe, where the proportion of informal employment is more than 94 percent of total employment (including agriculture), the Compendium of Practice explores how the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), undertook a pathbreaking partnership with informal economy workers to advocate for legal changes that would improve their working conditions and livelihoods.
In 2002, ZCTU, a Solidarity Center partner, joined with the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Labor to form the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA). The association now has 30 territories, each with between five and 10 chapters of 500 informal economy members each. As of 2019, there were 100,000 members in 150 associations.
Market Vendors Harassed, Bullied by Authorities
One of the key challenges informal economy workers face in Zimbabwe is harassment and criminalization of the informal economy. Most informal workers often lack the required licenses to operate, which often cost more than they can pay or only can be procured in cities hundreds of miles from where they live.
As a result, informal workers report widespread harassment and bullying by authorities. In a 2016 ZCIEA survey, 81 percent of 514 informal workers said they have been bullied, with 22 percent specifying that the harassment involved both confiscation of goods and threats of violence. Some 36 percent noted the source of harassment stemmed both from the local authorities and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the national police force of Zimbabwe.
In highlighting the Zimbabwe example among its case studies, the Compendium of Practice points to how ZCIEA has negotiated for and come into agreement with various local government authorities on new approaches, such as reviewing laws to regularize informal workers.
“ZCIEA has increased the engagement of informal economy workers in policy discussions,” according to the study.
Working with partners like ZCTU throughout the world, Solidarity Center provides trainings and programs to help informal economy workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages. We connect workers with unions, legal services and pro-worker organizations to challenge exploitation.
Solidarity Center Africa Regional Program Director Imani-Countess and NDI’s Patrick Merloe discussed challenges to democratic transition in Zimbabwe. Credit: Solidarity Center/Shayna Greene
Wage theft and other forms of economic injustice are among the major factors holding Zimbabwe back from a democratic transition, says Imani Countess, Africa regional program director for the Solidarity Center.
Countess spoke at a recent panel discussion in Washington, D.C., “Assessing Zimbabwe’s Election and Prospects for a Democratic Transition,” organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Bringing a labor perspective to the event, Countess described the strong correlation between increased participation in unions and the formation of other democratic institutions.
“There’s absolutely a link between democratic structures, the nature of unions and the role they play in the workplace, and in the nation and the fostering of broader democratic participation, particularly in elections,” says Countess.
Undemocratic practices flourish when workers are trapped in a cycle of economic inequality. Countess gave the example of 200 Zimbabwean women who experienced this type pf hardship firsthand after their husbands had not been paid for five years by the Hwange Colliery Co. Ltd. (HCCL). The company is one of the biggest in Zimbabwe, with the government as its largest shareholder.
Despite exporting to 13 nations including South Africa and China, HCCL owed its workers $70 million in unpaid wages. Often, companies will try to look attractive to foreign investors with competitive prices by engaging in forced labor and wage theft, Countess says.
Company’s Wage Theft Forced Families Turned to Informal Economy
The wives of the HCCL workers first protested in 2013 and were attacked by police. When they began protests again in 2018, they were joined by the Center for Natural Resource Governance, the National Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe (NMWUZ) and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.
Although the mine workers are not union members, Zimbabwe unions stood by the women because they were “the wives of workers,” says Countess. “So the National Union of Mine Workers was there.”
To help feed their families, the women took on informal jobs such as selling in markets and cross-border trading. About 94 percent of Zimbabweans work in the informal economy. Of the 6 percent working permanent jobs, one-third are exposed to wage theft, especially in the extractive sector, says Countess.
“For five years, these women subsidized the Hwange Colliery Co. by supporting their husbands’ ability to work without pay,” she says.
Civil society groups helped mobilize the women in their campaign through workshops on nonviolent strategies for resistance and other skills-building strategies, and opportunities to exchange experiences with women in other mining communities.
Finally, demands were met, ensuring that the women’s husbands were paid and not retaliated against for the actions of their wives.
This is only one example of how unions promote democracy in Zimbabwe despite the country’s challenges, says Countess. Though Zimbabwe is a militarized state with an unenforced constitution, union members are active in community organizations and serve in national election observation groups. For instance, in 2013, unions came together representing 15 countries in the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC) region to participate in an observation mission in Zimbabwe.
“Mass-based organizations working together with communities can be powerful actors of change,” says Countess.
Also on the panel were Patrick Merloe, senior associate and director for Electoral Programs at the National Democratic Institute, and Elizabeth Lewis, deputy director for Africa at the International Republican Institute.
Following years of campaigning by domestic workers and their allies across Brazil, the government in recent days ratified the International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189), a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave. Brazil is the twenty-fifth country to ratify Convention 189 and the fourteenth in the Americas region.
Since the ILO passed the convention in 2011, the National Federation of Domestic Workers (FENATRAD), the National Confederation of Retail and Service Workers (CONTRACS) and the Central Union of Workers (CUT) were among unions pushing for its ratification, ultimately securing 1.2 million signatures urging the government to ratify the measure.
In a statement celebrating ratification, FENATRAD also vows to continue in the “daily struggle for dignity, valorization and recognition of domestic work, work that moves and creates conditions for other workers to dedicate themselves to productive activities.”
Brazil Economy Slumps as Labor Rights Attacked
The majority of the 7 million domestic workers in Brazil are women, primarily indigenous people and Afro-Brazilians. Brazil’s slumping economy has seen a sharp increase of workers in the informal-sector jobs, with 121,000 domestic worker jobs created between December 2014 and April 2017. At the same time, more than 3.2 million jobs were lost in the formal private sector and some 600,000 jobs lost in the public sector, according to the Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies in Brazil (DIEESE).
Further, more than 9 million people have been pushed below the poverty line since 2015 and 800,000 Brazilians entered the ranks of the unemployed between January and August 2017.
Although workers are celebrating passage of the Domestic Workers Convention, they say a labor reform law passed last year severely weakens their fundamental rights on the job. The law in part dismantles provisions on overtime pay and working hours; creates new forms of precarious contracting, such as “zero-hour” contracts that do not guarantee a minimum wage; and permits pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers to work in unhealthy environments.
The law also disproportionately impacts historically disadvantaged workers, such as women and Afro-Brazilians, who earn less and are much more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than their white male counterparts.
“The convention is to guarantee decent work, unlike the new law that removes basic rights of the worker and the worker,” says Myllena Calazans, a lawyer with FENATRAD.
With Solidarity Center support, FENATRAD recently registered as a national federation, became a member of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and is connecting with regional domestic worker organizations.
The Solidarity Center is also assisting the federation in education and outreach, including creation of a crossword puzzle magazine that informs Brazilian domestic workers about their rights. Many domestic workers spend numerous hours on public transportation commuting to and from work and do crossword puzzles during their commutes.
As the number of workers in the informal economy increase around the world, the result is that more and more workers are low paid, with few or no social benefits or job security. In the Dominican Republic, where many in the informal economy are Haitian migrants, the union movement successfully organized those who work in construction and, in the case of domestic workers, played a key role in pushing for passage of the International Labor Organization Domestic Worker Rights Convention 189.
The Dominican Republic labor movement’s strategies for success will be among the examples discussed November 15 during the Solidarity Center launch of the new book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective. (The event in Washington, D.C., is free. RSVP here.) The book collects case studies from union campaigns in such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and Colombia, bringing together in one volume a compendium of academic field research and concrete grassroots examples
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and international worker rights advocates will explore how unions are using social and economic justice tools to organize workers and share their successes with others seeking dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.
Celebrate Solidarity Center’s 20th Anniversary!
The book launch is part of the Solidarity Center’ daylong 20th Anniversary events, which include a festive celebration at Longview Gallery from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., in Washington, D.C.
RSVP for the book launch here. Buy a ticket to the celebration here.
You also can become an event sponsor or make a donation to support the Solidarity Center’s next 20 years and stand with us to assert the fundamental rights of people at work!
Informal Workers and Collective Action was edited by Adrienne E. Eaton, Susan J. Schurman, Martha A. Chen and produced by Rutgers and WIEGO with support from the Solidarity Center.