In Nigeria, through a coordinated campaign by the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA), West African Informal Sector Workers Network Working Group, Federation of Informal Workers’ Organizations of Nigeria (FIWON), Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), unions are demanding increased government investment in healthcare for informal-sector workers and their families—including the provision of adequate hospitals and clinics in marginalized communities.
“Healthcare is a human right!” said FIWON General Secretary Gbenga Komolafe at a press conference in Abuja this month, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed Nigeria’s inadequate healthcare system, especially in the informal sector. “We will use all available legitimate means to push this campaign. We will do rallies and protest on the street.”
NLC and TUC representatives at the conference also lent their organization’s support to the campaign.
Although the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) recommends that member states allocate 15 percent of their budget to healthcare, Nigeria budgets only 4 to 6 percent—among the lowest in Africa, said Komolafe.
“We now have a responsibility to … call on government to put more funding into social protection, especially healthcare,” said Odah.
OTUWA’s “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign, launched in Abuja in March last year, unites OTUWA affiliates in a fight for equal and fair health care access for all who live within the ECOWAS region.
2 billion informal-sector workers comprising 61 percent of the world’s workforce are not covered or are insufficiently covered by laws or working arrangements guaranteed to formal workers. Although informal-economy workers create more than one-third of the world’s gross national product, they have little power to advocate for social security benefits like healthcare, living wages and safe and secure work. 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 an International Labor Organization (ILO) study.
Three trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors yesterday. The agreements formalize efforts by affiliates of the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) to organize workers in Kenya’s outsized and growing informal sector and make union representation of 5,600 newly organized informal workers official. With these agreements, for the first time, Kenya’s trade unions have brought informal-sector workers such as vendors, cleaners, autobody workers and mechanics under the union umbrella, giving them access to the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.
“We are so excited. We have a dependable partner. Things will get better for us from now on,” said Grogon/Ngara Food Vendors Association Chairman Peter Ndirangu.
The agreements were signed during a public ceremony on October 29, 2019. Signatory organizations include the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW), Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) and the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW) together with their respective informal worker associations.
“We will walk together; we will fight together; we will learn together,” said AUKMW General Secretary and COTU-K Women’s Committee National Chair Rose Omamo—who is also a former mechanic.
“The three unions are not waiting until they have no more members, they are aggressively organizing informal workers,” said United Domestic Workers of America AFSCME Local 3930 Executive Director Doug Moore, who attended the signing in a show of solidarity by his local’s 91,000 members. Moore is also a member of the Solidarity Center’s Board of Trustees.
Informal associations represented in the agreements include the Ambira Jua Kali Association, the Eastleigh Hawkers Association, Grogon/Ngara and Muthurwa food vendors, the Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group and the Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF).
Until now, working women and men in Kenya’s informal economy have been left outside the legal framework that protects formal workers, and so they have little power to advocate for themselves. Solidarity Center partner COTU-K has focused increasingly in recent years on organizing and formalizing workers in the informal sector with the goal of protecting all workers’ livelihoods and ensuring safe and secure work for all.
A decline in the number of formal jobs is a global trend. Working women and men in the informal economy—among them, day laborers, domestic workers, kindergarten teachers, sugarcane cutters and call center workers—now comprise the majority of the workforce in many countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that two billion people hold jobs in the informal labor market, with the largest percentage of these jobs being in low-income countries.
The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement to help workers come together to gain the knowledge and confidence to assert their rights and raise living standards. In 35 countries, we provide trainings and programs to help precarious workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages.
“Informal workers are organizing and they will organize as long as there is injustice and oppression,” says Sue Schurman, distinguished professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University.
Sue Schurman, distinguished professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, opened the Solidarity Center book launch. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Opening a Solidarity Center book launch and panel discussions on Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective this morning, Schurman also cautioned that unless unions focus on the issues unique to empowering workers who have no direct employer, workers in the informal economy will organize to improve their rights “with or without the existing trade union movement.”
Hosted by the AFL-CIO, the event launched the Solidarity Center daylong 20th Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C., which will culminate tonight with a festive event honoring U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and the Colombian and Honduran labor movements. Rep. Karen Bass and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler will host.
Edited by Schurman, Adrienne E. Eaton and Martha A. Chen, Informal Workers 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. The book was produced by Rutgers and WIEGO with support from the Solidarity Center.
Highlighting the event, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman in Congress, energized participants with an impassioned call to action.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre opened the Solidarity Center book launch on informal workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“This is about people standing up around the world and making it clear we have a very different vision,” she says. “It is about more jobs and better jobs for workers all over the world and that is the work of the Solidarity Center that we are grateful for.
“You are the ones who give me hope, working in countries around the globe in countries where organizing unions is sometimes life and death.”
“The work of the Solidarity Center around the world is very personal,” says AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who addressed the opening session. “I was a refugee and dedicated my life to workers all across this country and world in support of their fights.”
A Broader, More Inclusive Labor Movement
Building a broader and inclusive labor movement by recognizing workers’ intersectionality is essential for unions to organize going forward, according to panelists.
“We can’t organize on the basis of class, or ethnicity, or gender—we must think about multiple identities,” says Janice Fine, associate professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, at Rutgers University.
Fine spoke on “Perspectives on Fighting for Social and Economic Justice for All,” the first of three panels.
Mary Evans from Rutgers discussed how female Cambodia beer sellers improved their status as women in their communities by joining together to better their workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
In Cambodia, where women beer sellers launched a grassroots social justice movement to improve their working conditions, and ultimately joined with unions, women have made tremendous progress in improving their status at work and in their communities, says Mary Evans, Labor Studies professor at Rutgers University.
“Beer worker women wanted dignity at work. There have been huge strides for women in Cambodia” where women have little status, she says.
Speaking about the need for unions to engage in “intersectional” organizing—inclusive, cross identity movement building, AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold says, “ We need to build a campaign from the roots up, not at the place where we get stuck.
“Solidarity is multi-dimensional and horizontal,” she says. “We have to be saying, ‘I look you in the eye,’ not ‘I look down on you.’ ”
“Trade unions have been critical to the fight we are in”—Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla, national coordinator at the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Trade unions have been critical to this fight we are in,” she says. “We have really been intentional about the unions being on the sideline in this struggle … and stand up to government and corporations and be the voice for the workers in this industry.” But the unions have not worked alone, she says. By partnering with women’s advocacy groups and anti-violence networks, unions have broadened their knowledge and expanded their allies in Honduras and around the world.
Argüeta and several Honduran garment workers will accept the honor award on behalf of the Honduran union movement at tonight’s 20th Anniversary Celebration.
Social Movement Unionism
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau described how Tunisian unions joined a countrywide movement for social justice. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connel
Highlighting the Tunisian labor movement’s role in the 2011 Arab spring, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau said unions initially played a supporting role to the grassroots opposition to dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Later, the labor movement made a choice to shift its political support to the people, and by calling a national strike in which 100,000 union members took to the streets, the union movement facilitated the election of a democratic government.
“What the labor movement did was recognize itself in this movement. Bread, freedom and liberty—that’s what the labor movement is about.”
In Buenaventura, Colombia, where port workers were paid low wages with no social protections after their jobs were subcontracted, workers went on strike despite a law prohibiting them from doing so because they were not formally employed, says Dan Hawkins, research director at the Escuela Nacional Sindical in Colombia.
The strike, says Hawkins, empowered the Afro-Colombian community because “it symbolized to people in a racially discriminated city where all people in power are white or mestizo, the importance of port workers standing up for their rights.”
In the Dominican Republic, where informal economy workers have no legal right to form unions, domestic workers joined together in an association to work for their rights, says Fine, who shared the results of her case study from Informal Workers. The efforts of the primarily Haitian women workers were key to moving 2011 passage of International Labor Organization Convention 189 on domestic worker rights, expanding the possibility of decent work to domestic workers around the world.
Summing up the conference discussion, Jayapal says, “Ultimately we need to recognize we need to help workers around the world. We need to take on racism and sexism and xenophobia because that’s what will make the union movement strong.”
Solange Ambroise sells vegetables in the San Cristobal Municipal Market. Credit: Solidarity Center/Ricardo Rojas
Rarely do governments admit failing their citizens. However, on Friday the 193-member states of the United Nations did just that when they voted to rectify their failure to uphold the rights of workers and to ensure decent working conditions for more than half of the world’s working women and men.
By voting for an International Labor Organization (ILO) recommendation, The Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, the large majority of the world’s governments has done more than just pledge to provide the basics for the world most vulnerable workers—those struggling to make ends meet in the informal economy—they have begun the essential process of strengthening society by promoting worker rights.
Street vendors, home-based workers, domestic workers and day-laborers usually work “off the grid” and outside a country’s regulations and labor laws. They join subcontracted, temporary and part-time workers who subsist on the fringes of the formal economy. These jobs typically pay low wages, perpetuate worker and human rights violations, provide limited or no social benefits, and offer little access to union representation. For most of these workers, survival trumps active engagement in society’s daily undertakings.
An estimated 1.5 billion, or approximately 60 percent of the world’s workers, toil in the informal economy, according to the ILO. In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up to 90 percent of available work, and most workers take these unstable jobs out of necessity, not by choice.
Women, migrant workers and the young are disproportionately represented in the informal economy, and often the most exploited. Their situation is exacerbated because they may be barred from joining unions, which could offer support through collective bargaining on wages and working conditions, or because unions have not been able to reach them due to the isolated and changeable nature of their job.
Informalization of work fuels global income inequality, poverty and abuse. For example, at age 22, N. Naga Durga Bhavani left her small village in India for Bahrain, where she hoped a job as a domestic worker would help pay for her young daughter’s heart surgery. But when she arrived, after paying labor recruiters the equivalent of nearly two months’ wages, she says her passport and papers were confiscated, and she was forced to work long hours, trapped in an abusive environment where she was beaten, her fingers broken. After she escaped, the Indian Embassy could not help her leave the country because she had no identification.
And the drag on society does not end with the desperate plight of workers like Bhavani. Businesses employing workers in standard employer-employee relationships find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they compete against those chasing short-term profits by not hiring full-time workers, paying taxes and benefits, or complying with regulations and labor law. Companies that provide financial and business services miss huge swaths of potential clients whose income leaves them too poor to enter the shop door and unable to access credit.
The effects on government are even more profound. The loss of tax revenue on huge percentages of GDP in many countries is only one edge of the sword. Because workers in the informal economy usually hang from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they are more likely to need social safety nets—the very nets their jobs do not support through tax revenue.
Friday’s vote is significant because governments, worker representatives and employer representatives, who usually operate with very different agendas, publicly acknowledged the imperative of providing all workers with rights at work, social benefits and the ability to join a union. Their acknowledgement that the current system does not work—not for working people, not for governments and not for the businesses that serve them—is an important step toward bringing millions of workers into decent jobs that comply with labor codes and allow workers to be stronger members of their society. All of us should applaud the 193 nations for not choosing failure.
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