Transport Workers: Data Constraints & Gaps

Transportation worker, Philippines

There are limited reliable and up-to-date data on livelihoods of workers in the informal transport sector. The three available major sources are:

  • studies undertaken by the ILO in 1989, Social and Labour Aspects of Urban Passenger Transport in Selected African Cities, which drew heavily on an earlier Mazingira Institute study in Kenya in 1982
  • the Robert Cervero study for UN Habitat in 2000, Informal Transport in the Developing World
  • reports commissioned by the International Transport Federation (ITF) in 2006, Organising Informal Transport Workers, based on case studies undertaken in Benin, Philippines and Zambia

None of these studies focus on workers’ livelihoods. The 1989 ILO research was a very broad survey of the sector, describing transport demand and supply, public transport users, cost structures and profitability, operational issues and policy options. It included some discussion of workers’ livelihoods and working conditions, but was based on thin evidence and is now out of date. The 2000 Cervero study for UN Habitat and subsequent work are more detailed, but the primary aim was to review the market, organizational and regulatory characteristics of informal transport. The livelihoods of the transport operators are simply treated as “supply” characteristics of the market.

From these studies, it is very difficult to draw conclusions about the core issue of earnings as the data are collected from  different countries at different periods. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the informal transport industry, particularly in passenger transport, has increased substantially in many countries over the last 20 years, due to urban population growth and privatization or collapse of state-owned bus and rail services, so data collected in the 1980s and 1990s cannot be considered reliable.

In addition, it is also often not clear whether earnings stated are gross earnings, or whether they are net figures after deductions. The deductions themselves are very substantial, difficult to measure and complex. They include cost of fuel, lease of vehicle, interest on loans, , boundary charges, bribes, taxes, terminal/bus station fees, payments to touts, and so on. These may often amount to very large proportions of gross earnings. The assumptions and methods underlying most available data on earnings make it difficult to assess real net income. Data on very large numbers of workers in the sector, notably those in casual wage labour, are unavailable.

The ILO and UN Habitat studies are also wholly concerned with passenger transport, and do not cover the many other urban informal transport sectors, for example transport of goods, loading at depots and stations, informal employment around rail terminals, messenger services.

The ITF studies, while much more up to date and focused on informal workers in the transport sector, are primarily concerned with the documentation and analysis of workers’ organizing experiences, and strategies and methods of organizing unions appropriate to their needs. The scope of the research also encompasses all informal transport workers, not just those in the urban environment (i.e., includes fishery workers, mountain porters, port workers, water transport, etc). Nevertheless, the studies do contain some useful indicators of livelihoods and problems faced by informal transport workers.