Gateway for Lawyers

Resources for lawyers and other advocates of workers in the informal economy

At the Nexus of Labour and Business Law, International Human Rights Law, and Development

Law and the informal economy represents an exciting but challenging area of research and practice that combines elements of labour, business, and human rights law with principles from development and economics. One of the greatest challenges confronting informal workers in many sectors is simply that their work is regulated in arbitrary and inconsistent ways; the informal economy is an understudied area of law that is relatively undeveloped in comparison to other areas of commercial law. Consequently, it offers numerous opportunities to engage in creative advocacy and lawmaking, but it also presents unique challenges.

One of the greatest challenges is simply accessing information and gaining a sense of the myriad overlapping laws that may govern an individual worker's daily activities. In some jurisdictions, for example, a single street vendor may have to comply with numerous and sometimes contradictory local and municipal bylaws governing space use, business registration laws, and licensing and registration schemes. These laws may be inconsistently or arbitrarily enforced, leaving workers vulnerable to uncertainty and exploitation, and impedeing a climate that enables business development. At the other end of the spectrum, some areas of work may be virtually entirely unregulated.  For example, domestic or home-based work in some jurisdictions may leave workers without access to social security schemes or workplace protection laws. And any laws governing workplace conditions that are on the book may be little more than theoretical because of the difficulties of enforcement within a private home that doubles as a workplace.

In many countries, the informal economy is a large and growing source of employment, and workers in the informal economy are often socially and economically vulnerable. These workers need lawyers who are prepared to advocate for them in individual cases and as policy advocates.

Resources for Lawyers

WIEGO's Law Observatory collects laws, court cases, policies, and other legal documents on the informal economy from national and local jurisdictions around the world. Many of the laws that most impact the everyday lives of informal workers are promulgated by municipal or other local governments.

Even as national governments and international organizations are making more information available online, many of these laws remain harder to access, making a centralized database particularly important for this area of the law.

In 2013, WIEGO launched a series of Legal Briefs, which describe the legal environment facing informal workers and analyze legal strategies and precedent-setting cases that may lead to more secure livelihood. The first three briefs have analyzed the legal and policy tools developed through informal worker advocacy in India, the right to information challenges facing informal workers worldwide, and the experience of street vendors who successfully organized to combat evictions in São Paulo, Brazil.

Regulation of the informal economy remains an emerging area of law,  so comparative studies of strategies that have worked around the world may be particularly instructive to lawyers looking to practice in their own jurisdictions. 

In addition to the laws collected in the Law Observatory, WIEGO has partnered with membership-based organizations in Colombia, Ghana, India, Peru, and Thailand, to develop a series of Country Studies that provide in-depth, country-specific analyses of issues in informal economy regulation. These onsider both what workers in terms of organizing, and what an enabling regulatory framework might look like in different countries.  

Lawyers may also be interested in the experiences of those who participated in WIEGO's Exposure Dialogue Programme on Law and Informality, which gives lawyers, judges, and legal academics firsthand experience of the impact of law on the daily lives of informal workers.