Collective Bargaining in the Informal Economy

Informal Workers, Worldwide

Collective Bargaining is usually understood as taking place between an employer and employees to achieve a collective agreement, primarily around wages and working conditions. (See the International Labour Organization’s definition of collective bargaining: C154: Collective Bargaining Convention, 1981 [No.154]).

Workers in the informal economy, including own account workers, also engage in  forms of collective bargaining through their membership-based organizations (MBOS). However, their counterparts across the table are often not employers. Street vendors most often negotiate with local authorities, for example, and with different municipal departments on issues such as with police regarding harassment and confiscation of goods. Waste pickers negotiate with local authorities for storage and sorting facilities or, more ambitiously, for the right to provide collection and recycling services for which they are paid. Many need to negotiate with buyers for better prices for recyclables.

Unlike workers in the formal economy whose rights are usually laid down in labour statutes, most informal workers do not have statutory collective bargaining rights. While the right has been acknowledged by the ILO (see Resolution and Conclusions Concerning Decent Work in the Informal Economy, ILC, 90th Session, 2002), including for own account workers, it has not generally been extended to these workers.

Most often, negotiations take place in ad hoc meetings – often arising out of a crisis – or in consultative forums without statutory obligation on the part of the authorities, and without enforceable agreements or continuity. While dialogues, consultations, or meetings to resolve immediate disputes play a role in enabling informal workers to raise their voices and make gains, agreements reached can be easily ignored or undermined.

However, as the case studies listed below outline, increasingly informal workers are finding a place at the table: with national and local governments – or, in the case of domestic workers, in forums involving employers.

Yes We Did It - How the World’s Domestic Workers Won Their International Rights and RecognitionInformal workers are also finding a voice in international negotiating forums, especially at the annual International Labour Conference of the ILO.

Related Reading

See Yes, We Did It! to learn how domestic workers secured an international Convention on decent work.


WIEGO’s Recent Research and Case Studies

WIEGO and the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in the USA collaborated on research that looked at collective bargaining in the informal economy. Debbie Budlender in South Africa led the project. A team of researchers analyzed five cases and produced case studies:

An overview report has been published as a WIEGO Organizing Brief: Informal Workers and Collective Bargaining: Five Case Studies by Debbie Budlender.

Other Resources

StreetNet has  produced a series of case studies and a composite report on collective bargaining and representative forums for street vendors.

StreetNet has developed a guideline document, “Towards a Model Framework for a Local Level Collective Bargaining System for Street Traders”. This framework will be used by affiliates of StreetNet in their struggles to set up permanent negotiating forums with local authorities.

WIEGO and StreetNet have produced a handbook on Collective Negotiations for Informal Workers as part of the Organizing in the Informal Economy: Resource Books for Organizers Series.

ITUC has produced “Collective Bargaining, Collective Voices.”