The History of Organizing Informal Workers

Organizing informal workers has a long history. At the dawn of the industrial capitalist age in the eighteenth-century, the whole economy was informal. As Dan Gallin noted in Organizing Informal Workers: Historical Overview, “…in the beginning all workers were informal”. Workers organized into unions, fought and won rights and the situation started to become formalized. However, many women were left out of this process and remained in what became known as the informal economy, working in low paying jobs such as domestic work and home-based work (Gallin 2011). 

Key Events in the Recent History of Organizing

The organization of informal workers internationally is a relatively recent phenomenon.  

1970s: India’s SEWA was the pioneer organization, gaining recognition in 1972 as a trade union in Gujarat State of India.

1980s: SEWA began to make headway in the international trade union movement when it gained affiliation to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers (IUF)  in 1983. This important step meant that for the first time, own account, informal workers were recognized within the trade union movement as workers -- workers with a right to form trade unions. Domestic workers had been organizing into unions in many parts of the world but their voice was weak. In 1988 the regional Latin American and Caribbean Confederation of Household Workers (CONLACTRAHO) held its first Congress, giving a more powerful voice to domestic workers in that region. Waste pickers also began organizing into cooperatives in Latin America in this period.

1990s: Home-based workers came to the fore in the 1990s, setting up HomeNet International (1994) and successfully campaigning for an ILO Convention on Homework (C177), adopted in 1996. The pace quickened when WIEGO was established to support informal workers in 1997. Street vendors held their first international conference in 1995, and in 2000 the StreetNet Association was formed, paving the way for the launch of StreetNet International in 2002. Waste pickers in Latin America stepped up their organizing into cooperatives throughout the 1990s. In the meantime the trade union movement and the ILO were beginning to recognize that the informal workforce was growing and could no longer be ignored. 

2000s: Organizing took off nationally, regionally and internationally. A key event was the adoption of a Resolution and Conclusions on Decent Work and the Informal Economy at the International Labour Conference (ILC) in 2002, which recognized informal workers – both wage earners and own account workers – as workers with the same rights to decent work as other workers. The various mobilizing activities that occurred in preparation for the ILC 2002 helped to build collective organization in different parts of the world.

The number of grassroots informal worker organizations increased rapidly in this period and national and international networking activities also increased. In Latin America, national movements of waste pickers (catadores or recicladores) were formed, and in 2004 the Latin American Waste Pickers Network was founded. Although HomeNet International collapsed in 2000, HomeNet South Asia was founded following a successful regional dialogue with employers and governments leading to the Kathmandu Declaration. In 2006 domestic workers came together internationally; this led to an agreement to form their own international network, the International Domestic Workers Network (IDWN). The first World Conference of Waste Pickers took place in 2008, resulting in ongoing global networking. (See the conference report.)

2010s: The movement continues to grow. Informal workers are increasingly visible and recognized and are making concrete gains. In 2009, 2010, and 2011 waste pickers set out their demands at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) conferences (see more about waste pickers and climate change). Also, in 2011 domestic workers won a major victory when the ILC adopted an ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (see The Campaign for a Domestic Workers’ Convention), and in 2013 they transformed the IDWN into the first global federation completely run by women. Read more.

For a more detailed timeline, see Informal Workers Organizing Internationally – Timeline of Key Events.