Organizing & Organizations

In order to overcome the structural barriers that they face, informal workers need to be organized and their organizations need to be legally recognized and officially represented in collective bargaining, policy-making and rule-setting processes. They need to be able to participate in the development of appropriate policies, laws and regulations that recognize, validate and integrate their work and livelihoods.

Through our work with membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers, we have learned that increased access to resources without the ability to influence broader external factors will not necessarily translate into more secure and remunerative livelihoods. For this reason, providing support to MBOs of informal workers is a key component of WIEGO’s work.

WIEGO has developed a series of materials and resources to support developing or existing MBOs with organizing, collective bargaining and negotiation strategies. All of the resources featured here, from WIEGO and partners can be downloaded and shared for free.

Organizing in the Informal Economy

Organizing gives the poorest segments of the working class – those working in the informal economy, and especially women – a way to be heard by the decision makers who can affect their lives. Organizing informal workers has a long history, although recent organizing amongst informal workers can arguably be traced back to the founding of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India in the 1970’s. SEWA is now the largest trade union of informal workers in the world with over 2 million members.

Informal workers are organizing at local, national and international levels. For organizations of informal workers and their members, advocacy in international venues is greatly enhanced by the formation of global networks. Since 2000, several transnational networks of organizations of informal workers have been formed or consolidated: StreetNet International (2002); HomeNet South Asia (2000); Latin American Waste Pickers Network (Red Lacre) (2005); International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN) (2009); the Global Network of Waste Pickers (2009); HomeNet Eastern Europe (2013); and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) (2013).

In recent years, the global movement of organized informal workers continues to gain strength. However, despite the many benefits of organizing, the challenges are great.

  • Read more about the need for organizing, and the economic, political, social and intangible benefits it can bring for workers.
  • Read more about how informal workers have come together to amplify their visibility, voice and power, and how local organizations are uniting into federations and networks nationally, regionally and globally.

WORD – WIEGO's Organization & Representation Database WIEGO’s WORD database contains more than 900 detailed entries on organizations of workers in the informal economy. 

WIEGO Organization & Representation Database

WAW - Wastepickers Around the World is the first global database on waste pickers.

Waste Pickers Around the World - A Database

Read about organizing experience by occupational group:

Access Case Studies and Resources

The Only School We Have

The Only School We Have: Learning from Organizing Experiences Across the Informal Economy (also available in Spanish)
- A guidebook for building membership-based organizations. Success stories from around the world highlight the importance of mobilizing workers.

 

 Organizing in the Informal Economy: Resource Books for Organizers - six booklets (also available in French, Portuguese and Spanish)

ICC books image

  1. Recruiting Informal Workers into Democratic Workers’ Organisations (ICC1)
  2. Building and Maintaining a Democratic Organisation of Informal Workers (ICC2)
  3. Handling the Day-To-Day Problems of Informal Workers (ICC3)
  4. Collective Negotiations for Informal Workers (ICC4)
  5. Handling Disputes between Informal Workers and those in Power (ICC5)
  6. Collective Action for Informal Workers (ICC6)

Find extended resources for workers related to organizing, capacity-building, advocacy and training on WIEGO’s Worker Resources page. 

Collective Bargaining in the Informal Economy

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.

However, as shown in the case studies below, 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.

WIEGO Organizing Brief No. 9. (2013) Informal Workers and Collective Bargaining: Five 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. A team of researchers analyzed five cases and produced case studies, which are summarized in this document by Debbie Budlender.

Collective Bargaining in the Informal Economy: Street Vendors (2016) - This paper by Pat Horn builds on the above case studies, and on the work done by StreetNet International on collective bargaining in the street vending sector. Specifically, it explores the range of collective bargaining arrangements and experiences of street vendors in different countries, many of whom are affiliates of StreetNet International.

Additional Resources on Collective Bargaining