Informal Workers

Informal workers do not receive social protection through work or legal protection through the state. Too often, these workers are unfairly stigmatized as “illegal”, “underground”, “black” or “grey” – but the vast majority are simply trying to earn a living against great odds.

Informal workers may be self-employed in small unregistered enterprises; they may be sub-contracted workers or even work for wages in unprotected jobs. And they can be found in urban or rural settings, and in the richest as well as the poorest countries.

In recent decades, informal employment has persisted or grown, emerging in unexpected places and in new guises. Today, half to three-quarters or more of non-agricultural workers in developing countries earn their living informally.

They work in plain sight...

Street vendors in Mexico City; rickshaw pullers in Kolkata; jeepney drivers in Manila; push-cart vendors in New York city; garbage collectors in Bogotá; roadside barbers in Durban... those who work on the streets or in open areas belong to the more visible occupational groups in the informal economy.

...and out of sight

Some informal workers are less visible – even invisible. Down the crowded lanes are workshops that repair bicycles and motorcycles; recycle scrap metal; make furniture and metal parts; tan leather and stitch shoes; weave, dye, and print cloth; polish gems; sort and sell paper, and plastic waste; and more.

The least visible informal workers, the majority women, sell or produce goods from their homes: they may be garment or food workers, incense-stick or cigarette rollers, paper bag or kite makers.

Then there are those – again usually women – who work in others’ homes. Tens of millions of domestic workers around the globe are among the most vulnerable of all workers.

And informal workers are not confined to developing countries. There are informal garment workers in Toronto; informal embroiderers on the island of Madeira; informal shoemakers in Madrid; and informal assemblers of electronic parts in Leeds.

Other common categories of informal work in both developed and developing countries include contract workers in restaurants/hotels; sub-contracted janitors and security guards; casual day labourers in construction and agriculture; piece-rate workers in sweatshops; and temporary office helpers or off-site data processors. Most workers in all of these categories are informally employed.

But despite great differences ...

Working conditions and earnings differ markedly. Even within countries, the informal economy is highly segmented by place of work, sector of the economy, and status in employment and, across these segments, by social group and gender.

...they have one thing in common

Most of the working poor in the informal economy share lack legal and social protection.

WIEGO’s Focus

WIEGO particularly focuses on four groups – domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors, and waste pickers – because they tend to be among the poorest informal workers and because women tend to be over-represented among them. Read more about these groups.