61% of the world’s workers still fighting for 8-hour day

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food vendor at the Mercado Bolívar in Lima
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133 years after the Chicago working-time strike that gave rise to May Day, 2-billion workers continue to fall outside regulations for working hours and over-time compensation. Informal workers – now the majority of the global workforce – are calling for much-needed protections to limit their working time, as well as child care, elderly care and social pensions.

May Day, or Workers’ Day, is the anniversary of the 1 May 1896, when striking workers in Chicago, USA, died while demanding an eight-hour working day. 

On that fateful day, workers in Chicago demonstrated that working time is at the heart of not only decent work, but a decent life too. The Chicago workers saw that work without leisure time is a recipe for misery and social isolation. 

Since the 1896 strike, there have been ongoing struggles by employed workers for the regulation of hours of work. It is no accident that the very first global instrument adopted by the International Labour Organisation was the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention in 1919. The ILO has adopted many subsequent conventions regulating working time – including on hours of work, rest periods, night work and annual holidays. 

Almost 80 per cent of all countries now have laws limiting weekly working hours, including overtime.

Following the guidance of the ILO working time conventions, almost 80 per cent of all countries now have laws limiting weekly working hours, including overtime. 97 per cent of countries specify a minimum period of paid annual leave. 

These victories are to be celebrated. However, the problem is that in reality the regulation of working time applies to less than half of all workers worldwide. 

2-billion workers fall outside current work-day regulations

The regulation of working time in most countries applies only to workers with an identified and regular employer. 

If we add those who are informally employed by an employer in the formal sector to all self-employed workers, we find that this combined group constitutes 61 per cent of all workers worldwide. That is a staggering two-billion workers whose working time is not regulated in any way. 

That is a staggering two-billion workers whose working time is not regulated in any way.

According to the third edition of the ILO report Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, in Africa 86 per cent of all workers are informal, in the Americas 54 per cent, in the Arab States 69 per cent, in the Asia-Pacific region 71 per cent and in Europe and Central Asia 37 per cent. 

No region of the world, and no country, whether developed or not, escapes the phenomenon of informal employment. These workers make a significant contribution to the GDPs of most countries. According to ILO research from 2002, for example, Ghana’s informal enterprises contributed to 58 per cent of the GDP, and in Zambia they contributed 24 per cent. 

No region of the world, and no country, whether developed or not, escapes the phenomenon of informal employment.

This significant contribution to national economies is, however, at the expense of the health and welfare of most informal workers, who have little or no time to rest, for recreation, or for social engagement, including with their own families. 

Long hours put workers’ health and well being at risk

In developing countries where social protection in the form of free or subsidized child care, care of the elderly, and social pensions is limited or absent, the burdens carried by informal workers are exacerbated. 

Informal workers are compelled to work longer and longer hours without rest in order to generate sufficient income.

Informal workers are compelled to work longer and longer hours without rest in order to generate sufficient income to cover care costs and savings towards old age. It is not a “choice” to work long hours, with no breaks and no vacation time. For most informal workers it is inescapable. It is not a problem that can be self-regulated. 

Three Steps to Improving Conditions

So, what then is the answer to the challenge of unsocial working time for informal workers? 

Here we elaborate on a three-pronged approach, involving negotiating for the extension of social protection, the provision of appropriate supportive infrastructure, and the introduction of a supplementary guaranteed remuneration for public service by informal workers. 

First, social protection should be enjoyed by all workers, regardless of status of employment. Self-employed workers and informally employed workers in the formal sector should have the same pension rights and provisions as formally employed workers. 

They should be able to access income relief when they are sick or lose their livelihood for any reason. Income relief should exist for those who need to take parental or family responsibility time off work – including maternity. 

And access to free quality public childcare services, as well as free elderly care, is critical if the cycle of excessive working time for informal workers is to be broken. 

Second, the infrastructure that self-employed and sub-contracted home workers rely on (water, sanitation, storage space, etc.) needs to be improved in ways that impact positively on their productivity and earnings. For example, if a street vendor has a safe place near her work spot to store her goods at night, she will spend less time transporting those goods elsewhere. If a waste picker has access to a place to sort what she collects, she may be able to sell directly to a buyer rather than going through a middleman. 

Third, we argue that where informal self-employed workers are actually providing a public service, as is the case for waste pickers, their income should be supplemented through remuneration from the public purse. Through organized pressure from workers, some cities in India and Colombia are already showing the way on this.   

WIEGO works with its member organizations to develop demands and negotiating platforms to achieve the above as a path to making decent livelihoods (including social working time) possible. 

In 2019, 133 years since the Chicago working-time strike that gave rise to the universally celebrated May Day, WIEGO re-commits to the struggle for social working time for all of the world’s workers, but especially for the 61% who have to date largely been ignored. 

Read more about how informal workers are fighting for child care and other social protections.

 

Feature photo: María Zalate Deyaya is a food vendor at the Mercado Bolívar in Lima, Peru. She is a member of the National Federation of Market Workers (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de Mercado, FENATM), and is among the two-billion workers globally organizing for better working conditions for the self-employed.

Credit: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage 

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