Learning from the ‘Real Experts’: WIEGO’s New International Coordinator on Leading by Listening

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In January 2018, Dr. Sally Roever, former Urban Policies Programme Director at WIEGO, took over as International Coordinator — a title, she says, that matches the organization’s “non-hierarchical” structure. With a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, Dr. Roever has spent the last 20 years studying the ways in which laws, policies, and politics — at the local, national, and international levels — shape informal work and informal workers' organizations, and vice versa. 

In this interview, she shares with us more about her own experiences that have influenced her academic and professional path, as well as her vision for WIEGO in the coming years. 

Congratulations on your new position. I’ve always found the title of “International Coordinator” to be an interesting one for the head of WIEGO. Could you talk more about what role the IC plays and how you work with the various layers of WIEGO’s global network? 

SR: For me, the title of “International Coordinator” conveys the fact that WIEGO has an ethos of being non-hierarchical. Above all, this means we take direction from our three membership constituencies — informal workers’ organizations, researchers, and development practitioners — all of whom are represented on our Board. 

The vision for WIEGO is for it to be the ‘handmaiden’ of the informal workers’ movement, to always maintain the needs of workers’ organizations at its core. Keeping those needs in mind, the idea is to bridge the everyday realities that informal workers face with the knowledge of researchers and practitioners. So the International Coordinator’s responsibility is to ensure that the WIEGO team’s strategies reflect the priorities of the broader WIEGO Network.

And then this also means that within the WIEGO team — that is, the 45 people who work for WIEGO — we work collaboratively and horizontally across programmes and functions. So the International Coordinator takes responsibility for steering the organization but consultation and collaboration are always part of the process. For those reasons, we intentionally don’t use a term like “Executive Director,” which would convey a more hierarchical culture.

I’m curious how you got interested in this field. Are there any particular experiences that led you down the path to focus on informal labour?

My interest in informal employment crystallized in graduate school at UC Berkeley. The focus of my programme — this was the late 1990s — was the decline of labour unions and labour-based parties as channels of representation for the working poor in Latin America. I wondered about the segment of the working poor who were never in unions in the first place. What about their representation in politics? Why was the conventional wisdom in academia that they didn’t organize? Why were they so easily dismissed in high-level debates? I couldn’t understand the elite bias — the invisibility of what was effectively the mainstream economy. 

I had spent enough time in Latin America to see in plain view the importance of informal work, and to see the fact that some informal workers do organize. And the erosion of workers’ rights in the formal economy was already accelerating at that time, so there was a need to understand what was happening in the part of the economy where previously formal workers were ending up. This interest was also likely informed by the fact that, like many of us who work for WIEGO, I didn’t have the type of life experience that would lead you see the world from an elite perspective.

A lot of your research has been on street vendors, which brought you to Lima for a year. How do your personal research interests and experience in many Global South cities feed into your new role?

The single most important thing I have done, and still do, is to listen carefully to ordinary people. I’m talking about people who aren’t considered ‘experts’ by others, the ones who are not invited to speak. I learned very early on to set aside my assumptions and just listen.

I think the key lesson I drew from spending time listening to Peruvian street vendors talk was around how complex and enduring the barriers are to these workers, both to sustaining their livelihoods and to sustaining their organizing efforts. Here was a place with a good ordinance in the books, one that gave street vendors a way to be represented, a way to access funds, a way to get licenses. But then the ordinance was hardly ever implemented, and where there had been attempts to implement it, many problems arose. 

The vendor leaders who were trying to work with the local authorities on implementation were dealing with contradicting actions from different local government departments, unhelpful interventions from national authorities, skepticism within their own membership, and then all the everyday challenges of being poor — getting sick without good health care, being mugged in the streets, and so on. One leader was even assassinated while all of this was going on. 

So hearing about all of this reinforced the notion that these issues are incredibly complicated, and it takes long-term dedication and effort to get things right. There are no quick fixes. And in turn, having a longer-term vision is an essential responsibility in this new role.

WIEGO just recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary and held a landmark research conference. What did you hear as the major challenges and how do you see this playing into WIEGO’s strategy moving forward?

One of the central and recurring themes was the role of powerful corporate actors in shaping working conditions in a whole range of ways, from affecting urban land values to engineering evictions of poor people to the well-known changes in organizing supply chains so as to shift risks downward. There is a major challenge in documenting what they are doing and how it is affecting workers, and then there is another challenge around defending the economic rights of all workers in the face of runaway corporate power. 

Another theme that I’m especially interested in is the politics of measurement practices. Twenty years ago when WIEGO started out, women and men in the informal economy did not feature in labour force statistics. On the first day of the research conference, we heard a bit about how getting them counted was a political process that WIEGO and allies within the ILO and academia engaged in jointly. It’s easy to forget, when you’re just looking at a table filled with numbers of workers in different categories, that the existence of those categories is the result of efforts by statisticians to make statistics reflect reality more accurately — but doing so is not always in everyone’s interest, so it requires a political struggle. 

Now many countries are producing labour force statistics that include informal workers, but there are still big challenges around keeping the categories up-to-date as the world of work continues to change, and then getting the data disseminated to the groups that need it the most.

Could you talk about your vision for WIEGO over the next five years?

We worked very hard over the past five years to influence global agreements and processes — the Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda (NUA), the ILO Recommendation on formalizing the informal economy (R204), and the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. We invested a lot of energy into opening spaces for informal workers’ voices to be heard in these processes, and into getting the language of these agreements right. We got good results and now we need to leverage them so that they directly benefit workers. 

This is a key part of the vision for the next five years. We know that providing a way for our institutional members to advocate as part of a global network made a huge difference to the outcomes of R204 and the NUA, and that the specific language we advocated for is making a difference now. But we have to capitalize on the opportunity that these agreements present at the local level.

Another part of the vision is strengthening workers’ networks. For home-based workers, the priority is to build on current momentum to support global networking among home-based workers. For street vendors, there is a keen interest in strengthening collective bargaining forums, which in turn will strengthen both the global network and local affiliates; here the methodology is to develop power from the bottom up. Domestic workers now have a strong global federation and need ways to support affiliates and leadership at the local level, while advocating for a worker-centred view of things, like the care economy and women’s economic empowerment. In the waste sector, building a global federation is still a big challenge. Strengthening these global networks will help galvanize action at the local level while also positioning workers’ issues at high-level global forums.

WIEGO now has six Focal Cities and has been calling for more inclusive cities, along with others in urban circles. What do you see as a practical way cities can actively be more inclusive of informal workers?

The first step has to be to recognize that cities are better off with organized workers at the policy table. 

So often, you see cities set up multi-stakeholder forums where all the stakeholders are elites, so there is no voice that can balance out the corporate lobbyists and consulting firms and academics who are viewed as experts. And then whatever issue is being discussed — housing, transport, climate change, food security, and so on — is treated as if there is no employment dimension to them. 

Whatever is decided in these forums then ends up not being implemented because they run into too many challenges with informality. That’s because if you exclude poor people from the table then you can’t see how urban policies need to accommodate the realities and logics that apply to the vast majority of the population who are living and working in informal circumstances. 

Workers need dialogue platforms and ideally statutory bargaining forums where they can help cities formulate policies. And if democratic, representative workers’ organizations are involved in setting policies then those policies are more likely to be implemented.

What have been some of your first tasks to get started as the IC?

Taking direction from our institutional members means hearing from them on a regular basis. For that, one of the mechanisms WIEGO set up long ago is an Advisory Committee for our Organization and Representation Programme (ORP). This committee consists of representatives of the networks and the largest founding member, SEWA. So one of my first tasks was to visit SEWA and participate in this year’s advisory committee meeting in early February. We were fortunate to have SEWA Academy host us, which is a real treat because of the unique role that the Academy plays in the lives of women workers. I learned a lot at this meeting both about some of the early history of the movement and about the future goals of our institutional members.

Another early task was to visit the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF) in Geneva. WIEGO focuses on informal workers but draws on, and works with, formal sector unions, especially when it comes to the practice of building democratic, representative organizations. Ultimately, what we both want is more good quality jobs and more unified workers — this is how many of the rights we enjoy now were won, and more broadly this is how workers learn to hold others accountable — how rank-and-file members hold their own leaders accountable, and how their leaders hold employers or authorities accountable. Given all the threats to civil society just now, developing democratic values through organizing is especially important.

Having spoken with many informal workers during your time with WIEGO, is there any particular experience that has stuck with you?

There are many, but if I had to pick one I’d point to the experience of doing Exposure Dialogue Programmes (EDP) in Ahmedabad. This is a methodology that SEWA Academy developed to immerse researchers and development practitioners in the lives of SEWA members for two days — living and working alongside SEWA members — and then to hold dialogues based on that experience: a personal dialogue where both the host SEWA member and the guest researcher reflect on what they learned, and a technical dialogue where they reflect on key issues with a wider audience.

The first time I did it was around 2004, and I stayed with a street vendor who sold items like soap and tissue paper from her house in the mornings, and then sold jewelry from a roadside in the afternoons. She had been involved in the Parivartan housing project, where Mahila Housing Trust had designed a way for slum residents to participate in infrastructure upgrades — from installing water taps in each two-room house to paving the alley outside to installing street lights for safety. It shows what can be done when there is commitment to involving communities in resolving problems. The project had a huge impact on residents’ economic well-being.

On the second EDP I stayed with another street vendor, this time one who sold vegetables on the roadside. She was a market committee leader, and this committee was dealing with a common problem: the city had cleared the market where they used to sell, without providing an alternative space. She and her colleagues held ID cards with authorization to sell on a sidewalk around the corner, but the residents of the building next to the sidewalk where they were authorized didn’t want them there, so would dump dirty water out of the windows and onto their heads as a way of harassing the vendors there. So they were occupying an unauthorized block of sidewalk while they tried to negotiate with the authorities over another plot of land. She and her colleagues had been through all the alternatives with one city official, but he eventually left his post and they had to start over from scratch with his replacement. 

The experience of living and working alongside her for a few days drove home the fact that local grassroots leaders who deal with these issues day in and day out are the real experts — the ones who know how to solve problems, and who know from both experience and intuition what will work and what won’t. And it drove home the fact that complexities, rivalries, and setbacks are all part of the process — you can’t back down from them. You have to work through them.


Read Sally's articles from Environment & Urbanization.


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