Milestone Talks on Informal Employment

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Street vendor in Mexico City in 2019
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Tania Espinosa Sánchez, Bronwen Dachs Muller

Waste pickers in Mexico City, Mexico, described how they suffer through having no toilet or washing facilities at the dumpsites where they work. While they have asked the municipality many times to identify a place at the sites where they can build their own sanitation facilities, this has not yet happened. As a result, the waste pickers endure discrimination on public transport. Regarding them as dirty, bus drivers often do not stop for them, and workers wait hours at the bus stop before a driver allows them on.

These experiences were shared at a late June meeting of informal worker representatives and officials from Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH), which represents a significant milestone in putting informal workers’ rights on the agenda of the highest human rights body in Mexico.

In their first direct engagement, informal worker representatives and officials of the CNDH’s Program of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights discussed the living and working conditions of informal workers, policy frameworks and possible pathways for defending informal workers’ right to work.

Beatriz Rojas Venegas, a parliamentary adviser to the house of representatives, told fellow participants at the end of the round-table discussion (mesa) in Mexico City that hearing directly from informal workers’ representatives helped her to realize the complexity of informal work. She said the exchange provided a “closeness” to the issues that she had not experienced before.

The mesa was the result of WIEGO-led advocacy for the commission to adopt an agenda advancing informal workers’ rights. Representatives of domestic workers, non-salaried workers, women metro vendors, street vendors and waste picker collectives shared with the commission the barriers they face to increasing their earnings and security at work.

Barriers that informal workers face

Informal workers emphasized the need for child-care services. Waste pickers mostly live far from the dumpsites and often have to leave their children for many hours in the care of family members while they work. And in cases where this is impossible, they feel forced to leave their children home alone – because if they do not work, they cannot afford to feed their households. Waste picker representatives at the mesa said that the government did offer them a day-care option for their children, but the daily transportation costs of getting to the facility equalled or exceeded their daily income.

Mesa participants spoke about police who threaten to take children away from women metro vendors who have their children with them while they work. Many metro vendors are single mothers who live in crime-ridden areas and do not have family networks that would allow them to leave their children in safety. They take their children to work to keep them safe, not because they want their children to work, yet the police often accuse them of exploiting minors and remove the children from their mothers.

As well as telling of how police frequently beat them and confiscate the tools of their trade, metro vendors at the mesa also noted arbitrary detentions, in which police arrest people they know to be vendors, rather than arresting people they catch vending in a prohibited area.

In talks on formality, informal-worker representatives pointed out that the state focuses only on punitive forms of formalization, with taxation at the top of its agenda. They noted that, while the ministry of finance claims that informal workers have no rights because they pay no taxes, the truth is that there is no law in Mexico that says rights come from paying taxes. The representatives also emphasized that the state’s solely negative focus diverts attention from looking for pathways out of subsistence work.

The need for legislation reform

Two important policy change proposals to secure informal workers’ right to work were put on the table. The first concerns constitutional reform, because while the constitution mentions wage employment it says nothing about self-employment. Federal legislation that protects informal work is also necessary.

The second proposal was that – since the constitution does include a provision for social security laws to protect non-salaried workers – secondary legislation that includes informal workers should be introduced and a budget allocated to advocate for this.

The mesa’s findings will be included in the CNDH’s 2023 report on economic, social and cultural rights, which will inform its strategies in defending the right to work. This is significant progress, given that the commission has so far determined human rights violations to the right to work only in relation to “subordinated labour relations” and never to informal workers.

With another mesa planned to which government authorities will be invited, these meetings hold promise for an important listening process that leads to real change for Mexico’s informal workers, who constitute more than 60 per cent of the country’s workforce.

Top photo: Street vendor in Mexico City in 2019. Credit: Lorena Reyes Toledo
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