Across the globe, democratic norms are under threat with serious long-term consequences. Informal workers and other marginalized groups are witnessing the reversal of hard-fought battles towards increased participation and rights. Despite this, worker organizations are organizing and employing innovative strategies to advance democratic practices.
Only five years ago, local authorities in Bangkok, Thailand, worked in close collaboration with street vendors on a daily basis to create a clean and vibrant environment for commerce in public space. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, waste pickers benefitted from institutionalized spaces for participation and inclusive policies on solid waste management systems. In Lima, Peru, street vendors celebrated the approval of a pro-poor city ordinance that the municipal government drafted with their careful input over months.
Since then, in all these cities and in many others across the global south and north, democratic norms and practices are rapidly eroding. Informal workers are seeing the reversal of progress that had been hard won over decades, as participatory spaces shut down and repressive actions (evictions, arrests, roll-back of inclusive policies) sharply rise.
Since then, in all these cities and in many others across the global south and north, democratic norms and practices are rapidly eroding.
These trends have been exacerbated by a spike in misinformation and negative rhetoric about informal workers, which often has xenophobic, racist and classist undertones. What we are seeing points to a grim picture of a growing democratic crisis worldwide, which isand evident across regions. Ultimately, the current global landscape also detracts from, and actively undermines, attention and action on urgent social, economic and environmental inequalities.
Despite all of this, in WIEGO’s work with membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers, we are seeing efforts to drive participatory democracy from below. On this International Democracy Day, we consider the ways several MBOs are creating spaces for resistance, imagination and collective action at the grassroots.
Watch this video on Organizing for Change: Workers in the Informal Economy.
Thai street vendors model democratic practice through movement-building
When an upheaval in Thailand’s government placed street vendors’ livelihoods under threat, vendors quickly organized and came together to build a strong grassroots movement in defense of their rights.
In 2014, a military coup took control of Thailand’s government, quickly establishing a governing junta and issued an interim constitution that granted the junta sweeping powers. Soon afterward, the new government turned what had been a global best practice model for street vending management — one that involved daily cooperation between vendors and authorities — into a campaign of relentless evictions, displacing an estimated 17,000 vendors over four years.
In WIEGO’s work with membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers, we are seeing efforts to drive participatory democracy from below.
In response, with support from HomeNet Thailand, vendors quickly mobilized into the first-ever, city-wide Network of Thai Vendors for Sustainable Development.
Without city- or neighbourhood-level places for participatory exchange with authorities on street vending management, the network created their own. Street vendor leaders representing 23 city districts came together to debate, exchange and reach consensus on a set of demands for securing the right to return to former vending areas and the right to participate in decision-making related to public-space management.
They have since staged marches, called press conferences, launched a social media campaign and engaged in multiple forms of creative civil disobedience in protest of the vending ban. The result has been the creation of a vibrant, democratic movement — of street vendors and allies — who, through debate, consensus-building and outreach, are modeling the type of democratic practice that they want their government to adopt in their approach to managing street trade in Bangkok.
Read more about how Thailand’s street vendors marched against eviction and how they met with New York City street vendors to work in solidarity.
Faced with a repressive status quo, Lima’s street vendors innovate
Creating spaces for dialogue between citizens and their governments, as the Lima city government has in the past, is not only important for sustaining a healthy democracy, but also for policy responsiveness and innovation.
In 2014, policymakers in Lima convened a street vending mesa (roundtable), where vendors from federations across the city were invited to provide input into a new city ordinance. Since then, implementation of the resulting ordinance has been weak, and street vendors’ requests to reinstate the mesa to collaborate on ways forward have been ignored.
Street vendor leaders representing 23 city districts came together to debate, exchange and reach consensus on a set of demands for securing the right to return to former vending areas.
Instead, they have been met with a harsh new reality: large-scale evictions, even in some of the city’s most established market areas. Vendors in Lima know that evictions are a devastating, costly and ineffective response to the challenges of managing public space, and they also reflect a lack of imagination.
To respond to the evictions, street vendor leaders in Lima are doing the hard work their government would not — working together and with experts to develop innovative proposals for eviction alternatives. In August, with support from WIEGO, Lima’s street vendors convened a forum to share these proposals with municipal officials in hopes of laying the foundation for mutually beneficial cooperation.
Read more about the challenges informal workers face in Lima as “modernization” drives continue.
Waste pickers in Brazil mobilize networks of support
Over two decades, waste pickers in Brazil have secured critical policy gains at national, state and local levels grounded in socio-economic inclusion. However, as of 2016, political and economic instability, along with a sweeping shift to the right in national Brazilian politics, have placed these gains under threat.
In response, organized waste pickers across Brazil have mobilized historic alliances to keep channels of dialogue open and prevent the dismantling of Brazil’s inclusive solid waste policy framework, which took years to construct.
Street vendors and allies are modeling the type of democratic practice that they want their government to adopt in their approach to managing street trade in Bangkok.
For example, in Belo Horizonte, waste pickers have recently faced two acute threats: budget cuts to a public centre responsible for promoting inclusive recycling policy and practice (the Minas Gerais Reference Centre on Solid Waste) and the introduction of bills on incineration technology in the state legislature (which, if passed, would be detrimental to waste pickers’ livelihoods).
To combat these threats, waste pickers in Belo Horizonte and across the state of Minas Gerais, and partner NGOs have activated networks of allies at the local and state levels to form a united front of resistance. These alliances include diverse actors, such as community neighbourhood associations, a think tank of waste picker representatives from the National Waste Pickers Movement (MNCR), academics, waste experts and practitioners (the Observatory for Inclusive Recycling, which WIEGO forms part of), and sympathetic state government representatives.
To respond to the evictions, street vendor leaders in Lima are doing the hard work their government would not — working together and with experts to develop innovative proposals for eviction alternatives.
This strategy has already proven successful: two years ago waste pickers and allies blocked an incineration bill after a multi-stakeholder public hearing. More recently, waste pickers and allies were able to secure a meeting with the Minas Gerais state legislature on incineration threats and budget cuts. The meeting resulted in a commitment to stop a bill that would have revoked an anti-incineration state law, and commitment to continue dialogue with waste picker representatives on state policies impacting their livelihoods.
Read about how waste pickers in Bogota are experiencing challenges to the progress they have made with the municipality.
Re-imagining active citizenship and democratic practice from below
These three examples of resistance demonstrate the potential of membership-based organizations of informal workers to fight back against threats to democracy. While these localized experiences do not represent panaceas to the complexities of the crises playing out across the globe, they do provide a lesson in the power of grassroots organizing and knowledge to offer alternatives to the status quo.
Waste pickers in Belo Horizonte and across the state of Minas Gerais, and partner NGOs have activated networks of allies at the local and state levels to form a united front of resistance.
As governments cast aside democratic norms, grassroots worker groups are modeling democratic practice at the grassroots; as policymakers default to ineffective and unimaginative responses to complex problems, workers are innovating; and while political elites foster incivility and division — which has become entrenched in public discourse — local worker organizations are building bridges and forging alliances.
By collectively striving to expand notions of whose voices count, informal workers provide some key lessons on how to re-imagine more plural, democratic and active forms of civic engagement.
Feature photo: Rhonda Douglas