Transport Workers

transport worker on a pedicab

Information based on material prepared by Dave Spooner of the Global Labour Institute (UK) in 2011.

Occupations of Informal Transport Workers

There are numerous jobs within the informal transport industry and its sub-sectors: passenger transport, goods and freight, and rail and air services.

As urban centres of developing countries have exploded in size, formal, often state-owned, public transport services have not had the financial or institutional capacity to meet demand, and have been badly affected by deregulation and privatization. Most state-run bus and rail services in developing countries have, in effect, collapsed. As a consequence, the informal transport sector has grown--spurred by rising unemployment and rates of urban poverty.

However, there is a paucity of data collection and systematic analysis of informal transport services. The sector is often ignored in policymaking circles. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are little reliable and up-to-date data on the livelihoods of transport workers in the urban informal economy.

The available major sources on the sector indicate that the defining features of informal transport workers are:

  • Many are amongst the poorest of the poor.
  • Their working and living conditions are at the survivalist end of the spectrum.
  • They are excluded in law and/or practice from labour and social protection.
  • They lack representation and voice, and are unorganized or ineffectively organized.
  • They endure job insecurity, low and fragile incomes, harassment and corruption, poor (and often dangerous) working conditions, and no access to training.

Informal transport workers share the underlying conditions that face all working poor in the informal economy: low income, lack of economic security; legal and social protection, basic health and safety measure; social exclusion, and few opportunities to work their way out of poverty. In addition, many transport workers face particularly hazardous working conditions and daily harassment.

Importance of Informal Transport Workers

  • Informal transport workers are a significant proportion of the urban working poor.
  • Informal transport workers play an essential role in supporting the livelihoods of other urban working poor, providing cheap and flexible transport to and from their workplace, markets, customers, etc.
  • Informal transport workers are essential allies to other urban informal economy sectors (street vendors, waste-pickers, home-based workers, etc.) in advocating and negotiating inclusive policies for urban development.
  • Addressing the problems of informal transport workers is crucial in the wider context of reducing emissions in the fast-growing mega-cities of the global south, which is one of the key drivers of climate change.
  • Informal transport workers are potentially key players in combating threats to road safety and the urban environment.

Importance to Other Urban Working Poor

In many areas, informal transport services are the only bona fide means of mobility available to the poor. They allow car-less, disadvantaged individuals to reach jobs, buy and sell produce, and access medical care. Pedicabs, tri-wheelers and micro-vans are also an integral part of the distribution networks of many third world cities, ferrying raw materials, furniture, equipment, and other goods in and out of neighbourhoods (Cervero and Golub 2007).


Employment in the Informal Transport Economy

Data drawn from a variety of sources, notably Bonner (2006) and Gil (1989).

Passenger Transport

Conventional Buses:

Larger (25-100 passenger) vehicles, e.g. Molue, bolekaja, ongoro (Nigeria), Camellos (Cuba)

Employers: owners of single or small number of vehicles who employ others, including family members with or without pay
Own account operators: owner- drivers, vendors, caterers 
Dependent “self-employed” drivers
Casual wage labourers: conductors, call-boys, mechanics, cleaners, guards
Employees: drivers, clerks, queue marshals, security guards


Minibuses, elongated jeeps, and passenger-carrying trucks Jeepneys(Philippines), Mikrolets(Indonesia), Colectivos(Mexico).

Employers: owners of single or small number of vehicles who employ others, including family members with or without pay
Own account operators: owner-drivers
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers (leasing vehicles, etc.)
Casual wage labourer: conductors, call-boys, mechanics, cleaners
Employees: drivers, clerks, queue marshals, security guards

Microbuses & Taxis:

Kombis (Africa), Angguna(Indonesia)

Employers: owners of single or small number of vehicles who employ others, including family members with or without pay
Own account operators: owner-drivers, fuel-vendors
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers (leasing vehicles, etc.)
Employees: queue marshals

3-wheelers and Motorcycles :

Three-wheeler motorized rickshaws: Tuk-tuks (Thailand), Auto-Rickshaws(India), Bajajas (Indonesia); and motorcycle taxis: Ojeks (Indonesia); okada (Nigeria), moto-conchos(Dominican Republic), moto-dub (Cambodia).

Own account operators: owner-drivers, fuel-vendors
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers (leasing vehicles, etc.)

Non-motorized Passenger Transport (Class 5)

Pedicabs, or bicycle rickshaws (Bangladesh), becaks(Indonesia) and horse-drawn vehicles: calesas(Philippines), tongas (India).

Own account: owner-drivers, 
Dependent “self-employed”:drivers (leasing vehicles, etc.)

Goods & Freight

Trucks & Lorries

Long distance haulage, cross-border traders, market suppliers

Employers: owners of single or small number of vehicles who employ others, including family members with or without pay
Own account operators:owner-drivers, traders
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers, maintenance workers
Casual wage labourers: mechanics, loaders, packers
Employees: drivers, security guards, warehouse workers

Vans and Light Trucks

Delivery vans, short-trip haulage, waste collection trucks,  etc.

Employers: owners of single or small number of vehicles who employ others, including family members with or without pay
Own account operators: owner-drivers
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers
Casual wage labourers: mechanics
Employees: drivers


Goods 3-wheelers (goods auto-rickshaws)

Own account operators: owner- drivers, fuel-vendors
Dependent “self-employed”: drivers (leasing vehicles , etc.)

Non-motorized Goods Transport

Three-wheeler bicycle goods vehicles, animal-drawn carts, manual loaders

Own account operators and casual wage labourers: drivers, head-loaders, porters, messengers

Rail & Air Transport

Rail Stations/ Airports:

Employers: owners of small outsourced service enterprises
Employees: cleaners, security in outsourced small businesses
(briefcase businesses)
Own account operators: food vendors, porters, touts, 
Casual employees: cleaners, porters, loaders

Statistical Snapshot

There are no comprehensive statistics on the extent of informal transport work, and most that are available were compiled in the 1980s and 1990s, and were not always based on the same criteria.

The dearth of reliable, comparative data illustrates the extent of  invisibility of informal transport workers. Nevertheless, indications are that informal transport and related services are a significant source of employment, especially for male workers, and are an important contributor to the GDP of many countries.

In Sri Lanka since privatization, some 94 per cent of the country’s 16,000 buses now belong to owner–operators running one bus (Mather 2004, as cited in Bonner 2006).

In Bangladesh, whereas only 1,500 buses and 27,000 trucks belong to the state-run Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation, some 80,000 trucks are privately owned, by firms or individuals. Here, wages and working conditions are abysmally low for the over 500,000 workers, with no appointment letters or payment of regular and proper wages and 16-20 hour workdays. Worse still is the condition of some 70,000 mini truck and mini bus drivers and employees; 50,000 taxi drivers; 120,000+ auto rickshaw drivers;  and over 250,000 cycle rickshaw (non-motorized) pullers. The bulk of these workers are employed in a highly fragmented and exploitative industry2

In the Philippines, transport is a major source of new jobs. The number of transport workers grew from 1 million in 1988 to 2 million in 2002, with growth rates of between 4–6 per cent up until 1997, then steadying at about 5 per cent per annum between 1998-2002. This is above the overall employment growth rate of 2–3 per cent per annum (Pascual 2006: 8).

In Benin, where the informal transport sector makes up 6.7 per cent of the informal workforce, cars and motorcycles have created many driving jobs for owners and drivers. These now number 115,000, with an annual average growth rate of 9 per cent. There is also a knock-on effect on other sectors of the economy, including: the sale of fuel and oil (women form the majority of workers at sales points), the sale of motorcycles and spare parts, engine repair, etc. And the informal transport sector accounts for an average of 245 million litres of oil per year, representing 74 per cent of the market for oil (Bonner 2006). There are approximately 50,000 informal passenger transport vehicles on the streets each day in Bangkok (Cervero and Golub 2007) and 115,000 in Benin (Gibigaye 2006).

One indicator of the scale of the informal transport industry is the proportion of journeys undertaken by formal or informal means, where in most cases informal transport forms the majority:

Percentage of Public Transport Journeys


Formal Transport

Informal Transport





Abidjan (1998)




Algiers (2004)








Cape Town




Dakar (2003)




Latin America




Mexico City



















Godard 2006, cited in Cervero and Golub 2007

Informal Transport Economy as a Proportion of Total Employment

In many poor cities, informal transport comprises as much as 15 per cent of total employment. In Dhaka, Bangladesh, the figure is closer to 30 per cent, with more than 100,000 workers hauling customers and goods aboard pedicabs for a living (Cervero 2000).

Informal Workers as a Proportion of all Transport Workers

  • India: 79 per cent of transport and storage workers (ILO 2002)
  • Mexico: 63 per cent of transport and communications workers (ILO 2002)
  • Philippines: 83 per cent of all transport workers, and 96 per cent of land transport workers (Pascual 2006)

Informal Transport Workers as a Proportion of all Informal Workers


Driving Forces & Working Conditions

(Unless indicated otherwise, evidence of working conditions was drawn from Bonner (2006). The report synthesizes the findings of field research conducted in the Philippines, Zambia and Benin.)

“In a weakly regulated, competitive work environment, road transport workers struggle with low wages, long working hours, poor working conditions, occupational health hazards and lack of social protection” (Hisam 2006: 2099). This Zambian driver’s experience highlights many of the challenges informal transport workers face in everyday life.

I am 25 years old and am married with two children. I live in Senama township, Zambia, where I rent two rooms at K30,000 [US$7.99]3 per month. I am employed as a driver for Mr Mutale, who owns three buses. I often get up at 04:00. I knock off at about 20:00, reaching home around 21:00. My monthly salary is about K250,000 [US$66.58], which is calculated on the commission of 15 per cent of the daily cash-ins. I hire the conductor or transport officer. I decide how much to pay the conductor. I suffer a lot of abuse from both unfriendly customers and the employers. Because my pay is very low I have no holiday and when I fall sick, it is my friends who assist me with medical care. I wish we had a strong association or union to fight for us so that we could enjoy better working conditions. Most of us suffer from stress because of working long hours on order to meet the so-called targets.

         - (Workers' Education Association of Zambia 2006: 19)


Although variable, evidence suggests that informal transport workers live on very low and insecure wages or incomes. The following examples of average daily earnings, taken from a variety of sources, give a very approximate indication of levels of income.

Examples of Average Daily “Net” Earnings – Informal Passenger Transport Workers4



Sample Date


Lusaka minivan conductor



Addis Ababa "big taxi" conductors



Nairobi minibus (Matatu) conductor



Lusaka minivan driver



Nairobi minibus (Matatu) drivers



Benin fuel-seller



Bandung pedicab (Becak) operators



Abidjan Minibus (Gbakas) conductor



Jakarta motorcycle (Ojek) drivers (suburbs)



Jakarta pedicab (Becak) operators (suburbs)



Addis Ababa small taxi drivers



Nairobi minibus (Matatu) owner



Abidjan Minibus (Gbakas) driver



Dakar "car rapide" conductor



Jakarta pedicab (Becak) operators (city)



Lake Victoria, Kenya, bicycle-taxi operators



Addis Ababa "big taxi" drivers



Jakarta motorcycle (Ojek) drivers (city)



Kingston, Jamaica micro-bus conductors



Dakar "car rapide" driver



Dakar city taxi driver



Dakar suburban taxi driver



Benin waged driver



Bangkok motorcycle taxi drivers



Manila tricycle drivers




It is evident that the lowest incomes are to be found among conductors and among drivers and operators who do not own their own vehicles. It should be noted that informal transport workers have to work exceptionally long hours to achieve this income (see below).

Income, especially for single vehicle driver-operators and for drivers renting or leasing vehicles can be highly irregular. They have no regular wage, and their income consists of what is left from “takings” after rent has been given to the vehicle-owners, and other expenses paid. These may include maintenance, spare parts, petrol, parking fees, fines and bribes. In addition, they have to pay government fees and taxes such as licences, vehicle registration, tests such as smoke emission, fines, and parking fees. Net income can also be significantly reduced through rising input costs, especially fuel prices, without compensatory rises in the price of fares.

An example of the overall effect of these costs is provided from Thailand:

Average Bangkok Motorcycle Taxi Driver Daily Earnings 


Thai Baht

% of total earnings

 Total earnings






  • Fuel



  • Loan Interest / Repayments



  • Jacket rental



  • “Despatch depot” (win) fee



  • Other costs including police fines



Total costs



Net income




(Cervero 2000: 63)

Working hours

Urban informal transport workers work exceptionally long hours:

Average Informal Transport Working Hours (Per Week)

Bangkok motorcycle taxi driver* 70 hours
Jamaica urban transport worker* 83 hours
Manila jeepney operator* 78 hours
Jakarta pedicab (Becak) drive* 62 hours
Nigeria motorcycle taxi driver* 80 hours
Pakistan long-distance bus driver* 84 hours
ILO maximum weekly driving time** 48 hours

(Source: *Cervero 2000; **ILO Convention 153


Debt is a major problem for informal transport workers. 
The seemingly never-ending lease payments operators pay to “absentee landlords” who own the vehicles, often half or more of their daily in-take, means few are able to break out of the shackles of urban poverty… Unable to obtain credit through formal channels, some operators turn to street lenders and loan sharks, becoming veritable indentured slaves. Because of prohibitively high interest rates, they end up turning over most of their daily earnings to creditors and are never able to get out of debt.

(Cervero and Golub 2007)

Corruption, Bribery and Harassment

Many urban transport operators face daily harassment, bribery and corruption from police, border controls, authorities and politicians. Attacks – including murder and vehicle theft by criminals – are commonplace, particularly for long-distance road transport operators.

Policies & Programmes

Local Government Policies

Unilateral changes by local governments to routes, route bans and restrictions, lead to increased competition. These affect the owner and the driver by putting downward pressure on earnings and income, which can sometimes lead to violence.

Respect for Rights

The majority of informal transport workers are excluded from labour law provision and social protection schemes. They have no collective bargaining rights, and are also generally excluded from social dialogue forums (where normally only trade unions organizing formal workers are directly represented). Many of their associations and cooperatives are undemocratic and controlled by vehicle owners or other powerful interests (including criminal gangs), so they lack representation even within their own organization.

Access to Social Protection

In most countries, informal transport workers, like others in informal employment, do not have access to adequate social security and protection. Social security provision such as pensions, health provision, disability grants, unemployment and maternity benefits and accident/life insurance coverage are commonly tied to formal employment; these workers fall outside labour law and are also excluded from social protection provisions. Where state welfare provisions and social security nets are absent, totally inadequate or unaffordable, as in most developing countries, then those in informal employment live precariously: ill health or an accident can bring whole families to disaster.

Even where, theoretically, workers in informal employment are eligible for voluntary membership in a government scheme, most do not take up membership, finding it unaffordable. In the Philippines, for example, only 42 per cent of families had at least one member who had joined the social insurance programme, and the proportion of the poorest 30 per cent of families was only 28 per cent (Pascual 2006).

Health & Safety

Basic health and safety measures are absent from the working conditions in the informal transport sector. Long and irregular work hours under high stress and with no regular leave periods are common. The conditions of work are dangerous, and include unsafe and badly maintained vehicles; poor roads; lack of adherence to highway codes: leading to high accident rates; unhealthy working conditions such as inhalation of fumes; lack of protection against rain, sun, heat; as well as lack of basic facilities. For long distance truckers, there is also the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. There is also a high incidence of drug addictionamong long-distance drivers who often use drugs to fight off sleep and exhaustion (Hisam 2006).

Organization & Voice

In light of the above, the priority issues and challenges for informal transport workers can be listed succinctly, as follows:

  • increased earnings
  • more security of earnings
  • protection from harassment, bribery and threats from police, local authorities and politicians
  • fewer  and regulated working hours
  • access to health and safety, social and accident protection
  • effective pro-poor transport regulatory policy and implementation
  • reliable access to routes and passengers
  • regulation of competition with the formal transport sector
  • consultation/ inclusion in urban planning decision-making
  • stronger representative voice to authorities
  • stronger and more democratic organization, both for collective bargaining with authorities, and for provision of services to members

The Need for Voice

Informal operators are often politically weak, poorly represented in the formal city democracy, and are more closely associated with traditional, as opposed to modern, society (Cervero and Golub 2007). While they are effectively socially excluded and disenfranchised, informal transport workers continue to be highly visible on urban streets in developing countries.

Strong and sustainable organisations of informal transport workers are capable of making significant improvements to livelihoods and respect for rights.

Impact on Income

Informal transport workers’ unions and associations are primarily concerned with maintaining or raising levels of income for their members. For urban passenger transport operators, this can be achieved by reducing fuel prices and raising fares as well as by persuading governments to offer subsidies or exemptions from duty or taxes on vehicles and parts, lower penalties and fines for traffic violations, keep illegal vehicles off the road, restrict entry to the market by controlling the number of passenger vehicle licences, and curb extortion and harassment by police (see below) and criminal gangs (Pascual 2006).

In the Philippines in 2004, for example, there was a sustained increase in the price of fuel, which had a serious impact on jeepney (elongated jeep/minibus) drivers’ incomes. Strong organization, protest and solidarity between the major unions and associations were able to secure a 50 per cent increase in the minimum fare, as set by the national government. Similarly, the unions campaigned for reductions in the cost of the numerous permits, registrations and costs imposed by local and national governments (Pascual 2006).

Prevention of  Harassment and Corruption by Authorities

Through strong collective action, and in particular by building the credibility of membership cards, it becomes possible to challenge corruption and demands for bribes and kick-backs. The Pakistan Transport Workers’ Federation, for example, successfully stopped the demand for bhatta (bribes) from police, according to Mohammed Rafiq Qureshi, President:

Our immediate concern was to tackle excesses suffered at the hands of regulatory bodies, particularly the collection of bhatta by various personnel. It took us several years to tackle the issue,… (but) …not only have the law-enforcement personnel stopped harassing our members, they seek the Federation’s partnership in their programmes.

(Hisam 2006: 2104)

The local association of jeepney drivers in Quezon City, Philippines, was able to secure the dismissal of corrupt police officers (Pascual 2006).

When unions and associations are sufficiently well organized and known by the authorities, membership cards can be a powerful tool. Typically they will contain the worker’s picture, his/her name, the name of the union or association, its registration number (if it has one) and address. As quoted in Hisam (2006: 2105): “As soon as our member shows this card, the police refrain from excesses.”

Ensure Government Recognition and Establish Bargaining/Consultation Structures

Government regulation is a key feature of the transport industry, both formal and informal. It affects virtually every aspect of workers’ lives through licensing, fare-setting, route planning, the designation of terminals, bus stands, loading and unloading areas. This is why a crucial objective of transport workers’ organizations is to win recognition and representation in state agencies that have jurisdiction over their members.

In Nepal, for example, following effective union organization, the government amended the labour law to recognize and negotiate with both waged and own account workers, including taxi drivers, rickshaw-pullers and trekker and mountain guides. In the Philippines, the local jeepney operators’ association of Angeles City gained national accreditation in 2000, giving it formal negotiating rights. Elsewhere in the Philippines, representatives of informal transport workers’ associations have successfully been elected to seats in local government.

In Phnom Penh, tri-motor taxis were barred by the municipality from entering the city. The union managed to hold negotiations with the municipal authorities, and convinced them to reverse the decision. In a similar negotiation, the city reversed a decision to ban motor-doups from carrying passengers at Phnom Penh airport (Bonner 2006).

Related resources: Goodfellow, Tom and Titeca, Kristof. "Presidential intervention and the changing ‘politics of survival’ in Kampala’s informal economy."London School of Economics and Political Science Vol 29, No. 4.

Provision of Social Protection

Unions and associations of transport workers frequently establish their own systems of basic social protection for their members, as well as campaign for inclusion in state-administered social protection programmes.

The Pakistan Transport Workers’ Federation, for example, maintains a fund of between 500,000 and 700,000 rupees (US$8,000–11,000) collected from union dues, to assist members in times of crisis, such as illness, injury or death. The All-Sindh Private Bus Transport Workers’ Union has a similar fund, as Sher Nawab Khan, General Secretary explained:

Traffic Accidents, and at times illnesses, require long-term and costly treatment which transport workers cannot afford. In such cases the members are supported fully through the union fund. The union has friends… (in the hospital) …who admit patients referred by us. The union does not pay cash to the affected member, but foots the bills, and pays a monthly stipend to the family for household expenses during the worker’s hospitalisation, and resultant loss of wages. In case of fatal accidents, the union puts pressure on the owner of the vehicle to pay compensation of 200,000 rupees (USD 3,000) to the survivors of the affected family. The union itself cannot pay such a big amount.

(Hisam 2006: 2105)

Similarly, the Benin National Union of Zemijan(motorcycle-taxi drivers) holds a loan fund of 700,000 CFA (US$1,500) for members. This might include, for example, repair or purchase of vehicles, or children’s school expenses. It also supports a number of women setting up in agriculture and food production businesses (Gibigaye 2006).

Provision of Legal Advice and Support

Transport workers are frequently in areas where they are far from home and unfamiliar with local bureaucracies and procedures. Local offices or representatives can provide essential legal advice to drivers in trouble. In Benin, the union also acts as interpreter and witness for contracts between motorcycle-taxi owners and drivers, where many do not read or write in French. This also has the benefit of ensuring that the union has a thorough understanding of the terms of conditions of its members, and makes it more effective in defending members in times of conflict (Gibigaye 2006).

Facilitation of Links and Alliances

Unions and associations can provide valuable access to politicians, the media, NGOs, development agencies and other organizations in civil society, unions and associations representing other workers (both informal and formal economy), and international labour federations and agencies. In particular, this enables workers to benefit from externally-funded education and development programmes.

Provision of Education and Training

It is fairly common for informal transport unions and associations to provide education and training for their members. This may include not only education for representatives and members to strengthen the organization itself, provide leadership skills, promote good democratic practice, and represent members more effectively, but also vocational training to improve livelihoods. The Pakistan Transport Workers’ Federation, for example, provides regular membership training on traffic rules and regulations, in partnership with police and traffic management authorities (Hisam 2006).



ITF-FES, South Asia Seminar Report, 12-14 July 2005, Colombo.

1.00 Zambian Kwacha = US$0.0002663116 on August 8, 2006.

4 Data drawn from variety of sources, mostly ILO (1989) and Cervero (2000). Where possible, figures drawn from local data in local currency, shown in US dollars at the exchange rate in the year concerned. Although “net” earnings, it is impossible to verify consistency of cost factors taken into account. Some survey samples very small in number.

Occupational group