Informal Workers and the Law

WIEGO works with four main occupational groups of informal workers: domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors and waste pickers. Workers in each occupational group face unique legal challenges. This page outlines some progressive legal developments that respond to the needs of these workers.

Domestic Workers and the Law

Domestic workers provide essential services, such as cleaning, cooking, childcare and gardening in other peoples' homes. Domestic workers free up time for others – especially women – to engage in paid employment and other activities.  They also perform tasks that household members are unwilling or unable to perform, and contribute towards addressing the deficits in care for the aged, persons with disabilities, and children. Most of the world's domestic work is performed by women, predominantly poor women.

Domestic workers are excluded from social security schemes and collective bargaining processes in most countries and the regulatory framework for domestic workers in most countries fails to provide sufficient workplace protection. Domestic workers' hours are often poorly defined; many lack the right to live outside the employer’s home or even to take their rest periods outside of the home. Migrant domestic workers face additional challenges, as their immigration status may be directly tied to their continued employment with a single employer. Where protective legislation does exist, it is often difficult to enforce as domestic work is carried out in private homes, out of the public eye.

See Domestic Workers for more on the size and significance of the domestic worker population, their contributions, challenges and legal victories.

ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189)

In 2011, after many years of advocacy and struggle by the International Domestic Workers’ Network and other domestic workers' unions and associations worldwide, the International Labour Conference adopted an international convention on domestic work, Convention 189 (C189). C189 recognizes domestic workers’ right to decent working conditions, which include: daily and weekly rest periods; a minimum wage and minimum age consistent with other sectors  the right to choose where to spend their leave and where to live; and the right to clear terms of employment. The Convention came into force in 2013, after the second member state, the Philippines, ratified it. Domestic workers are now campaigning for individual countries to ratify and implement C189.

See countries that have ratified C189.

Read "Yes, We Did It!” Celia Mathers' account of how the Convention was achieved.

See laws that address domestic work.

Home-based Workers and the Law

Home-based workers produce goods or services for the market from within or around their homes. There are two distinct categories of home-based workers: self-employed home-based workers and sub-contracted home-based workers (also referred to as homeworkers or industrial outworkers). Self-employed home-based workers produce and sell their own goods, while homeworkers are contracted for the production of goods or services by an individual contractor or a firm. Homeworkers, who produce for domestic or global supply chains, are typically not involved in the sale of finished products.

Although largely invisible, both categories of home-based workers are engaged in many branches of industry. Home-based work represents a significant share of urban employment, especially for women, in many countries. These workers' income provides crucial support to their households, although they face a range of vulnerabilities, including: instability and insecurity of work, unsafe working conditions and low earnings.

In most countries, neither group of home-based workers is recognized by the law as workers – self-employed home-based workers are not recognized as independent operators and wage-employed homeworkers are not recognized as employees. A lack of legal identity adds to the vulnerabilities that home-based workers face – for example, homeworkers have little or no access to remedy when contractors exercise abuses, such as withholding pay or arbitrarily rejecting goods.

For both groups, their home is their workplace, but often they do not have secure tenure to their homes-cum-workplaces. Also, they are affected by zoning regulations, as many residential areas are not also zoned for commercial use.

See Home-based Workers for more on the size and significance of the home-based worker population, their contributions, challenges and legal victories.

The International Convention on Homework (C177) and 2016 ILC on Supply Chains

After years of advocacy by the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and organizations of home-based workers, the International Labour Conference (ILC) adopted ILO Convention 177 on Home Work (C177) in 1996. The convention recognizes homeworkers (i.e. sub-contracted home-based workers) as workers. It mandates that all homeworkers should enjoy basic labour rights; guarantees the applicability of core labour standards and other protections of homeworkers; and sets a standard for their minimum pay and working conditions, including occupational health and safety. To date, 10 countries have ratified the convention.

At the 2016 International Labour Conference General Discussion on supply chains, WIEGO coordinated a delegation of homeworkers and organizers from three continents who aimed to raise the issues of decent work and rights for homeworkers in global supply chains. As part of this process, members of the WIEGO network collaborated to develop a platform of demands on decent work for homeworkers in global supply chains which sets out the key issues and challenges faced by homeworkers and their demands for improved working conditions, rights and decent work.

As a result of interventions by the WIEGO delegation, the official Conclusions coming out of the discussions include text which recognizes homeworkers as being part of global supply chains. The Conclusions also acknowledge the ILO Convention on Home Work (C177) as one of the instruments that the ILO should base its programme of action on to address decent work in global supply chains. Since then, the OECD Due Diligence Guidance on Responsible Supply Chains in the Garment and Footwear sector includes homeworkers.

See laws on home-based work.

Street Vendors and the Law

Street vendors are an integral part of the world's cities; vending provides a source of employment for many and contributes to urban economies. Specifically, street vendors contribute to vibrant retail markets, providing an array of affordable, accessible goods and services to urban consumers. Street vendors may work from a fixed location (such as a kiosk or sidewalk table), may be mobile, or combine fixed and mobile vending. Each workplace involves different regulatory challenges. Local licensing laws may restrict market entry. Zoning ordinances often restrict street vendors to areas that are inconvenient to both vendors and their customers.

In many cities, the legal framework that governs street vending impedes, rather than enables, the development of a healthy informal economy in which street vendors can meet the demand for their products.  Laws governing street vending in many developing countries originate from the colonial era. These laws characterize street vending as a public nuisance and threat to public order, cleanliness and public health. They place restrictions on street vending and impose criminal sanctions for vendors who breach them. Very few countries have adopted an economic development approach that aims to recognize and enhance street vendors’ contribution to the economy. The different regulatory regimes that govern vending within a particular area often contradict each other, and/or are inconsistently enforced. Street vendors in many cities are forced to pay bribes or excessive fines and fees in order to vend.

When urban planning decisions are made, the needs of street vendors and their customers are often dismissed as irrelevant to a modern city's growth. Street vendors are often evicted by force when their traditional vending sites overlap with sites for proposed development. And, like other informal workers, street vendors are usually excluded from social protection schemes.

See Street Vendors for more on the size and significance of the street vending population, their contributions, challenges and legal victories.

India's Law on Street Vending

Following a decades-long campaign by street vendors' associations, including the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) and the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), India adopted the National Policy on Urban Street Vendors in 2004 (revised 2009). In 2009 the country's Supreme Court, recognizing the importance of street vending to India's urban economies and the unique vulnerabilities of street vendors, ordered the government to enact a law to protect street vendors by no later than 2011. India’s Parliament enacted the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act in 2014, making India the first country to adopt progressive, centralized legislation that regulates street vending.

The Act has several provisions to protect livelihood, social security and human rights. It also mandates the establishment of town vending committees, and requires that 40 per cent of the members of the committee be street vendors, and that at least one third be women. This significant achievement is one of the first statutory collective bargaining forums for street vendors. Although not perfect, it represents an important step in recognizing street vendors as legitimate members of the urban economy, and in guaranteeing them participation and representation in urban planning processes.

See laws that address street trading.

Waste Pickers and the Law

Waste pickers collect, sort, recycle, and sell materials that others have thrown away. Their work improves urban health and sanitation, lowers municipal costs and fills gaps in municipal services, which contributes to a more sustainable urban environment. In some cities, informal waste pickers are the only form of waste management. Yet waste pickers also face challenges in protecting their rights: repressive regulatory regimes, societal discrimination, economic insecurity, and heightened occupational health and safety risks.

In many countries, waste pickers have formed collectives, such as trade unions or cooperatives, to advocate for their rights to inclusion in municipal planning, to pool their resources and to exercise bargaining power. In a few cities, particularly in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil and India, collectives of waste pickers have been contracted by the municipality to provide waste collection services as public service providers.

Despite such hard-won advances, significant legal and regulatory challenges remain. In many cities, waste pickers lack formal recognition and can be denied access to waste at the whim of local officials. The services that waste pickers provide, and the support they require to provide those services, may not be accounted for in municipal planning budgets or sufficient allocation of public space (for sorting sheds, for example). Like other informal workers, waste pickers are generally excluded from social protection schemes, despite the heightened occupational health and safety risks that they face.

See Waste Pickers for more on the size and significance of the waste picker population, their contributions, challenges and legal victories.

Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission (CDHDF) Issues Recommendation

In July of 2016, Mexico City’s Human Rights Commission (CDHDF) issued Recommendation 7/2016, which recognizes that in Mexico City waste pickers’ right to decent work was being violated. It is the first official document in Mexico City to place on record the discrimination, exploitation and abuse that waste pickers suffer. Specifically, the Recommendation highlights the shortcomings of the city’s public waste management system, and draws attention to the fact that the municipal government is allowing informal workers to provide a public service in unhealthy and precarious work conditions.

The Commission declared that “[t]he government of Mexico City is neglecting its obligation to respect, protect and guarantee decent work for volunteer workers and informal waste pickers who are part of the free labour force that is essential to the proper operation of the municipal sanitation service in Mexico City.”

The Recommendation details ways in which the municipality could promote decent work for informal waste pickers. It aims to reduce their risks and increase their protections and access to resources, such as subsidies, scholarships or training. Although the Recommendation is not binding and municipal authorities have no obligation to comply, it has established waste pickers’ right to decent work. WIEGO’s Latin America Law Programme Coordinator, Tania Espinosa, is a member of the Human Rights Commission in Mexico City and played an active role in advocating for the Recommendation.

Colombian Waste Pickers Organize for Rights and Recognition

In 2011, after years of advocacy by Colombian waste pickers, the Constitutional Court of Colombia ruled that Bogota's waste pickers must be included in municipal sanitation planning. Bogota's waste pickers were subsequently recognized as a provider of a public service and, as of March 2013, paid by the city at fixed rates, established under formal contracts, for the materials that they collect. 
In recognition for her leadership role in the ongoing legal campaigns, Nohra Padilla, the president of the Bogota Recyclers' Association who began working as a waste picker as a child, was awarded the 2013 Goldman Prize, also called the "Green Nobel."

See laws that address waste picking and waste pickers.

Other Informal Worker Groups

The informal economy includes workers from many sectors, including garment workers, fish workers/fisher folk, agricultural workers, contract farmers, construction workers, and transport workers. These workers support the world's growing economies as formal sector workers do, but they often experience economic insecurity and are excluded from social and labour protections, which have historically been governed through the employer-employee relationship. Workers in these sectors are often disproportionately poor and belong to social groups that experience discrimination. Many are women who support their households through informal livelihoods.

Although specific challenges vary from sector to sector and country to country, there are consistent challenges in creating enabling legal and regulatory frameworks for workers in the informal economy. These include:

  • designing social protection schemes that include workers in the informal economy that recognize informal workers as workers;
  • ensuring that all workers have safe and decent working conditions;
  • identifying strategies for monitoring employers' or contractors' compliance with the law in the absence of a formal workplace.
Informal Economy Theme