The Law Programme strives for the recognition, inclusion and protection of the rights and work of informal workers in international instruments, national and local laws and regulations; and to build the capacity of informal workers and their organizations to use the law to fight for secure livelihoods and labour rights.
Workers who are informally employed and their informal enterprises are excluded from labour, employment and business legislation. They are therefore denied the rights and entitlements afforded to formal-economy employees and formal enterprises. At the same time, a complex matrix of national, sector-specific and city-level legislation regulates the livelihood activities of workers in the informal economy, which is often punitive in its effect. Contravention is frequently treated as a criminal offence, compromising workers’ livelihoods and often violating their human rights. Also, police harassment of workers in informal employment and denial of their due process protections under rule of law are common.
In most countries, labour and employment legislation and policy focuses only on formal employment relationships. Policy for workers in the informal economy is either in the form of small business support (with an emphasis on supply-side interventions such as micro-finance and business training), or poverty-alleviation projects (particularly for women, who are over-represented in the lowest-income sectors). Such programmes benefit individuals but fail to challenge informal workers’ structural exclusion from the economy, and from the broader social contract.
Often workers in informal employment experience the law as irrelevant to their work, or they think of the law as a source of power wielded against them by the state.
Workers who are informally employed – both waged and self-employed workers – lack a regulatory framework that promotes stable and secure working conditions, and that recognizes their entitlement to labour rights, including to the fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining.
Stay informed about the challenges faced by informally employed workers and the efforts to improve their working conditions by reading our semi-annual newsletter, Law & Informality Insights. This publication covers key developments in regulations, jurisprudence, and scholarship, shedding light on the importance of establishing a regulatory framework that promotes stability, security, and the recognition of labor rights.
We strive for a world in which:
- International instruments, national and local laws and regulations and policies recognize, include and protect the rights and work of both waged and self-employed workers in informal employment.
- Workers who are informally employed (both waged-and self-employed workers) and their organizations know, use and shape the law to secure their livelihoods and to realize their labour rights, including the fundamental right to bargain collectively.
To advance these objectives, we aim to:
- Build the capacity of membership-based organizations of workers (domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors and waste pickers) to know, use and shape the law.
- Increase the number of legal and civil society organizations that support the recognition, inclusion and protection of informal employment in law and policy at local, national and global levels.
- Encourage legal scholars and labour lawyers to advocate for workers in informal employment in their scholarship and in policy contexts.
Values that Guide our Work
Our work is guided by four assumptions:
Political struggle and law reform are inseparable: Progressive legislation on its own is seldom enough to extend entitlements and protect rights. In the absence of political will, strong organizations are needed to struggle for rights to be realized and legislation to be implemented and enforced. We therefore work closely with WIEGO’S Organization and Representation Programme and with membership-based organizations of workers in informal employment.
Institutions (cultural, socio-economic, political and legal) determine how laws are interpreted, applied and enforced: Legal arguments or laws cannot be transferred wholesale from one context to another because the political economy and institutions (including cultural, political and legal norms) fundamentally affect how law is interpreted and whether and how the law is enforced.
International law is important for advocacy at the national level: Recognition of workers in informal employment at the global level can translate into effective advocacy at the national and local levels. Enforcement mechanisms, such as the ILO and UN Reporting mechanisms, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and OECD National Contact Points, can create pressure for national governments to recognize and engage with organizations of workers in informal employment.
Effective enforcement mechanisms are as important as substantive rights: Even where legislation is progressive, enforcement is often ineffective. This is especially common if the legislation is viewed as investor-unfriendly, or if the state is under-resourced, authoritarian and/or controlled by elites. Paying attention to enforcement mechanisms is therefore as important as crafting substantive rights.
Our activities comprise research, capacity building, training, technical legal support, learning exchanges, building alliances, and advocacy in global policy spaces. We also build solidarity among membership-based organizations for advocacy for policy and legal change at global and regional levels.
Trade, Law and Urban Space
Many challenges that workers in informal employment face are the result of decisions made by local government authorities, who control public space and access to waste and land. Known as administrative decisions, these have far-reaching impacts on workers' livelihoods. WIEGO’s Administrative Justice and ILO Recommendation 204 stream of work aims to build the capacity of workers’ organizations to use administrative law — the branch of law that requires government officials to respect due process — to challenge local authorities’ decisions and actions. It also aims to support MBOs to build alliances with lawyers and trade unions to realize ILO Recommendation No. 204 Concerning the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy (R204), particularly rights to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, and the recognition of public space as workplace.
Legal Empowerment for Workers in Informal Employment
Many global instruments recognize the rights of workers in informal employment and their role as essential economic actors. Examples are ILO Conventions No. 189 on domestic work, No. 190 on violence and harassment, No. 177 on homeworkers, and R204. However, many countries fail to translate these rights into domestic law and practice. WIEGO’s Law Programme supports workers in informal employment to use international instruments for advocacy at the national level to realize their rights using a legal empowerment approach.
We carry out this work in partnership with international networks of workers in informal employment and their members across five occupational groups: domestic workers, home-based workers, waste pickers, garment workers, and street/market vendors.
We have three projects in this stream of work:
In 2011, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the Convention concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers (No. 189, known as C189) and its accompanying Recommendation (No. 201), which extends rights such as paid leave, minimum wages and employment contracts to domestic workers. After C189 was adopted, the International Domestic Workers’ Federation (IDWF) and its affiliates worldwide turned their attention to securing its ratification and implementation at the national level.
WIEGO is partnering with the IDWF to pilot a community paralegal programme in four African countries from 2023.
We support HomeNet International (HNI) and its members with research, materials development, capacity building, and technical support, including on different legislative models to protect homeworkers at the national level.
We supported the Bulgarian Homeworkers Association in submitting a report to the ILO Committee of Experts on the Applications of Conventions and Recommendations on its government’s failure to include homeworkers in labour legislation after ratifying the Convention.
Human Rights Law and Informal Employment
- Waste Pickers and Human Rights Project
About 20 million people around the world depend directly on recycling for their livelihoods. These workers gather and sort materials on landfills or open dumpsites, collect waste from garbage bags or containers in public spaces, and collect household waste. Waste pickers generate considerable environmental, economic and social benefits for the cities in which they work.
WIEGO’s Law and Organization and Representation programmes launched the “Protection of Human Rights of Waste Pickers in Latin America” in 2017, a six-country project which also included the submission to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights for a thematic hearing on the violation of waste pickers’ human rights in Latin America. In this project, we documented and analyzed the working conditions of waste pickers from a human rights perspective. Through legal advocacy – including with the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights — we support membership-based organizations of waste pickers to advocate for recognition and to realize their right to work.
Informal Employment in Global Supply Chains
Our joint work with HomeNet International, HomeNet South-East Asia, and HomeNet South Asia focuses on homeworkers in the garment sector.
Since 2019, our work with MBOs in the garment sector has focused on the human rights due diligence legislative process in Europe, which aims to make it mandatory for European Union member states to introduce statutes that will make (bigger) businesses assume responsibility for labour and environmental rights violations, including in their supply chains. We have supported 14 organizations from eight production countries to understand and participate in the process, including submitting a platform of demands to the EU Commission and sending an open letter to every Commissioner. This work is summarized in this edition of Law and Informality Insights.
Engaging in Global Agenda-Setting Processes and in Research
To challenge mainstream assumptions about law and workers in informal employment — for example, that they operate outside the law, or that their work is criminal — WIEGO’s Law Programme engages in global agenda-setting processes. For example, we participated in the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel (UN HLP) for Women’s Economic Empowerment, which was created to define an actionable agenda for improving economic outcomes for women in the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. We served on the working group on legal barriers, participated in roundtable discussions and regional consultations, and produced a policy brief on Eliminating Legal Barriers from the Perspective of the Informal Economy. We challenge the boundaries of legal scholarship through research and publishing and we seek to influence communities of practice to recognize and include informal employment in their scholarship and practice in three disciplines: Labour Law, Urban Law, and Human Rights Law.
International Human Rights Clinic, Harvard Law School
The International Human Rights Clinic advances human rights around the world – across a range of thematic and geographic areas – while training the next generation of advocates.
Robert and Helen Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, NYU School of Law
The Bernstein Institute for Human Rights is a centre at NYU Law that supports and trains community justice advocates, law students, and lawyers on legal empowerment methods as a way to actively challenge inequities around the world.
Namati works to advance social and environmental justice by building a movement of people who know, use, and shape the law.
Social Law Project, University of the Western Cape
The Social Law Project is a UWC project on labour law, workplace and social justice.
WIEGO is a pro bono client of Bowmans law firm, which has eight offices across Africa.
Read more about our engagement in global agenda-setting and our research: Organizing (Law) Briefs, Technical Briefs, Working Papers (Law), Law & Informality Insights, Law & Informality Highlights, and some past activities.
Marlese von Broembsen
Director, Law Programme
Pamhidzai H. Bamu
Tania Sanchez Espinosa
Latin America Coordinator
Access to Justice Specialist
Legal Empowerment Specialist
Law Officer, Southern Africa