The Informal Economy Revisited – landmark book in open access

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The Informal Economy Revisited: Examining the Past, Envisioning the Future, edited by WIEGO’s Martha Chen and Françoise Carré.

The Informal Economy Revisited by Chen and Carre book Cover

This 34-chapter open-access book brings together leading scholars to investigate recent conceptual shifts, research findings and policy debates on the informal economy. Well over half of the global workforce and the vast majority of the workforce in developing countries work in the informal economy, and in countries around the world new forms of informal employment are emerging. Yet the informal workforce is not well understood, remains undervalued and is widely stigmatized. 

Contributors bridge a range of disciplinary perspectives including anthropology, development economics, law, political science, sociology, statistics, and urban planning and design. The Informal Economy Revisited, which is the culmination of 20 years of pioneering work by WIEGO, also focuses on specific groups of informal workers to provide a grounded insight into disciplinary debates. Ultimately, the book calls for a paradigm shift in how the informal economy is perceived to reflect the realities of informal work in the Global South, as well as the informal practices of the state and capital, not just labour.





This comprehensive and up-to-date book, with contributions from a wide range of disciplines, is essential reading for everyone interested in work, employment and development. It demonstrates that it is not through the wage that most workers in the world relate to capital and to the state, but through a variety of forms of self-employment, own account work, and work as contributing family members. It covers innovations such as the new status category in labour statistics of ‘dependent contractor’, which captures more accurately the situation of the majority of outworkers, home-based workers, and ‘gig’ workers. It debunks myths, such as that the informal economy does not pay tax. It argues that bypassing rules and regulations is not unique to the informal economy but is also characteristic of businesses in the formal economy. It shows that informal workers can make gains through organising and that social protection and labour standards can be designed in ways appropriate for securing justice for informal workers. It sets out a compelling case for a paradigm shift in how the informal economy is understood, and for ‘decolonising’ policies and laws for the informal economy. – Diane Elson, Emeritus Professor, University of Essex, UK. Member of UN Committee for Development Policy

There is simply no better source for anyone interested in any aspect of the informal economy. Edited by two of the most eminent scholars in the field, this book brings together the best of thoughtful and cutting-edge research and analysis of informality from different disciplinary perspectives. The concluding call for a paradigm shift in research towards more empirically grounded, granular, transdisciplinary, mixed method approaches that isolate structural tendencies while hearing the voices of the workers themselves, is the more compelling because this volume provides such a good example. – Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

This book brings together some of the leading authors on the subject of the informal economy, each bringing a wealth of insights into its different aspects: the past and present trends that are shaping how it works in different regions of the world, the categories of people who work in it, the conditions under which they work and what can be done to improve their lives and livelihoods. The book will be a valuable resource for researchers and for the development community at large, not only for its empirical contributions but also its methodological and policy contributions. – Naila Kabeer, Professor of Gender and Development, London School of Economics

For far too long, workers in the informal economy have been ignored, undercounted, and underappreciated.  Yet in many countries, most of the economic activity occurs outside of the formal economy, and informal workers produce essential goods and services – from people doing piecework at the beginning of the garment supply chain, to vendors of street food, to urban recyclers, to nannies and housekeepers. This volume offers new ways to conceptualize informality, making visible the many dimensions of the informal economy while drawing on perspectives from across the social sectors.  It is essential reading for anyone interested in global development, labour economics, or women's economic empowerment, and helps us progress toward the goal of dignified work for all. – Ruth Levine, CEO, IDInsight

A masterful overview of how research on and policies for the informal economy have evolved over the last fifty years. Drawing on multi-disciplinary approaches and providing multi-country evidence, this book documents comprehensively as well as critically a cautiously hopeful view of the struggle for recognition and appreciation of informal economies in development policies. A must-read for both scholars and practitioners who want to envision an alternative approach to mainstream thinking regarding how to improve the quality of life of the vast majority of the labour force in an increasingly unpredictable world. – Bish Sanyal, Ford International Professor of Urban Development & Planning and Director, Spurs/Humphrey program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The informal economy continues to be a highly persistent and ubiquitous phenomenon in several developing countries in spite of rapid economic development in many parts of the Global South. WIEGO has played a leading role over two decades in scholarship, policy analysis and advocacy in improving the livelihoods of workers in the informal economy. In this important book, edited by Martha Chen and Françoise Carré, WIEGO has brought together leading scholars from across the social sciences to contribute to a rich understanding of the informal economy from different disciplinary perspectives. At a critical juncture in the world economy, when many informal livelihoods are being lost to the pandemic, the book will be compelling reading to academics, policy makers and practitioners. – Kunal Sen, Director, UNU-WIDER and Professor of Development Economics, University of Manchester


Martha Chen is a Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School, USA, and Co-Founder, Emeritus International Coordinator and Senior Advisor of WIEGO. She holds a PhD in South Asia Regional Studies from the University of Pennsylvania. She has co-authored many of WIEGO’s flagship publications on the informal economy and co-edited most recently (with Adrienne Eaton and Susan Schurman) Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective (Cornell University Press 2017).

Françoise Carré is Research Director, Centre for Social Policy, UMass Boston, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts/Boston, USA, and Director of WIEGO’s Statistics Programme. She holds a PhD in Urban and Regional Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  She is the co-author (with Chris Tilly) of Where Bad Jobs are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies (Russell Sage Foundation 2017).


Rina Agarwala is Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, USA. Agarwala publishes and lectures on labor, migration, gender, and social movements. She is currently completing a manuscript on migration and development in India, the Middle East, and the USA. Agarwala is the author of Informal Labor, Formal Politics and Dignified Discontent in India (Cambridge 2013) and the co-editor of Whatever Happened to Class? Reflections from South Asia (Routledge 2008). She has also worked at the United Nations Development Program in China, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, and Women’s World Banking in New York.

Laura Alfers is a Research Fellow, Rhodes University, South Africa, and Director, Social Protection Programme, WIEGO. She holds a PhD from the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Her thesis used a gendered historical analysis to engage critically with health reforms that seek to be inclusive of informal workers.

Gautam Bhan is Senior Lead, Academics and Research, School of Human Development at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore. He holds a PhD in City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley. He teaches, researches and writes on the politics of urban poverty and inequality, urban and planning theory, housing, and identity and social practice. He is the author of In the Public’s Interest: Evictions, Citizenship and Inequality in Contemporary Delhi (University of Georgia Press 2017, Orient Blackswan 2017) and co-editor (with Smita Srinivas and Vanessa Watson) of The Routledge Companion to Planning in the Global South (Routledge, 2018).

Adelle Blackett is Professor of Law and Canada Research Chair in Transnational Labour Law and Development at McGill University, Canada, where she also directs the Labour Law and Development Research Laboratory. She holds a doctorate in law from Columbia University, USA. Among the books she has authored is Everyday Transgressions: Domestic Workers’ Transnational Challenge to International Labour Law (Cornell University Press 2019).

Jan Breman is Professor Emeritus Comparative Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Honorary Fellow at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His latest books include At Work in the Informal Economy of India; A Perspective from the Bottom Up (OUP 2013) and Mobilizing Labour for the Global Coffee Market; Profits from an Unfree Work Regime in Colonial Java (AUP 2015).

Jérémie Cavé is a French expert in Urban Ecology. He holds a PhD in urban studies from École des Ponts ParisTech, University of Paris-Est, France, and has been working on urban and environmental issues in the global South for more than a decade. He is a lecturer in Political Ecology at Sciences Po Toulouse, France, and the author of La Ruée vers l’Ordure (Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2015). He also writes fiction: Le Sacrilège d’Icare (Editions Thot 2018).

Paul Cichello is an Associate Professor of the Practice of Economics at Boston College, USA. He has a PhD from Cornell University, USA. His research focuses on labour markets in developing countries, particularly Africa, with a primary interest in the informal economy and the informal sector.

Sarah Cook is Director, Institute for Global Development, at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia and Emeritus Director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development and of UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre. She holds a PhD from the Harvard Kennedy School, USA. An economist and China specialist, her research has focused primarily on China’s social and economic transformations, including work on labour and migration, poverty, inequality, social policy and gender.

Veronica Crossa has been a Professor in Urban Studies at the Centre for Demographic, Urban and Environmental Studies at El Colegio de México in Mexico City, Mexico, since 2013. Previously, she was a lecturer in the School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, Ireland. Veronica holds a PhD in geography from Ohio State University, USA. Her research lies at the intersection of urban geography, cultural geography and critical theory. Most of her work has centred on the struggles resulting from the implementation of revitalization policies in Mexico City’s public spaces.

Sonia Dias is the Waste Specialist of WIEGO, based in Brazil. She holds a PhD in Political Science from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil. Her research and policy work focuses on promoting the integration of social inclusion aspects into the technical planning of waste collection and recycling.

Lucía Fernandez is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Theory and Urbanism, Faculty of Architecture Universidad de la República, Uruguay, and WIEGO’s Global Waste Picker Coordinator, supporting organizations and networks of waste pickers around the world. Lucía holds two master’s degrees from France: in Architecture from the Ecole National Superieure d’Architecture and in Ethical and Sustainable Development from the Philosophy Faculty of Universite Lyon.

David Francis is the Deputy Director at the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is a PhD candidate in economics and his research interests are the informal economy and the rural labour market in South Africa.

Judy Fudge is the LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli Professor of Global Labour Issues at the School of Labour Studies, McMaster University, Canada. She holds a PhD from Oxford University, UK. She adopts a socio-legal approach to the study of labour regulation and labour rights and has a particular interest in strategies that improve the well-being and life changes of women and precarious workers.

Barbara Harriss-White is an Emeritus Professor and Fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford University, UK. She holds a PhD in Development Economics from the University of East Anglia, UK. She has written extensively on the Indian political economy with a focus on deprivation, agrarian change and the informal economy, including India Working: Essays on Economy and Society (Cambridge University Press 2003), Middle India (Springer 2016) and The Wild East (UCL Press 2019).

James Heintz is the Andrew Glyn Professor of Economics and Associated Director, Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA, and holds a PhD in Economics from the same university. He has written on a wide range of economic policy issues, including job creation, the distributive consequences of macroeconomic policies, gender and economics, and human rights.

Amin Y. Kamete is Senior Lecturer in Spatial Planning in the Department of Urban Studies in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, UK. He holds a PhD in Urban Planning from the University of Wales, Bangor, UK. His research interests are planning theory and practice with special emphasis on governmentality, cities, space and power in the context of development planning and development management practice vis-à-vis informality, marginality, resistance, (in)security and sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ravi Kanbur is T.H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied Economics, and Professor of Economics at Cornell University, USA. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Oxford, UK. He researches and teaches in development economics, public economics and economic theory. He is well known for his role in policy analysis and engagement in international development, and has published extensively in leading economics journals.

Francie Lund is the Emeritus Director and Advisor of WIEGO’s Social Protection Programme, based in South Africa. Trained as a sociologist, she was a Senior Research Associate in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She chaired the Lund Committee on Child and Family Support, which was convened after South Africa’s transition to democracy and proposed the now well-known cash support grant for poor children.

Kate Meagher is an Associate Professor in Development Studies at the Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science, UK. She holds a PhD in Sociology from Oxford University, UK, and specializes in the political ethnography of African informal economies, on which she has published widely, including Globalisation, Economic Inclusion and African Workers: Making the Right Connections ​(Palgrave 2016, edited with Laura Mann and Maxim Bolt). Current research interests include informality and youth unemployment, the political economy of informal economic inclusion, and the gig economy and the social contract.

Rahul Mehrotra is an Architect and Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, USA. He is a practising architect, urban designer and educator, and has written and lectured extensively on architecture, conservation and urban planning in Mumbai and India. He has curated several exhibitions on architecture and urbanism in India.

Rodrigo Negrete is a Research Economist at the Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI), Mexico. His areas of specialization are household survey design, labour markets and social indicators. He is a member of the International Expert Group on Informal Sector Statistics (the Delhi Group), has served on several ILO expert groups on measuring informal employment and is a co-author of an ILO manual on measuring informality.

Michael J. Piore is the David W. Skinner Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. He holds a PhD in Economics from Harvard University, USA, and has worked on a wide variety of labour issues including international migration, the impact of technological change, trade union organization and collective bargaining. His most recent book (with Andrew Schrank) is Root Cause Regulation (Harvard University Press 2018).

Uma Rani is Senior Economist at the Research Department, ILO. She holds a Ph.D. in Development Economics from University of Hyderabad, India. Her research focuses on digital platforms, global supply chains in the electronics sector, minimum wages and income inequality, wherein she explores how labour and social institutions interact with public policies. She has recently published and co-authored a report on Digital Labour Platforms and the Future of Work: Towards Decent Work in the Online World.

Sally Roever is International Coordinator of WIEGO, currently based in the United States. She holds a PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, USA. Her PhD thesis was on street vending organizations and local governance in Lima, Peru. Her research focuses on the risks and vulnerabilities associated with own-account work in the urban informal economy, the role of urban infrastructure and public space in supporting informal livelihoods, and innovations in urban legal frameworks regarding informal employment.

Michael Rogan is an Associate Professor at the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit, Institute of Social and Economic Research, Rhodes University, South Africa, and a Research Associate with WIEGO. He holds a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Washington, USA. His research interests include gender, informal employment, health, poverty and inequality, and survey design.

Melanie Samson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She holds a PhD from York University, Canada. Her research focuses on the relationship between waste and value, and how analysis of the work and lives of informal workers facilitates the development of theorizations of the economy and polity relevant to post-colonial contexts. She recently facilitated the development of the Guidelines for Waste Picker Integration in South Africa for the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries.

Kamala Sankaran is Professor in the Faculty of Law, University of Delhi, India. Her research is in the areas of constitutional law, international labour standards and the informal economy. She is working on the legal regulation of the informal economy, and equality and discrimination issues in South Asia. She has been associated with two WIEGO Law Projects dealing with informal employment; one in India and the other in Ghana, Peru and Thailand. Her recent books include Affirmative Action: A View from the Global South (SunMedia 2014, co-edited with Ockert Dupper) and Challenging the Legal Boundaries of Work Regulation (Hart Publishing 2012, co-edited with Judy Fudge and Shae McCrystal).

Caroline Skinner is a Senior Researcher at the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Urban Policies Research Director for WIEGO. Her research and policy work interrogate the nature of the informal economy with a focus on informing advocacy processes and livelihood-centred policy and planning responses in South Africa and internationally and supporting organizations of informal workers in their advocacy campaigns.

Silke Staab is a Research Specialist at UN Women, New York, USA. She holds as PhD in Politics from the University of Manchester, UK. She has published widely on gender, social protection and childcare policies in Latin America. Her book Gender and the Politics of Gradual Change (Palgrave 2017) compares progress and limitations of social policy reforms and innovations in Chile from a gender perspective.

Meenu Tewari is Associate Professor of Economic and International Development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA. She holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. Her research focuses on the political economy of development, industrialization and urbanization with a special focus on global production networks. Her recent publications include two co-edited volumes (with Dev Nathan and Sandip Sarkar) Labor in Global Value Chains in Asia (2017) and Development with Global Value Chains: Upgrading and Innovation in Asia (2019), both with Cambridge University Press.

Chris Tilly is Professor of Urban Planning at University of California/Los Angeles, USA. He has a PhD in Economics and Urban Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. He studies labour and inequality in the US and global context, with a particular focus on bad jobs and how to make them better. He is the co-author (with Françoise Carré) of Where Bad Jobs Are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies (Russell Sage Foundation 2017).

Imraan Valodia is Dean of the Commerce, Law and Management Faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He holds a PhD in Economics from the University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. He was previously based at the School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal, and served on the research team of WIEGO. His research interests include employment, the informal economy, gender and economic policy, and industrial development.

Joann Vanek is Emeritus Director and Advisor of WIEGO’s Statistics Programme, based in New York, USA. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Michigan, USA. At the United Nations Statistics Division she contributed to the development of the international programme in gender statistics and led the production of three issues of the UN global statistical report The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics. She has coauthored several WIEGO flagship publications and two editions of the ILO publication Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture.

Marlese von Broembsen is the Director of WIEGO’s Law Programme. She is based in South Africa. She holds law degrees from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Harvard Law School, USA, and a master’s degree in Development Studies from the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Marlese was a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town, adjunct faculty at North Eastern Law School, USA, and a visiting researcher at the Institute of Global Law and Policy, Harvard Law School. She writes on labour law and development, transnational regulation of global value chains, and on homeworkers.

Vanessa Watson is Professor of City Planning at the School of Architecture, Planning and Geomatics and the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, South Africa. She holds a PhD from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Her focus area is southern planning theory and urban planning on the African continent. She co-edited (with Gautam Bhan and Smita Srinivas) The Routledge Companion to Planning in the Global South (Routledge 2017) and co-authored (with Richard de Satgé) Urban Planning in the Global South: Conflicting Rationalities in Contested Urban Space (Palgrave 2018).

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