Debate – Organising Informal Workers



Presentation Slides

Ume Laila Azhar, HomeNet, Pakistan

Thierry Schaffauser, Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS)


Organising informal workers

7th July, 2015 / Chris Jones / guest blogger

On Tuesday afternoon the GLI International Summer School hosted a session on the topic of “organising informal workers” with speakers from Pakistan, South Africa and France.

Pakistan: organising home-based and domestic workers
Organising domestic workers in South Africa and beyond
France: organising sex workers

Pakistan: organising home-based and domestic workers

Ume Laila Azhar [Photo: Tilak Jang Khadka]
Ume Laila Azhar
[Photo: Tilak Jang Khadka]
The first presentation came from Ume Laila Azhar, Executive Director of HomeNet Pakistan, a membership-based organisation for home-based workers (HBWs) and domestic workers created in 2005. As she put it in her presentation: “HomeNet Pakistan envisions a society in which home based workers are ensured visibility, recognition, legal and social protection and a decent standard of living.”

The number of people working in the informal sector in Pakistan makes up some 74% of the country’s total working population. Within this sector, the trend for home-based work – for example, producing textiles, shoes or other items – has intensified since the 1990s. According to Laila: “nearly 76% of women joined the home-based sector in no more than the past 15 years.”

It is estimated that nearly 12 million women are HBWs in Pakistan, with over three million in urban areas and 8.5 million in rural areas. The wages are appalling: for example, one HBW who made bangles received 20 to 40 rupees (around 20 to 40 US cents) per day, for producing 320 bangles.

However, while the problems are clear to those who have investigated the situation, analysing the issue on a national level is problematic. This is the case for the informal sector as a whole: it is “unregistered and unrecorded in official statistics and thus not recognised, supported or regulated by the government.” Workers in the informal sector “are compelled to operate outside the legal framework and beyond the scale of social protection.” Major problems for informal workers include a lack of rights, a lack of social protection, a lack of representation and a lack of access to financial resources.

These problems disproportionately affect women: it is estimated that around 80% of women employed in Pakistan work in the informal sector, but they are invisible in the national statistics and policy discourse due to “definitional problems, socio-cultural constraints and gender bias flaws.” Meanwhile, it is estimated the number of home-based workers as a proportion of total employment has increased, from 20% to 27%. However, there are “no national statistics available,” and home-based workers are formally considered as “unpaid family helpers.”

HomeNet Pakistan attempts to challenge these problems and to improve the situation of HBWs by ensuring their visibility; connecting them with one another; introducing, improving and enforcing policy and legislation; and organising and educating HBWs from below to build their voices.

Photo: HomeNet Pakistan
Photo: HomeNet Pakistan

Part of this involves learning from global experiences and other organisations, such as the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). Emulating best practices and working collectively with other groups and people is important.

HomeNet’s work in Pakistan began by building on some work done by other organisations in 2001 and 2002 to map HBWs. A breakthrough was reached when 40 HBWs in the Kasur District were organised in two community organisations, founded as membership-based organisations (MBOs). One of these groups is now a paid member of HomeNet Pakistan, although the issue of member payment is a tricky one for an organisation which is trying to organise people in extremely low-paid work. Of 350 current members of HomeNet, only 60 are paying members.

HomeNet is a MBO itself and is a strong advocate of the MBO concept, which is based on principles that are essentially the same as those of a trade union: democracy, transparency, accountability, solidarity and independence.

The organisation also attempts to organise and counter the problems faced by domestic workers (DWs). Unlike home-based workers, who often work on small-scale production in their own homes, domestic workers are employed in other peoples’ homes and do work such as cooking and cleaning. They are predominantly women, and studies suggest that incidences of violence against them are increasing.

The issue of domestic workers has become more prominent since the signing in June 2014 of ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Workers. In Pakistan, the first union of domestic workers was formed in the same month.

Since 2010, HomeNet Pakistan and other organisations have sought to engage with political parties, calling for the protection of HBWs and DWs; the ratification of ILO Conventions C177 (on Home Work) and C189; new legislation; the extension of social protection to people working in these sectors; and ensuring a sector-wide minimum wage for HBWs.

Despite increasing prominence, the issue of informal workers in general is not yet “mainstream”. However, the work of HomeNet Pakistan and other organisations has led to a number of achievements:

  • The issue of home-based workers is now recognised;
  • There is consensus that informal workers need to be organised;
  • Informal workers are on the agenda of labour unions and in government labour policies;
  • Unions are emerging;
  • Draft policies and draft bills have been put together;
  • The issue has been included in the manifesto of the Pakistan People’s Party;
  • The UN’s CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women) Committee has made a number of recommendations to Pakistan on the topic in CEDAW/C/PAK/CO/4

However, challenges remain:

  • Who will organise informal workers?
  • Are trade unions ready to take on the issue as part of a long-term programme rather than as a “project”?
  • Who will ensure policies are implemented?
  • The space for rights-based organisations in Pakistan is shrinking, with more inclination towards service provision;
  • There is a need to find spaces to allow for training and leadership development;
  • There is no strong regional/international discourse on home-based workers;
  • It is unclear whether political parties are truly committed or just engaging in political point-scoring.

Laila’s closing point was that while much has been achieved, there is still a long way to go.

Photo: HomeNet Pakistan
Photo: HomeNet Pakistan

Questions followed, on topics such as whether informal, domestic and home-based work could form the basis for the next global union; and what kind of connection – if any – is there between migrant and domestic workers in Pakistan.

On the former, Laila noted that there are some initiatives ongoing towards internationalising the organisation of informal and home-based workers. Informal workers, for example, are recognised internationally but HBWs do not have the same prominence – the question is how to take the issue forward.

On the latter question, Laila responded by saying that there are few links between domestic workers’ and migrant workers’ organisations in Pakistan, although some initiatives are emerging. The issue of domestic work came onto the agenda in Pakistan due to increased violence against workers. It is necessary to think through the connections between migrant and domestic workers and discuss what would be useful to improve cooperation and connections.



Organising domestic workers in South Africa and beyond

Myrtle Witbooi [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Myrtle Witbooi
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Myrtle Witbooi from South Africa’s Domestic Workers Union and the International Domestic Workers’ Federation gave a powerful speech on how the domestic workers union has gone from being a personal project to an organisation involved in the global labour movement.

The first point that Myrtle made related to the title of her talk: “Dare to change your destiny.” Why choose that title? “I chose to change my destiny, and many others have chosen to do the same.”

Myrtle told her story: “One day I dared to ask my employer: why am I different to you? I am a woman and you are a woman. We are the same age. Why do you see me as an object?” That question changed her life: “that’s why I’m here today.”

After asking that question, Myrtle began talking to other domestic workers in South Africa, and they tried to focus public attention on the problems they faced through the formation of the Domestic Workers Union (DWU). By 2006 they had been invited to talk about their experiences at a meeting in Holland, with domestic workers from across the world: “there were boxes of tissues, we cried, because all of us were suffering… But what were we going to do about this? Just go back to our countries and cry?”

Instead, they went back to South Africa and started agitating and organising (see my “Organising from Below” blog post). In 2008 the IUF asked the DWU to participate in a meeting to review what had happened at the 2006 meeting in Holland, but the DWU didn’t want to go through the same experience again. Instead, they took the opportunity to form the International Domestic Workers’ Network (IDWN), to look at what was happening in the world and to change it.

When the issue of domestic workers came onto the ILO’s agenda, the IDWN decided they should be the ones to address that agenda. But when they got to the ILO, they got a shock: “We never prepared ourselves to be met with so many angry employers who had no respect for domestic workers… All we had to do at the ILO was sit still and listen to them… You just wanted to get up and grab one of them.” The protocols of the ILO’s tripartite system were stifling – “you mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that” – but also familiar. “Because we are domestic workers we were very respectful… when you are a domestic worker you are used to ‘yes madam, no madam’.”

Discussions and exchanges between the IDWN and the ILO went on for some time after this, and in 2011 they were invited back. This time, there were different employers’ representatives present, who understood the demands of the domestic workers’ better: “let our work become decent work,” the IDWN told the employers.

In June 2011 Convention C189 on Domestic Workers was signed, and has now been ratified by 21 countries across the world. But it’s “simply a piece of paper,” pointed out Myrtle. “Is that what we want for domestic workers in the world?” she asked. “We have many pieces of paper in our country… what are we going to do with it?” As she pointed out: “if you ask a domestic worker ‘have you heard of Convention 189?’ they’ll look at you like you’re mad.” On the other hand, “if you ask a domestic worker what they want, they’ll tell you, and then you can show them Convention 189 and tell them ‘this is all about you and your rights’.”

Despite the signing of the Convention, the question for IDWN remained the same: “How do we bring domestic workers across the world together?”

The IDWN decided to transform itself into a global federation, which they launched in Uruguay with the support of the country’s then-president, Jose Mujica. Mujica became well-known around the world for retaining his simple lifestyle and principles, despite his political position. When the IDWN – which was about to relaunch itself as the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) – arrived at the ceremony, they went “looking for the guy in the suit.” Jose Mujica doesn’t wear one. After some confusion, they tracked him down and realised: “Here is someone we can relate to.”

Despite the role of a male president in formally launching the IDWF, the federation decided not to allow any male members: “This is going to be the first federation in the world that’s run by women.” As Myrtle put it: “If we’re going to make a blunder, it will be our blunder. We don’t need you to come and mess up.”

The role of the federation “is to empower domestic workers… to stand up, free yourself,” and “to build.” As Myrtle pointed out, although 21 countries have now ratified Convention 189, it may mean little in practice: “if you go into those countries, what is happening? What is really happening?” To find out, the IDWF has been working to connect with and help organise workers across the world, including in some of the countries most notorious for the abuse of domestic workers: “We have now decided to take the bull by the horns and enter the Gulf countries.”

Recently the federation has also put in efforts in Jordan and Lebanon. In the latter, they launched a domestic workers’ union on a Saturday, and the following Monday the authorities closed it, saying that migrant workers don’t have the right to set up unions. Their work continues. They have also launched the campaign ‘My Fair Home’ in partnership with the ILO, which is designed to “bring the Convention into the home of the workers.”

Domestic workers all over the world face poor working conditions, employer abuse, low wages and numerous other problems which the federation wants to help them overcome. As Myrtle put it, for those who have successfully struggled for their rights: “We’ve got our freedom, we’ve got our dignity, and we’ve got out respect. And we’re not going to let anyone take it away from us.”

Following some questions, Myrtle said that the IDWF is open to assist anyone, and is interested in making connections with other organisations doing similar work – they just need to get in touch. One ISS participant said they had experienced first-hand how useful the IDWF was: when a domestic worker was raped by a judge in Sri Lanka, they sent information to and asked for help from all local trade unions and women’s groups. Within 15 minutes this had been passed onto the IDWF who got in touch to ask if and how they could help. As the participant put it: “their solidarity is very practical, they always ask what you want.”


France: organising sex workers

Thierry Schaffauser [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Thierry Schaffauser
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Thierry Schaffauser from France’s Syndicat du Travail Sexuel (STRASS, Sex Work Union) was the third and final speaker of the afternoon’s session, with a presentation on a type of work not often considered by mainstream trade unions: sex work.

Thierry opened his presentation by explaining that he has spent 13 years in the sex work industry. He first worked on the streets but now mainly works as an escort, as well as doing some porn acting and webcam work. “It’s quite rare to be invited to trade union meetings,” he said. The term ‘sex work’ was coined in 1979 and often focused on decriminalisation rather than labour issues. However, more and more sex workers’ organisations now call themselves unions.

The history of sex workers’ organising themselves goes back a long way. Thierry gave the group COYOTE as his first historical example, but said that other initiatives have existed before and probably for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

COYOTE stood for Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics. The group was founded in 1973 to stand up for the rights of sex workers in California. Other notable examples of self-organisation include occupations of churches in France in 1975, and an occupation of the Holy Church in London in 1982 in protest against police abuse and racism. Many of the city’s sex workers were then, as now, migrants and ethnic minorities.

Thierry moved on to give an overview of the sex industry, which encompasses:

  • The porn industry, where it is often hard to talk to fellow workers as the camera operator will often be the owner of the company selling the video. While contracts may sometimes be signed, it is the norm to work without a formal agreement with the employer;
  • Webcams, online chat and phone lines: often this involves formal employment but it can be freelance work. Sometimes workers are located in the same building with one another but often people are employed as contractors and work at home;
  • Striptease, pole and lap dancing clubs: within these workplaces the workers are often contractors or “self-employed” and so don’t have the rights that come with formal employment. Thierry mentioned the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite!, which follows the successful organising efforts of strippers at the Lusty Lady club in San Francisco;
  • Outdoor sex work, for example in stations, forests, streets, or car parks; and indoor sex work, for example in brothels, flats, saunas, bars, karaoke bars, massage parlours, peep shows: the legality of these situations varies from country-to-country. For example, in France procurement and soliciting laws mean that sex work has to be hidden, making it difficult for workers to organise;
  • Escorting work, where workers can be self-employed or employed by a company or agency.

STRASS has attempted to map the actual locations in which sex work takes place in Paris. However, this is difficult for a number of reasons. Locations change frequently depending on police crackdowns and changes to neighbourhoods (for example, through gentrification), and it is safer not to write down the locations in case the information gets into the hands of the authorities. Thierry keeps it safe inside his head.

His presentation moved on the obstacles to unionisation, which are numerous:


  • In France people have the right to sell sex, but it’s illegal to solicit in public places; the police can also arrest anyone suspected of being a sex worker. This power is often directed at migrants or tied up with gentrification and attempts to “clean up” neighbourhoods;
  • There are often laws against working together. In France if two or more people work together they are considered to be running a brothel and can be prosecuted.

Stigmatisation of sex work and sex workers, meaning they can’t talk openly about their work

No tradition of trade unionism

  • The first trade unions formed in the 19th century excluded women and didn’t consider sex work as work. Thierry noted that these unions expressed a sort of “classism”, with sex workers seen as part of the “under-proletariat”.

No shared workplaces (most of the time) –

  • Workers are physically/geographically isolated from each other, making it hard to organise.

Language barriers

  • In Paris many sex workers are from Latin America, China and elsewhere in the world.

Different identities and ways of working

  • How to build from same experience and identity when people don’t see themselves in the same way?

To try and overcome these problems, STRASS undertakes numerous different activities:

Legal advice and paralegal activities

  • STRASS initially hired two external legal advisers to provide training and they now have their own legal adviser who is also sex worker;
  • Frequent questions include: is what I do legal? Can I register myself as self-employed in order to obtain pension rights, employment benefits and so on?
  • Knowledge of law gives workers strength, for example people often try to take advantage of sex workers by threatening to report them to the police. When people know that their work is not necessarily illegal, they can stand up to these threats.

Sharing and providing information in different languages

  • A Chinese-speaking group of sex workers has been set up in Paris with the support of STRASS.

Distribution of condoms and prevention material

  • STRASS obtains free condoms from HIV charities, although distribution can be difficult: for example in places such as massage parlours having condoms is illegal as it means the building would be considered as a brothel;
  • However, distributing (or attempting to distribute) condoms is a good way to make contact and initiate conversation with people.

Safe spaces: weekly meetings, online forums, collective meals and parties

  • These kind of events are important: people need to get together as stigmatisation a big issue and admitting their profession is impossible for the majority of sex workers due to the risks for their relationships with family and friends.
  • STRASS annual conference, which has now been held for a number of years
  • Campaigning and activism
  • Training sessions on advocacy and trade union organising

STRASS’ work is, given the nature of the workers it is organising, different in a number of ways to “traditional” unions’ work. Thierry described some of the things that STRASS does that may seem out of the ordinary to many trade unionists:

Fighting police abuse and violence

  • For example, STRASS supported a sex worker who brought a successful court case against a police officer who raped her.

Support for undocumented workers

  • Recently the French CGT began a campaign to support undocumented workers, and said it was the first trade union to do so. However, STRASS has supported undocumented workers since its inception.

Actions against forced labour and human trafficking

  • Fighting against exploitation outside of the labour laws and against the conflation between trafficking and sex work;
  • This is a problem for sex workers as they cannot make use of labour law – the only laws that employed sex workers can try to enforce relate to pimping, but they are not favourable to the workers.

Feminism and LGBT rights

HIV and health

  • This is important for the movement both in itself and because historically a majority of financial support has from HIV organisations, or in relation to HIV issues – for example state bodies won’t fund you to do trade union work, but they might to distribute condoms and information about HIV.

Individual support and intimate issues (care work)

The organisation has had numerous successes:

  • Decreased police abuse in some places;
  • More solidarity and less racism within sex workers’ communities;
  • Sex workers are better informed about their rights; and
  • STRASS’ membership has increased in recent years from 200 to 500.

Due to the difficult, dangerous and precarious nature of sex work, and the stigmatisation attached to it by many in society, Thierry argued that sex workers and STRASS have a different understanding of exploitation to traditional trade unions. For example, while they have to struggle within the workplace (in relation to fees, fines, workplace rules, health and safety conditions), sex workers also face many problems outside the workplace (for example with landlords, inability to advertise their work, police corruption).

Another problem faced by sex workers – and which is perhaps also true for the domestic workers and home-based workers that other speakers in the session organise with – is that the nature of their work makes traditional forms of struggle difficult. Sex work is often freelance or without contracts; it may be criminalised outright; and many workers are undocumented. In these conditions, the traditional weapon of a strike is often not relevant to their struggle.

In order to try and increase the power of sex workers’ unions and organisations, Thierry made a number of suggestions. Amongst sex workers themselves, there is a need for greater networking, connections and solidarity, as promoted by unions like STRASS. Sex workers could also benefit from linking the criminalisation of their own work with other forms of informal labour such as street art, unlicensed street sales, begging and drug dealing, as well as the broader exploitation of labour within the “industrial carceral [i.e. prison and detention] complex”. It is also important to highlight and explore the connections between sex work, the social reproduction of labour and the specific oppression of female migrant workers; and the effects of globalisation and liberalism.

Thierry ended by making a number of suggestions for what other trade unionists can do to help:

  • Invite their unions to pass motions for decriminalisation and for sex workers’ labour rights;
  • Invite sex workers to public talks;
  • Organise informal workers in general by opening branches in your trade union;
  • Fund and support events to organise informal workers; and
  • Fight austerity and for the rights of women, migrants and minorities.

Some powerful interventions and numerous questions followed, with little time left for Thierry to answer them. He managed to give brief answers to two. The first was whether there is an international network of sex workers – there is. The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) links up hundreds of organisations around the world.

Other questions brought up the issues of regulation and legalisation. Thierry responded by saying that on this point, STRASS prefers to talk about decriminalisation rather than regulation or /legalisation. Often the latter implies regulating workers in ways where certain types of workers will be criminalised: for example, those who refuse to work in official brothels. Often official approval of brothels is of greater benefit to employers than to workers.

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