Organising Informal Workers

Panel debate between organisers of informal workers, led by questions from the floor.


Presentation Slides

Jane Barrett, WIEGO, South Africa


Organising Informal Workers

5th July, 2016 / Celia Mather / guest blogger

Josua Mata opened the session by recalling that fifteen years ago, when a labour centre in the Philippines was trying to build a social movement including informal workers, trade unions asked why involve them? Today, that is no longer a question. Unions have to engage with informal workers, whether they like it or not, he said. The question now is: how effectively are they doing it? And how does it impact on union structures and governance?

Shipbuilders in India

Rajkamal Tewary is President of the Defence Shipbuilding Workers Union in Kolkata, India. He thinks that informal workers’ organising is essential not only for them but also for already organised formal workers. Employers, whether private or public, use informal workers against formal workers, for example contract labour to break a strike, to keep wages down, and so on.

Rajkamal Tewary [Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
Rajkamal Tewary
[Photo: Khalid Mahmood]
In India, only 9% of the workforce is formally employed and 91% of workers are informal. In Kolkata, there are thousands of home-based garment workers in the area where his union is based. With the support of the Asia Monitor Resource Centre from Hong Kong, they trained some 60-70 union organisers to reach out to these workers, and a union of some 900 of them has now been formed. In his view, the politically-affiliated unions in India have done little to oppose neo-liberalism. By contrast, his union wants to help organise such workers so that their struggles are integrated into the wider class struggle.

What do informal workers want?

WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising), as its name says, exists to support informal workers’ organising around the world, particularly but not only women. It works primarily in four sectors: domestic workers, home workers, waste pickers and street vendors. Jane Barrett, head of WIEGO’s Organising and Representation Programme, gave some data on the scale of informal work across the world. It is particularly high in Asia and Africa, but it exists everywhere.  Informal workers are those who work in the formal sector but are not covered by employment regulations, and those who work outside a formal employment relationship.

WIEGO has found that informal workers want economic rights and social protection, legal identity and social recognition, voice and bargaining power, and organisation. In fact, very often they have already organised themselves, such as in cooperatives, self-help groups, societies, etc., and it is with such organisations – where they are membership-based – that WIEGO collaborates.

Moreover, these organisations do undertake collective bargaining, though it is often with local or national government rather than employers. And they use their power, not just by withholding labour, but in other disruptive ways such as occupying and shutting down public space and roads. The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India – which is a registered trade union – is 2 million strong and has a vast range of activities for and by its members. Its ‘banyan tree’ structure shows how it puts its members at the top, she said.

See more at: ‘Learning from organising and campaigning amongst informal workers’ ppt.

Power loom workers in Pakistan

Khalid Mahmood of the Labour Education Foundation in Pakistan spoke about the struggle of power loom workers producing cloth for the textile industry in the city of Faisalabad. Thousands of rural workers have been brought in to do this work, without employment contracts, or housing, or being registered as workers. There are thousands of them, and they should be formal but they are not.

These workers have now built an organisation. In 2003, police beat workers who were trying to voice their demands, and one brave worker who fought back was arrested. That led them to meet in a park and start organising to defend him and themselves. Today, the power loom workers have a Labour Movement. It is not a registered union but it is an effective organisation.

The organisation has 20 local units at community level, which collect membership fees, hold regular meetings, and employ 2-3 full-time officials with motorbikes. They do not negotiate collectively with the employers who are more like gangsters with their own thugs. Instead, they take their demands – such as for the legal minimum wage, and health and safety standards – to the relevant district and city government structures.

The workers say it is the government which is responsible for implementing labour regulations, and sometimes they put pressure on by picketing government offices. The government then holds tripartite discussions including the workers’ and employers’ representatives.

Power loom workers marching in Lahore [Photo: Farooq Tariq]
Power loom workers marching in Lahore
[Photo: Farooq Tariq]
In one action, the workers did also demonstrate outside the house of an employer who was about to shut down his factory for two months while he went on haj. The workers laid out white sheets, a sign of mourning in their culture, to show that workers were likely to starve without income for two months. They do continue to face government repression, and internal democracy remains a challenge, which LEF is trying to help them with.

Later, in response to a question, he added that the trade unions in the country offered little support to the power loom workers, even when leaders were jailed under anti-terrorism laws. The unions considered the movement as too militant. At one point there was a political division within the movement, and in fact the unions made this worse. In Pakistan there is a big problem of the competition between unions, and the power loom workers’ movement has decided it does not need to become a registered union.

Sex work

Another type of informal workers is sex workers. In most countries, this work is illegal to some degree, de facto making the workers informal. In the UK, a group of sex workers and some allies have formed a worker-led collective called the Sex Worker Open University (SWOU). As one of their activists explained, they are fighting for decriminalisation and labour rights. Their aim is to build their community and organise through drop-in sessions, workshops, actions and art projects.

In a criminalised environment, whether working alone or in a brothel, sex workers are extremely vulnerable to abuse. Their jobs are insecure, without proper employment contracts, and they have no holiday or sick pay, pension rights, etc. Their work is also outside the health and safety regulations. They are often charged commissions, fees and fines by bosses. Migrant sex workers are even more vulnerable, of course. Any who try to organise together risk being fired. All this means that collective bargaining is almost impossible.

The SWOU activist explained that, whatever you think of sex workers, safety and labour rights are vital for all workers, and these are union issues. Some in the unions denigrate sex workers, for example saying that they help promote a ‘patriarchal’ society. But sex workers in the UK want their work decriminalised. It already is in New Zealand, for example, even though that system could also be improved. So, the question is what kind of decriminalised system should be put in place. Sex workers want to lead on this, but they want and need union support.

For more information, see, follow @SexWorkerOU on Twitter, and get in touch at

Informal transport workers

In the discussion that followed, Dave Spooner spoke briefly about an informal transport workers project being run by the ITF global union that the GLI is involved in. In Uganda, for example, there are big associations of minibus taxi drivers, motorcycle taxis, etc. Meanwhile, despite 80 years of history, the transport unions are shrinking, mostly now comprising workers involved in the airline/airport industry. So the question is, he said, why would such organised informal workers want to join or being associated with a union?

After discussions with such associations, they found it is because the unions still have residual institutional power – they have rights to tripartite discussions, close relationships to political parties, access to the media, and so on. Eventually, the Ugandan associations affiliated to the trade unions, bringing in thousands of members.

Taxis in Kampala's informal taxi industry
Taxis in Kampala’s informal taxi industry
[Image: GLI]
One result was that, after police had been harassing the informal transport workers, the union intervened and got it stopped, even getting an apology from the police.

Domestic workers

Domestic workers have a similar story. In many places around the world they have already been organising themselves but they need access to the institutional power that the unions have. One challenge, said Karin Pape who is European Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation, is that many domestic workers seem to think of a union as something a ‘state-like’ body, i.e. you pay your tax (union dues) and are entitled to services in return. So it is better for unions to associate themselves with existing organisations of domestic workers and find out from them what is needed, rather than take in domestic workers as individual members.

Educating informal workers

A participant from India spoke about the need for ongoing education of informal workers. SEWA gives more space for women to speak than anywhere else in India, and more knowledge about their rights, she said. However, the legislation that does exist is not always implemented, indicating that more education of members is needed.

Later, another participant spoke of how the government in India had extended the provident fund to informal workers but then some unions had protested at this and the government withdrew. As a result, in the city of Bangalore, informal workers went on three days’ of action, including setting a police station alight. The government shifted its policy again, and the informal workers are getting more organised, with many more members, though still without union support.

Organising informal workers in Nepal

In Nepal, GEFONT found extremely inhuman conditions, bonded labour, etc., in the agricultural sector. Now, with GEFONT’s support, as the federation’s Vice-President Karki Bidur explained, they are organised in their own agricultural workers’ union. Then GEFONT saw informal transport workers close down a main road in protest. So they invited them to some educational work, and now they too have a strong, independent union. Organising strategies for informal workers have to be focussed on where they are, he said.



Asia Monitor Resrouce Centre (AMRC)

Informal Work Archive, GLI Geneva

International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)

ITF Informal Workers Blog

Labour Education Foundation

Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)

Sex Worker Open University (SWOU)

Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO)


Chris Bonner & Dave Spooner, Organizing Labour in the Informal EconomyLABOUR, Capital and Society 44:1 (2011).

Dan Gallin, Informal Economy Workers and the International Trade Union Movement: An Overview, paper given at the Critical Labour Studies 8th Symposium, February 18 –19, 2012, University of Salford, Manchester.

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