Unheard, Unseen, Unrecognized: Women in informal employment

Shalini Sinha of WIEGO, a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, talks about the need to think outside the box when it comes to supporting women in informal employment.

"New and innovative approaches to organizing and collective bargaining are needed and no one model fits all," said Shalini Sinha, explaining the challenges female workers face in the informal economy. 

Informal employment is often a greater source of jobs for women than for men, outside of agriculture. This is especially true in South Asia. Women in informal employment face a triple burden of constraints, as women, as workers in informal employment, and often as members of poor households and disadvantaged communities. These barriers can be compounded by discrimination related to their race, ethnicity or caste.

The organization Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) is helping to organize women in informal employment and advocates for their organizations to be legally recognized and officially represented in collective bargaining, policy-making and rule-setting processes. WIEGO has learned that increased access to resources without the ability to influence broader external factors does not necessarily translate into more secure or better remunerated livelihoods. 

In this interview, Shalini Sinha, India Country Representative of WIEGO describes the difficulties of organizing women in the informal sector and gives insights into WIEGO’s strategies to increase their voice, visibility and validity. Sinha is also a participant of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s project Political Feminism in Asia.

What do you see as the main challenges for women in informal employment?

Most poor women work, and yet their work—both unpaid care work and remunerated work—is most often not recognized or valued. For example, their contributions to sustaining families are often seen as a “natural” part of what women do. They are often also not recognized as workers or legitimate economic agents. Their economic contributions to the economy are often not fully captured by statistics—resulting in invisibility in the policy arena. 

The women operate in a legal and policy environment which is often hostile or punitive towards informal enterprises, informal activities and the workers in those sectors. And they often operate in markets or supply chains on unfair or unequal terms, stemming in large part from their lack of legal rights and bargaining power. Additionally, they often live in slums, squatter settlements or public housing estates, and work in private homes or public spaces without adequate basic infrastructure services or legal rights. In sum, women in informal employment face many challenges associated with their multiple identities—as women, as workers in an informal framework, and members of poor households and disadvantaged communities.

How does this affect the working conditions of women?

Women working in their homes often do their paid work at the same time as unpaid care work such as watching children, caring for the elderly, or other domestic tasks. This multi-tasking imposes concrete costs in terms of interruptions to work, undermining productivity and lowering income.   

Some women also feel that their home is a physically safe place to work.  However, home-based work may also increase a woman’s economic vulnerability—as she is less visible and less likely to be legally recognized as a worker.  This may decrease her capacity to claim any social protection measures for which, as a worker, she might be eligible. She is likely to have limited access to avenues for upgrading her skills. She is harder to reach by trade unions or other organizations which are organizing workers and, therefore, less likely to benefit from the solidarity and bargaining power that comes with being organized.

Under these circumstances, how can women advocate for more secure livelihoods?

It can be difficult for workers in informal employment to organize, for example due to their isolation from one another, lack of access to information about other workers and markets, and even lack of time. Also, when they do organize they can face difficulties in gaining legal identity as they may face regulatory or economic barriers in registering as a trade union, cooperative or other form of association. 

Trade unions will play a significant role in supporting labour organizations of workers in informal employment, voicing their demands and advocating for their increased inclusion until they become legally recognized and included into policy processes - Shalini Sinha  

Despite these challenges, today there is a growing global movement of workers in informal employment, supported by the WIEGO network, which illustrates the increasing power of women in informal employment and their ability to address the structural constraints, barriers and disadvantages that they face.

What makes it so difficult to organize workers in informal employment? 

To begin with, many workers in informal employment are not considered workers: under the law, by policy makers, by trade unions, by other workers, or even by themselves. Second, workers in informal employment have a variety of employment statuses, making it difficult to organize around a single identity. Also, individual workers may be engaged in multiple activities and employment statuses within a single day, month, or year. Third, most workers in informal employment do not work in a standard workplace, but work primarily in public spaces (streets, markets, etc.), in private homes or on private farms.

There are special risks as well as organizing challenges associated with each of these. Fourth, most workers in informal employment often deal with multiple points of control or multiple dominant players. The self-employed have to bargain with those from whom they buy supplies and raw materials or rent space and equipment, and to whom they sell goods and services. Fifth, the control points and dominant players faced by workers in informal employment are often sector-specific.

What needs to change?

The organizations and networks of workers in informal employment do not fit easily into conventional structures and strategies associated with trade unions of workers in formal employment, and as a result they are often excluded from decision-making processes that affect their livelihoods.

Membership-based organizations are the most effective way to create positive change for workers in informal employment because MBOs are created and controlled by the workers themselves - Shalin Sinha 

Traditional approaches to tripartite dialogue, collective bargaining and policy-making processes must expand to include workers in informal employment, who make up the broad base of the workforce in many countries. The labour organizations of workers in informal employment must be legally recognized and included into these processes. Until this is the norm, trade unions of workers in formal employment have a significant role to play in joining hands with organizations of workers in informal employment, supporting them in voicing their demands, and advocating for their increased inclusion.

What is WIEGO’s approach to supporting workers in informal employment?

The three pillars of WIEGO’s work are around increasing the voice, visibility and validity of workers in informal employment and their representative organizations.

We work to increase the voice of workers in informal employment, by supporting and strengthening their organizations and linking them together. WIEGO believes that strong, democratic membership-based organizations (MBOs) are the most effective way to create positive change for workers in informal employment because MBOs are created and controlled by the workers themselves. Through MBOs, workers in informal employment gain knowledge, skills, confidence, a common worker identity and solidarity, and can pool their resources. WIEGO also supports MBOs in linking up to the global movement of workers in informal employment.

To build visibility, WIEGO undertakes and sponsors research and improves official statistics on informal employment and the informal economy. We produce a publication series and maintain a web resource on the informal economy. With this work we aim to produce actionable knowledge that reflects the lived experiences of workers in the informal economy.

In terms of increased validity, WIEGO promotes the mainstream recognition of workers in informal employment as legitimate economic agents who contribute to the overall economy and are legitimate beneficiaries of economic and social policies. We also work to advance the incorporation of workers in informal employment into policy making, rule setting and collective bargaining processes—so that they can voice their demands to governments, companies, employers and other negotiating counterparts. ###

The interview was led by Lea Goelnitz, Programme Manager at FES Office for Regional Cooperation in Asia. For more information on the work on Gender and Social Justice contactthe FES office in Singapore. 

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