A Review of Trade Union Organizing in the Informal Economy

Principal Investigators: SMLR Dean Susan J. Schurman and Department of Labor Studies Chair Adrienne E. Eaton

Contributing Authors: Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Richard Hyman, Camille DiLeo, Gilma Madrid Berroterán, Sahra Ryklief, Mihai Varga, Verna Viajar


The purpose of this report is to review the existing literature on efforts throughout the globe by workers who labor outside the formal labor and employment relations policy framework of their country to form or join trade unions as well as unions’ efforts to organize and represent them. Globalization - the expansion and integration of market-based economic policies - has driven a worldwide decline in the number of workers in the primary labor market with “standard” employment – stable, long term employment with a single employer and covered by various legal and social protections - and accompanying increases in the secondary, informal and illegal labor markets.

Informal economy work includes a wide range of occupations and economic activities roughly divided into “dependent” wage earners and self-employed or “own-account entrepreneurs. The case examples included in this report cover domestic work, construction, taxi drivers; truck drivers, street vendors, waste-pickers, home-based work, day laborers and others.

Informal work globally shares one important feature. It is either not covered or insufficiently covered by national legal and regulatory frameworks and social protection schemes. Informal workers have been characterized as lacking seven essential securities: labor market security, employment security, job security, work security, skill reproduction security, income security and representation security. Trade unions and collective action have historically played a critical role redressing this last type of insecurity and with it many if not all of the others. This is the focus of this report. While unions have been slow to respond to the needs of informal workers, these workers themselves have often formed their own organizations (often referred to as Member-Based Organizations of the Poor – MBOP) and often with the assistance of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Unions are increasingly working with MBOPs, affiliating MBOPS into their existing structures or organizing informal workers on their own. Details of our findings are contained in the full report.

Teaser: 
The purpose of this report is to review the existing literature on efforts throughout the globe by workers who labor outside the formal labor and employment relations policy framework of their country to form or join trade unions as well as unions’ efforts to organize and represent them.