Informal workers are increasingly forming or joining organizations to fight for their rights, enhance their bargaining power, increase their economic power and improve their livelihoods. Their membership-based organizations (MBOs) take many forms: trade unions, cooperatives, informal associations or self-help groups.
Combining forces can raise visibility and amplify their voice and power. Recognizing this, organizations are increasingly uniting into federations and networks ─ nationally, regionally and globally.
Forms and Extent of Organizing
The majority of MBOs tend to be local, small and fragile, so are often not visible – but they exist in surprisingly large numbers. WIEGO has a database of over 800 informal workers’ organizations worldwide: see the WIEGO Organization and Representation Data Base (WORD). WORD is regularly updated to include new entries and information.
A wide range of organizational forms exist. At a primary level there are democratic MBOs of informal workers: unions, various types of associations, self-help groups, cooperatives and networks. There are also hybrid organizations with mixed membership, NGOs that work with informal workers, and organizations that are shifting from existing within an NGO or other community-based organization to becoming independent MBOs.
Some organize as women and workers, others begin organizing as migrant communities and then as workers. Some start to organize around savings and credit, or around religious affiliation, then grow to become unions or worker associations. For more detail, see Chen et al., 2007, Membership-Based Organizations of the Poor.
Carré, Francoise. 2013. Defining and Categorizing Organizations of Informal Workers in Developing and Developed Countries. WIEGO Organizing Brief No. 8.
Meet Some Organizations
The largest union of informal women workers in the world is the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a trade union of over 1.9 million women informal workers in India. SEWA struggles to improve the rights and working conditions of workers, and has also formed over 100 cooperatives – united into a federation – to promote economic and livelihood development and self- sufficiency. SEWA cooperatives include a full-service bank, and a health insurance provider. For more information, see SEWA’s profile as an Institutional Member of WIEGO.
Awareness of the need to build stronger, more visible and more powerful informal worker organizations has been growing since the 1990s. The number of national, regional and global networks, federations or alliances has increased. Some are formal and some are still developing and operating informally.
HomeNet International was formed in the early 1990s around the struggle for an ILO Convention on Homework. Although Homenet International did not survive, two sub-regional HomeNets were subsequently founded: HomeNet South East Asia, and HomeNet South Asia. Both these networks are currently composed of country HomeNets, which are a mix of MBOs and NGOs. They focus on policy advocacy, sharing experiences, supporting and helping to build the capacity of their affiliates.
The first international meeting on street vendors in 1995 resulted in the Bellagio Declaration, and in 2000 the StreetNet Association was set up, paving the way for the launch of StreetNet International in 2002. StreetNet International is made up of democratic street vendor organizations or organizations with substantial street vendor membership. It encourages the formation of, and affiliation by, national associations or alliances.
Latin American Network of Waste Pickers
The Red Latinoamericana de Recicladores (Red Lacre), or Latin American Network of Waste pickers, is a network that brings together waste picker organizations – primarily cooperatives and cooperative federations/associations – from 15 countries. The organizations work together to improve the working conditions of waste pickers and promote dialogue and exchanges between waste pickers in different countries.
Global Alliance of Waste Pickers
Since the First World Conference, held in Bogota in 2008, waste pickers have strengthened their global connections, especially between Latin America, India and Africa. They have formed an interim Steering Committee and developed a global programme of activities. (For more, see the Waste Picker Networks page.)
International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF)
An international network was initiated at the first international conference of domestic workers and supporters in 2006. The International Domestic Workers' Network was formed in 2008 with its organizational base in the IUF and supported by WIEGO. Led by an all-women Steering Committee composed of representatives from domestic workers’ organizations in regions globally, the International Domestic Workers’ Network was victorious in achieving a Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers. In 2013, the IDWN transformed itself into the first global union organization run by women: the International Domestic Workers' Federation (IDWF).
National and Local Organizations
There is a diverse range of organizations and networks that are organizing informal workers with differing strategies, within and outside of the formal trade union movement. The following are examples with links to more information:
Alliance of Indian Wastepickers (AIW)
This national network consists of 35 organizations working with, and/or comprised of, waste pickers and/or itinerant buyers with a presence in 22 cities. Their focus is on peer support, advocacy, and cross-learning. Read the August 2011 AIW. newsletter.
General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT)
A trade union national centre in Nepal, GEFONT has several affiliates organizing informal workers such as domestic workers, home-based workers, vendors, and transport workers. See profile.
Ghana Trades Union Congress
This trade union national centre has taken a lead in promoting the organization of informal workers into unions and, with its affiliates, developing new organizing strategies. See profile.
This is a national network of NGOs and MBOs of and working with home-based workers in different regions of Thailand. See profile.
Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP)
A trade union of waste pickers in Pune, India, KKPKP has developed innovative strategies to improve the lives of its (mainly women) waste picker members. See profile.
National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI)
A national network of street vendor associations and unions in India, NASVI was instrumental in negotiating a national street vendor policy. See profile.
Pambansang Kalipunan ng mga Manggagawang Impormal sa Pilipinas (PATAMABA)
Based in the Phillipines, PATAMABA is a national organization of informal workers, mainly home-based workers. See profile.
Read More: The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) posts news and articles that contains valuable information on organizing informal workers, and interviews with unions organizing informal workers.