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4.2.3 Organising the populations dependent on the informal economy

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Alessio Lupi24 October 2018


Organising is at the core of the actions and policies designed to enhancing the livelihoods of populations dependent on the informal economy. Whatever the angle under which the question is apprehended, organising is the way and means to address it.

Sooner or later all projects intervening in the field come to the organisation of the populations they support, because organising is a key aspect to be considered when tackling informal economy.

Organising is key for financing. Many community-based organisations are created and implemented in order to initiate saving and lending groups. Pooling resources helps increasing access to financing. They are a manifestation of the strength resulting from organising. These grassroots organisations are typically the background upon which public actors and/or Civil Society Organisations can build broader policies towards delineating more ambitious strategies for supporting micro-businesses or cooperatives, or achieving universal health or social protection coverage, or more generally transitioning from the informal to the formal economy.

Organising is key for extending social protection. In the informal economy where most workers are self-employed community-based organisations gather into larger saving and lending groups, which are a first step towards regular and adapted contribution to mutual funds ensuring health coverage and other risks that fit with the needs of populations. Governments as well as other actors in the field can help promoting these kinds of organisations.

Organising is key for being taken into account as a player in the value chains. Seizing opportunities in value chains requires from producers at the bottom of the chains they become organised. Community-based organisations eventually supported by government actions or NGOs are generally the starting point towards increasing quantities collected and quality. These are the required conditions to be in a better position to negotiate with intermediaries or multinationals firms in order to receive better prices and gain more room in the value chains.

Organising is key for gaining visibility and voice and having their rights recognised.”We are poor but so many” is the title of a famous book written by Ela Bhatt, the founder of the Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA) in India. Collective action is the origin and purpose of trade unions and employers’ associations in the formal economy. The informal economy operators and workers need to follow the footprints of their predecessors in the formal sector, who can selves help in this regard.

Organising is key for gaining self-esteem and confidence when facing public authorities. Not only numbers, but also self-confidence is necessary to gain voice and visibility. One among recurrent difficulties encountered by populations dependent on the informal economy, especially women (but not only) is their shame when posing their problems or requests to the administration. Organising is a means towards acquiring self-esteem and confidence, with life skills attached to behavioural experiences in public when organising collectively around the main issues faced by the community of belonging.

Formal workers have their trade unions and employers their own organisations. Each on their side these organisations have opened their eyes and get awareness about the informal economy and both have attempted to open to the self-employed as well as to the informal workers (for the trade unions), with mitigated success. Early since the first discussions that paved the way to the adoption of the ILO Recommendation 204 on the transition from the informal to the formal economy, the trade unions engaged into the support and coaching of workers’ cooperatives and other types of associations of informal workers.

As a matter of fact, it would be too much a top-down approach to pretend that the workers of the informal economy have not their own types or kinds of organisations. Many self-help groups exist since a long time among the vulnerable populations through which they exchange workforce (for instance for cropping in peasant societies) or they save their meagre daily receipts for further access to credit (for instance in these rotating systems of credit called “tontines” in Western and Central Africa, or “merry-go-rounds” in Eastern and Southern Africa (RNSF, ARS Progetti,2016). Similar forms of associations also exist in Asia. In other contexts, some kinds of cooperatives continue to exist that have been implemented for instance in rural areas in order to facilitate the delivery of fertilisers or other agricultural inputs and the outflow of crops. Of course some particular categories of workers, such as the domestic workers or the home-based workers are especially deprived of any kind of grassroots organisations, due to their individualistic and isolated modes of production. Except in such situations where the creation of grassroots organisations is a fundamental starting point, in many other situations the action regarding organisation will therefore be a support to pre-existing forms of organisations in order to strengthen them, to dis-embed them from their possible blockages or from their lack of resources.

Two types of actions can be distinguished toward the organisation of vulnerable populations: a first and important one, which is illustrated by organisations such as SEWA or WIEGO, is the attempt to intervene at global (regional, national and international) and political levels in support of the recognition of informal workers rights. Examples of such actions refer to workers such as waste-pickers, domestic workers, street vendors and transport workers, in other words informal workers who are not geographically located in places where they can meet together and who are especially vulnerable. Another type of action toward organising informal workers refers to local or sectoral development projects – donor- or government-funded – that try to rely on or revitalise pre-existing self-help groups in order to help communities in self-financing or contributing to social protection schemes or more generally giving visibility and voice, confidence and self-esteem.


Organising towards the recognition of informal workers' rights

The lack of legal protection as well as of social protection is a characteristic of workers in the informal economy because of the absence of recognition by policy makers and more generally by political authorities, and also because of the absence of suitability of their situation for unionisation and collective bargaining (Chen, Bonner and Carré, 2015; Spooner 2011; Schurman and Eaton, 2012). In their paper for the Human Development Report 2015, Chen et al. (2015) emphasise the need for informal workers to organise in order to overcome such structural disadvantages and they note that they “are increasingly self-organizing or getting organized into unions, cooperatives, or associations” and that such organisations “have engaged in collective action of different forms: bargaining, negotiating and advocacy, mobilization and campaigns, production and marketing, and mutual aid and self-help.” The objective is to increase voice collectively through organising and representation in policy-making, rule-setting, collective-bargaining or negotiating processes.


Two major actors in organising the informal workers: SEWA and WIEGO

Two institutions have been particularly active in the organisation of informal workers in the recent past and are still very active towards this aim at present. The Self-Employed Women Association (SEWA) and the Global Network WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). Although dedicated to the cause of poor women, these two institutions have gone far beyond the support of poor women workers.

Funded in the 1970s by Ela Bhat in Ahmedabad (India) as a set of cooperatives, the Self-Employed Women Association was recognised as a trade union in 1983, having gain affiliation to the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers. This was an important landmark as it meant for the first time that informal self-employed workers were recognised within the trade union movement as workers and as such with a right to form their own trade unions.

With today more than 2 million members SEWA is the largest trade union of informal workers in the world and pursues a joint strategy of struggle (collective bargaining, negotiations, campaigns and advocacy) and development in financial services (it is a major microfinance institution), social services, housing and basic infrastructure services, and training and capacity building. Not only SEWA organise its members in trade unions, but it also help them to form cooperatives or other kinds of associations at local level as well as state or national federations (Chen et al. 2015). By many aspects, SEWA has “pioneered creative approaches to unionism, challenging the conception of what a union should be and do” (Bonner, 2006).

As a trade union SEWA struggled towards the adoption of the Convention on Home-based workers in 2008 and the Convention on domestic workers in 2011, and as a cooperative it is organised around 4 sources of security/insecurity: work, income, food and social security.

WIEGO was founded in 1997 with SEWA as one of its founding members. It is an international network of membership-based organisations, activists, practitioners from development agencies, researchers, statisticians that focus on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy. It aims at creating change by building capacity among informal worker organizations, expanding the knowledge base, and influencing local, national and international policies. One of its main objectives has been to support the development of membership-based organizations (MBOs) – trade unions, cooperatives, and worker associations – that are democratic and representative, as well as national and international alliances and networks among which the main are the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), HomeNet (for the home-based workers), StreetNet International (for the street vendors).


Examples of success stories in organising

Such examples are taken from the most vulnerable types of workers who have been supported by SEWA and WIEGO: waste-pickers, domestic workers, street vendors and home-based workers. Capitalising on these experiences, WIEGO notes that at the heart of these successful campaigns, there was a legal case and that access by the informal workers and their organisations to free pro bono, high quality and responsive legal assistance was key to their success, together with the technical knowledge and the political support from the civil society.

The waste pickers in Latin America


The experience of waste pickers of Bogota – Colombia- is an exemplary case of the role that organising can play for the defence of the rights of informal workers: further to the privatisation of the waste management system by the Municipality of Bogota, the cooperatives of waste-pickers were excluded from a bid launched by the Municipality. The cooperatives introduced an appeal before the Constitutional Court that recognised their rights and the illegality of the bid. There were several episodes punctuating this struggle that serve as an experience and school case.

For decades, recicladores(waste pickers) in Bogotá, have earned a living by recycling metal, cardboard, paper, plastic, and glass and selling the recycled material through intermediaries. Today there are an estimated 12,000 recicladores in Bogotá.

But the recent privatization of public waste collection threatened their livelihoods. Previous municipal administrations in Bogotá granted exclusive contracts to private companies for the collection, transport, and disposal of waste and recyclables.

In response, the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB), an umbrella association of cooperatives representing over 2,500 waste pickers in Bogotá, began a legal campaign to allow the recicladores to continue to collect and recycle waste.

The recicladores achieved a landmark victory in 2003 when the Constitutional Court ruled that the municipal government‘s tendering process for sanitation services had violated the basic rights of the waste-picking community.

The most recent ruling, in December 2011, halted a scheme to award US$1.7 billion worth of contracts over ten years to private companies for the collection and removal of waste in Bogotá. The court mandated that the cooperatives of waste pickers had a right to compete for the city tenders and gave the ARB until March 31, 2012 to present the municipality with a concrete proposal for solid waste management inclusive of the waste picking community.

The current Mayor of Bogotá honoured this mandate by de-privatizing waste collection, setting up a public authority to manage solid waste management and allowing ARB and other organizations of recicladores to bid for contracts. With the help of WIEGO and other allies, the ARB prepared a proposal, elements of which were adopted into the official proposal made by the district agency in charge of the city‘s public service.

In March 2013, waste pickers began to be paid by the city for their waste collection services. And, in June 2014, the national government mandated that the Bogotá model be replicated in cities and towns across the country. The ARB has seen success in convincing Colombia's government to adopt a waste management decree that includes the recicladores, and is working with 12 cities in Colombia in order to implement it. It has also inspired waste-picking movements in countries such as Ecuador, Argentina and South Africa.

However, vested interests in the private sector that want to regain control over the waste collection and recycling sector have mounted a political campaign to remove the current Mayor of Bogotá who rescinded some of the private contracts to set up a public waste management authority and brokered the contract with the recicladores. They argue that the public management of waste collection and the involvement of the recicladores undermine 'free competition” and are, therefore, illegal.

Critics continue to call waste-picking an antiquated model, which should be replaced with modern technologies. But modern technology can also be human-driven and have minimal environmental impact. For instance, waste-pickers in Bogotá now have official maps they use to comb every corner of the city for precious trash - usually with a hand-pushed cart. Unlike modern garbage trucks, such carts don't emit pollution - although, ARB does use some trucks to collect recyclables from their members. “The action of the waste-pickers is a people-powered technology that impacts the environment in the most positive way.” Extracts from: Chen et al. (2015)


Another example is in Minas Gerais -Brazil- where the movement of waste pickers has been active for a long time and has played a lead role at national level. Since the end of the 1990s, several municipalities signed agreements with waste pickers’ cooperatives to provide services in the local management system of solid waste. In the favourable political context, the improvement of working conditions for the waste pickers was on the political agenda and funds were allocated to buy trucks and equipment for compressing waste and preparing recyclables for the market, to provide loans for building or leasing warehouses, as well as to finance training in the use of new technologies. The leaders of the movement seized the opportunity to introduce into the legislative agenda the necessity of recognising the waste pickers as providers of a service to the State. However they did not obtain the right to permanent contracts between local governments and the associations, but gained a payment for their work: provided that they already received a payment from their commercial transactions, they would receive and additional incentive or bonus from the state. This is how the Recycling Bonus Law was passed. The vast majority of waste pickers of Belo Horizonte who were on individualistic positions and working for own account besides the existence of 119 cooperatives in the 34 municipalities of the metropolitan area were subsequently encouraged to join cooperatives or other forms of associations in order to be likely to benefit from the bonus (Budlender, 2013).

It must be noted that the Latin American Waste Pickers Network (RedLacre) is the only regional alliance of waste pickers.

Domestic workers

The domestic workers are the most challenging type of workers to get organised because of their isolation and dispersion in private homes. Moreover in many developing countries there is an overlap with child labour and in some regions with the custom of sending children to other members of the extended family or community.

These workers are estimated to represent 4% of total employment at world level (ILO, 2016a) and up to 10% in some developing countries. Their organisation at national level and through international alliances was the primary condition that led the profession to be recognised with the adoption of the ILO’s Convention on Domestic Workers in 2011.

In 2006, domestic worker organizations began to organise internationally with the support of international trade unions and NGOs, including WIEGO: their claim was to be recognized as workers with all the rights of workers and their benefits.

In 2008, after the International Labour Organization decided to put Decent Work for Domestic Workers on the agenda of the International Labour Conferences in 2010 and 2011, the newly-founded IDWN - International Domestic Workers’ Network- hosted by the International Union of Food, Agriculture, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering and Allied Workers Associations (IUF: the same which hosted SEWA) began a campaign for an ILO Convention, which had immediate benefits in some countries and led to the adoption of two standards: Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 and Domestic Workers Recommendation, 2011.

The main achievement of the Convention is that domestic workers are unconditionally defined as workers with the same protections under national labour laws and social protection schemes as other workers. Whereas the ratification of the Convention is a long-term process, legislative changes are rapidly taking place.

Latin America played a major role in the adoption of the 2011 Convention. In Latin America domestic workers represent between 1.5% (Venezuela) to 8.3% (Paraguay) of total employment with more than 93% of women. They receive only 51.1% of the average income and only 28% of them contribute to a pension system (ILO, 2015).

Trade unions of domestic workers have existed since a long time in Latin America (since 1985 in Uruguay for instance) and have gained recognition ever since the 2011 ILO Convention.

The multidimensional strategy adopted in this region was based on legal reforms that gave domestic workers the same rights as for workers covered by the labour law and on actions to guarantee the compliance with these rights and reduce gaps in the working conditions of domestic workers: promoting enrolment in social security schemes, establishing minimum wages, economic incentives for compliance with the law, social dialogue and information and awareness-raising campaigns.

Enrolment in social security is crucial in that it helps prove the existence of a labour relationship where no written contract exists and indirectly promotes access to other rights. This is why measures ensuring the flexibility of enrolment (for instance in the minimum number of days or hours of work per month and in the combination of several jobs).

Among the good practices identified by the IDWN one, (called Rap) and applied in Indonesia, tries to overcome the difficulties of limited time and isolation by limiting the encounter to 15 minutes and by not requiring a specific time or place to meet. It is a one-to-one approach that applies six systematic repetitive steps thereby linking the method to rap music and helping to guide the rapper’s interactions with the targeted unorganised domestic worker.

Box 15 – Rap – Six steps

1. Introduction. The rapper introduces both herself and the organization, including its objectives. The introduction must be short, clear and presented in simple language. Ideally, this is the stage at which the rapper gains the trust of the target.

2. Explore the problems. The rapper has to explore the problems actually faced by the target, rather than present a list of general DW issues. This moment represents a first step in raising awareness about DW conditions, and it allows the rapper to collect useful information to be later used in persuading the target to join the organization (steps three and four). It is important the target feels comfortable during the conversation, so rappers should make use of small talk and open-ended questions; they should avoid anything that suggests an interrogation. The aim is to let the target talk about her working situation and about the problems she may face with issues such as working conditions, wages, daily working hours, days off, payment, paid holidays, and social security.

3. Raise consciousness regarding issues of responsibility. The rapper should use the information acquired in step two to discuss the causes of any issues at hand. The rapper needs to identify who should be held accountable for them and why. The rapper emphasizes how the target’s problems are related not only to the individual employer/DW relationship and links the received information to DW rights, raising awareness about elements of decent work, the absence of relevant labour legislation, and about how the organization can more effectively advocate for DW protection while voicing DW interests. This step presents an opportunity for both rapper and DW to explore and better understand the issues regarding domestic work, first identifying the issues and then discussing who or what might be responsible for them.

4. Vision/dreams. Various elements of awareness having been raised, the conversation moves to the target’s dreams and expectations for the future. The rapper should encourage the target to discuss means of achieving these aspirations, and then discuss whether it is possible and/or easier to reach the dreams individually or in collaboration with other fellow domestic workers. Next the organizer describes how the organization – as a collective of fellow DWs, with similar issues and dreams – might help her achieve these objectives.

The rapper explains what the organization does for its members and the advantages of participation. This step provides the opportunity to present the organization’s activities and visions, showing how it empowers DWs so they can advocate for their own interests – such measures as school activities, learning about rights, and learning how to negotiate with employers and to find support in handling cases brought against them.

5. Invitation to join. The rapper asks the target to join the organization and attend a meeting. If the answer is yes, the rapper collects her name and telephone number or the signed organization registration form. If the answer is no, the organizer tries to repeat step three, explaining again why it is important to join the organization. If the target still does not want to join it is important not to exert undue pressure. The rapper should simply take her contact information and approach her another time, repeating the Rap from step three.

6. Encourage the target to take action. If the domestic worker is willing to join, the rapper then encourages her to participate in the next meeting and to invite others, including friends.

Source:IDWN and ILO (2017)


Street vendors

Very often the actions in support to street vendors are based on facts and figures: their enumeration at city level or urban area level and the record of their everyday life and difficulties in carrying out their activity helps municipalities and ministries of urban planning to understand the impact of their policies and to highlight the increasing harassment they are subjected to and their exclusion in urban planning.

In India the National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) succeeded in sensitising the Ministry of Urban Development that created a task force in order to design a national policy with and for the street vendors. This policy was based on registration and issuance of identification cards and establishment of mixed committees at town and ward levels in charge of identifying zones for vending and hawking. But the national policy was hardly implemented at state and local levels (Chen et al., 2015). An intense advocacy campaign was launched by NAVSI, SEWA and other organisations towards the adoption of a national law for street vendors, finally approved by the Parliament in 2014.

In Durban – South Africa- the long established street vendors of Warwick Junction were challenged by a new project of the Municipality to lease this public land to a private developer for building a shopping mall. It provoked a large civil society’s campaign in support of street vendors. The campaign was accompanied by a non-profit law firm (the Legal Resources Centre), which successfully contested on administrative ground the right of the Municipality to lease the land to a private developer, and to build a mall where a historic market stands. (Chen et al., 2015).


Home based workers

Long before domestic workers obtained their recognition as workers, the home-based workers (or homeworkers or also outworkers) had struggled towards the adoption of the Home Work Convention N°177 and the Home Work Recommendation N°184 in 1996 for the protection and support of subcontracted workers. A reason of the invisibility of these workers is that they are working out of the factories, in their own homes. Another reason of their invisibility is that they are paid on piece rate basis and mostly self-employed and not paid employed.

As a matter of fact the recognition of home-based workers was one of the first international actions led by SEWA through the case of Bidi workers in India (Buddlender, 2013). These workers represent more than 4,000,000 people, more than 90% being women working from their homes. The Bidi industry is very specific in that it is regulated by law: The Bidi and Cigar Workers Welfare Fund Act and the Bidi and Cigar Workers Act. In each State a minimum wage is set as a piece-rate per thousand bidis. As early as 1978 SEWA began to intervene in the bidi industry and organise the workers in Ahmedabad, obtaining an increase of their wage. A cooperative was then established and identity cards were issued. Support was given to retrenched bidi workers who were taken back and compensated. SEWA became a member of the State Advisory Committee on Bidi Workers and obtained for them to access the services of a range of welfare schemes, as well as housing schemes. Such achievements convinced SEWA to expand action beyond the state of Gujarat and in 1996 the central government announced fixed minimum wages and welfare schemes for all the country. Simultaneously, SEWA was taking part in the support and success to the adoption of the Convention 177.

Similarly, CECAM (Training Centre for Working Women) in Chile, PATAMABA (National Network of Informal Workers) in the Philippines, HomeNet Thailand or MPWRI (NGO Network for Homeworkers in the Putting-out system) in Indonesia lobbied with Ministries of Labour to obtain such recognition of home-based workers’ rights (Haspels and Matsuura, 2015). HomeNet Thailand campaigned (with WIEGO’s support) for the Homeworkers Protection Act, which entitles Thai homeworkers to minimum wage, occupational health and safety protection and other fundamental labour rights.

An interesting experience is that of Bulgaria (Spooner, 2013) where the Petrich Association developed its own innovative means of establishing a system of collective bargaining: Being aware of higher piece-rate for laminated carrier bags in other villages, the association tried to negotiate a better rate and better conditions directly with the employer or the contractor, organised several strikes at right times (i.e. at times coinciding with tight deadline for orders) and ensured that deadlines be met once the wage increase is obtained. In fact the action of the association often means to take the place of the intermediaries to the point that one of them accused the association of “stealing (his) workers” and creating competition. Sometimes the association receives orders for work that it redistributes among members.

Table 2 hereafter synthesises WIEGO’s experiences in the support to these various categories of vulnerable workers. The first column enumerates the priority issues or the objectives for each category of workers, the second column the organising challenges or the obstacles and the third column the bargaining counterparts or the institutions with which the workers’ organisations must negotiate the improvement of the working conditions for their members.


Table 2: Issues, Challenges and Counterparts in Collective Bargaining Campaigns  


Priority issues

Organizing challenges

Bargaining counterparts

Street, market vendors and hawkers

• Right and space to vend

• Facilities: storage, shelter, toilets, water

• Protection against police harassment

• Safety and security

• Competition: protection against bad effects

• Access to credit

• Not regarded as workers by selves and others

• Controlled by politicians, “mafia”

• Fear of harassment by authorities, police

• Competition amongst selves and formal sector

• Time spent on organizing means loss of income

• No forums for bargaining

Municipality: local economic development, health and safety, zoning

National and municipal police

Suppliers and buyers

Home-based workers

• Equal income, benefits as factory workers

• Identifying employer

• End to exploitation by intermediaries

• Access to regular work

• Access to markets (own account)

• Access to credit (own account)

• Isolated in homes, invisible

• Time-double burden of work and home care

• Fear of losing work

• Restrictions imposed by religion, culture

• Children working

• Unprotected by labour law or disguised status

Contractors Tripartite boards

Suppliers & buyers

Waste pickers and recyclers

• Access/right to recyclable waste

• Integration into municipal systems

• Work higher up the recycling chain

• Fair prices for recyclables

• Recognition and improved status

• Health and safety

• End to exploitation by intermediaries

• Low status and self esteem

• Fear of losing work

• Fear/dependency on middlemen

• Competition amongst selves

• Time to meet means loss of income

• Child labour

• Not protected by labour law


Government: national and local

Dealers in recyclables

Recycling companies

Domestic workers

• Recognition as workers

• Protection against dismissal, abuse

• Freedom of movement

• Freedom to change jobs (migrant)

• Less hours, more rest

• Better living conditions

• Isolated and invisible in homes

• Fear of employers and losing jobs

• Dependency on employer for housing, etc.

• Not protected by labour law

• Lack of time: long hours

• Fear of authorities (migrant)



Employer associations


Transport workers (urban passenger)

• Access to routes and passengers

• Protection against harassment

• Health and safety/accident protection

• Parking and facilities

• Petrol and spares prices and fares

• Competition: protection against bad effects

• Mobility

• Competition between selves and formal sector

• Control by politicians, “mafia”

• Threats by employers

• Fear of harassment by police/authorities

• Time for organizing means loss of income


Formal companies


Women workers: all sectors

• Safe and affordable child care

• Income protection during/after childbirth

• Physical security

• Sexual harassment protection

• Equal income for equal value work

• Access to higher income earning work

• Fear and lack of confidence

• Cultural and religious barriers

• Often in scattered locations

• Dominated by men in sector

• Lack of time

• Child care and home care




Formal companies

Community elders

Source:Buddlender (2013) ; Chen et al. (2015)


Organising towards the support to communities

The second type of strategy toward organising informal workers can be outlined through a projects‘ review and it is followed on the field by actors such as the European Commission and FAO. Here the scope is organising people dependent on the informal economy through self-help groups and cooperatives to enable them to access to various forms of support (finance, forms of social protection), thus improving livelihoods, confidence and self-esteem. The focus is on participation, sharing, exchanging and lending among community members of goods, ideas and skills. However, in this case we found mostly individual projects without the overarching view and framework that characterizes SEWA and WIEGO.

Box 16 - Support to the workers of the informal economy in Sao Paulo, Brazil

As part of an EC funded project (Brazil Christian Aid - “Apoioaostrabalhadoresnaeconomia informal e gruposvulneráveis da região central da cidade de São Paulo para proteção social, acessojustiça e conquista dos direitos”), a reference centre for informal workers was established in the Centre Gaspar Garcia of Human Rights (CGGHR). The CGGHR acted as a partner of the public defender of the State of Sao Paulo to provide legal advice and function as a centre for popular movements. It further provided monitoring, training and organisational activities with specialised but related institutions (Volume 4.1, Charmes and Zegers, RNSF, ARS Progetti 2016).

The beneficiaries of the action were the low-qualified and low-income street workers who were unable to meet the requirement of the 2008 law on “individual micro-enterprise”. The law was intended to facilitate the formalisation of these activities by registering workers as self-employed professionals and having them contribute to social security.

An important concept that emerged and consolidated during project implementation was the link between the constitutional right to work and the right to the use and occupation of urban space. The debate goes beyond the simple right of access of street workers to public spaces and leads up to the right to transform the city itself. This new conceptual framework was the great and pioneering innovation of CGGDH and its contribution to the struggle of the street workers and the preservation of urban environment.

Over the years, the situation of street workers in Sao Paulo had progressively worsened including their criminalization in 2011. The initial project research action and diagnosis included the provision of legal services. The project also seized the opportunity to propose a Public Civil Action against the attitude of the city government of São Paulo. The city’s discriminatory attitude, with the clear intention of eradicating the street vendors in the city, provided room for the street workers collective initiative.

Among the challenges of street workers that CGGDH identified were the individualistic character of the street workers and the tradition of corruption, violence and discredit included in most of the workers organisations (unions and associations). Their relationships were continually overshadowed by actions for some political electoral benefit, extortion and other corruption mechanisms on the part of civil servants and the police. It was in this context of persecution, criminalization and violence that CGGDH started the implementation of the project. The CGGDH, based its methodological principles on popular education, social participation and the effective role of organized groups.

The Forum of Street Vendors that CGGDH proposed was created as an autonomous supra-union collective space related to existing associations and patronage networks. The Forum became a new collective social agent, entering into new alliances and partnerships, with visibility and voice and recognised as a legitimate political collective actor.

A key initial step of the project was the elaboration of a report on the violations of the rights of street workers in the informal economy of the city of São Paulo. The report was published in 2012 as a result of the research and diagnosis of the CGGDH. Planned as an initial activity, this action lasted throughout the first year of the project. The action ensured that research brought quantitative data and a description of specific situations together into a single publication. The report has become a reference and, according to the Public Defender Bruno Miragaia, was essential to the favourable ruling issued by the Judge in Public Civil Action, in 2012.

The interaction between academic knowledge, popular education methodology and the reality of the street provided the foundation for a rich process to build knowledge. The publication had an enormous impact, giving a different structure to the struggle. It has had symbolic importance - all street vendors wanted to have the report, which turned into a fighting instrument.

The report was very important to the relationship of the beneficiaries with the government. Its dissemination strategy included sending copies to all sub-prefects, experts, academia, and other entities. This first publication publicized the cause and legitimized the CGGDH as an institution and was instrumental in the foundation of the Public Civil Action. The diagnosis led to the effective entry of CGGDH in the street workers field. “The compilation of rights violations made by CGGDH was very significant, making of a sentencing by a judge much more efficient than a first class action, with much more data” (Bruno Miragaia).

Street workers effectively use the document “as a personal guidebook”. The publication of the report and an accompanying book was very important for street workers because a strong work is required to reverse the negative image of the street workers.

The book consists of three parts. The first part humanizes the street workers and includes six life stories. The second part tells experiences of organizing (the Forum, the Public Civil Action, the Working Group with the Municipality and experiences of other countries). The last part of the book deals with public policies in different places: New York, Durban, India, Porto Alegre and Sao Paulo. It is a publication, aimed at all audiences, with a nice layout. “The book is beautiful, makes a collection of the lives of these people and values them” said a woman interviewed by the evaluation team. The book is in great demand by people from all over Brazil.

The work to reverse prejudice and criminalization of street workers is essential and CGGDH has contributed to this. The publications were disseminated in the Public Defender's Office, and used for requesting registration of the materials by other human rights defenders in several places. “It's good that defenders, judges, prosecutors know that these people have rights, thus advancing the protection of street workers” (Bruno Miragaia). The role of disseminating the information that CGGDH prepared is critical and needs to be expanded.

The CGGDH played a major role in society and this was an effective strategy. Prioritising research and communication helped a great deal. It humanized the informal workers and helped to address the criminalization and prejudice (Barbosa et al. 2012).

Combining interactive research with community members, advocacy of academics and activists with legal actions for effective enduring strategies to defend and protect street vendors and waste pickers is the recommendation resulting from the project.


Box 17 - Women in Action and Solidarity Against Poverty in Kyrgyz Republic

This EU-funded project piloted by the NGO Forum of Women (Volume 4.3, RNSF, ARS Progetti, 2017b) has established the Regional Service Networks in two pilot districts that include groups of solidary producers and time banks.

The Regional Service Networks were established in the pilot regions as a system of interacting agencies and organisations that were developed around the Centre for Entrepreneurship Support. Network members included groups of solidary producers, time banks, and help centres for women. These elements were established in the pilot regions and they established a mutual cooperation across a wide range of services and aid that they were able to provide.

Groups of solidary producers (GSP) were inspired by the Italian experience of groups of solidary purchase, based on the principles of mutual trust, transparency, decent work, and respect for the environment. This experience was adapted to the national context in Kyrgyzstan. Groups of solidary producers were established on the basis of common values and common interests of the participating women. The group members launched the process of joint purchases and joint sales of their production, which allowed them to achieve better transaction conditions. The groups engaged in dialogue with producers of equipment and materials, as well as with the distributors of final products. The groups were also able to share more effectively the purchased resources, as well as the business risks. Collective purchases were realized mainly in terms of seeds, working tools and equipment.

Time banks were established in the course of the project as one of the elements of the Regional Service Networks. The main goal of the time banks was alleviating the heavy burden of domestic work by rural women. Typical services traded in the time banks included organisation of weddings and celebrations, processing of fruits, and also harvests. Two time banks were established in the framework of the project and another one was opened after the project end. The time bank opened in the village Saray in a dedicated office equipped with computer, printer, phone line, Internet and web camera. Five people work in the office. There is a register where the inputs by the members are recorded and time credits are allocated. The bank developed a system of cooperation with other agencies included in the Regional Service Network. Furthermore in case that a woman asked for defence from domestic violence, depending on the situation and her preferences, she is referred to the specialized services (psychologist, central office, etc.).


Box 18 - Support to household food security and livelihood of vulnerable and food insecure farming families in Afghanistan

FAO’s project Support to household food security and livelihood of vulnerable and food insecure farming families in Afghanistan was implemented in two districts: Qarabagh, Kabul Province, and Surkhrod, Nangarhar Province. The direct target beneficiaries numbered 6,515 farming families. These were grouped in Common Interest Groups, CIGs. At the end of the project 134 CIGs were present in Qarabagh, and 124 CIGs in Surkhrod (Volume 4.3, RNSF, ARS Progetti, 2017b).

The CIGs collect the requests for agricultural inputs from their members, e.g. seed, fertilizer, poles for trellis, and so on. These goods are transported to the stores at the district and the Chiefs of the CIGs divide the goods over the members who sign for receiving the goods with their ID number. CIGs receive the goods at a discount of often 20%. The principle is that after the harvest the members of the CIGs pay their equivalent share into a bank account; this is registered in the name of the Chief of the CIG.

The CIG is free to spend this money following community’s purposes. For instance this may be used to build a water conservation dam, or buy a lorry to transport their agricultural produce, or to transport inputs to the CIG, or to purchase agricultural inputs for the next cropping season.

From a technical perspective, FAO’s Extension Officers have communicated to the CIGs and farmers crop-specific best cultural practices under the given circumstances and for the particular climate, land, water and soil conditions. This technical information will stay with the farming community and provides a long-term benefit for them and was a sustainable component of the project.


Box 19 - The integrated project to support the empowerment of artisans in Côted’Ivoire

The integrated project to support the empowerment of artisans in Côte d’Ivoire is also a EU-funded project conducted by AVSI Foundation (Volume 4.4, ). Whereas the country has decided to pursue the goal of universal health coverage starting with the public sector, it could take years for craftsmen and women to become involved in such goal. Therefore the project has put in place Savings and Community Solidarity Groups (GESCO) and, through these groups, collected initial amounts then weekly amounts arousing emulation between villages. Despite the success of the approach, it would have been difficult however to reach the minimum amount necessary to create a mutual Fund for the handicrafts (weavers, potters, seamstresses, furniture makers, etc.). Too long delays would have disappointed the strong expectations and would have weakened the trust of the population in a context where previous failures have left traces. Therefore AVSI suggested to contribute to various existing successful and efficient regional mutual funds of agricultural planters or other trades, and modulate the services according to the financial capacities of craftsmen and craftswomen: it is a flexible model that can be adapted according to the regional opportunities and is a preliminary step towards an independent mutual insurance for crafts.

In this approach, AVSI is supported by the Support Programme for the mutual health insurance strategies (PASS) at the regional level of the WAEMU countries.

In the same vein, the Delegation for the Organisation of the Informal Sector (DOSI) in Togo has organised farmers-breeders-fishermen, motorcycle taxis, handicrafts and traders in mutual associations (often leaning on pre-existing cooperatives) that are vectors for capacity strengthening, acquisition of equipment and above all ensuring social protection (DOSI, 2015). The principle is that the acquisition of means of production (with credit) is submitted to the membership and to the payment of an insurance premium (or social contribution) to a mutual association ensuring health coverage and old age pension. Once the credit is reimbursed, the social contribution continues to be reclaimed together with the membership fees. However as the sense of belonging to a mutual association takes time, it is necessary to attach the social contribution to another regular expenditure for a service or a good that the association provides to its members, for instance the seeds or the fertilisers for the farmers.


Based on the evaluation reports of hundreds of past projects funded by international institutions such as the ILO or FAO, Zegers (2016) ends up with a list of guidelines about future actions on the topic organising in the informal economy:

  1. Promote the organising of people dependent on the IE into business associations or cooperatives to enable them to formalise and access possible government or other support. Include capacity strengthening focus on:
  • working together,
  • increase in sharing, exchanging and lending between community members of material goods, sharing of ideas and skills.
  1. Note that it is necessary to strengthen the organisational capacities of cooperatives and informal enterprise groups as only forming such groups is not sufficient for them to be effective and self-sustaining.
  2. Be flexible in the determination of types of informal groups that will be strengthened and/or established. Recognise that there may be different needs and do not promote a single approach throughout all projects/activities. Consider that there may be groups with strong forms of full partnership among the group members or simpler options such as cooperating on a single aspect such as marketing or transportation.
  3. Integrate and study the results of cooperative approaches in small enterprise development. Organising cooperatives as an alternative to small enterprise associations may be useful in the context of formalising the informal economy. The extent to which this is beneficial needs further analysis.
  4. Promote inter-producer Informal Economy group learning as opposed to only training from formal entities.
  5. Consider when starting groups—including for women and other people dependent on the informal economy—that a focus on building trust between group members is important. Use team building exercise methodologies to build trust. Even in communities where people may know each other there can be a need for such team building activities.
  6. While organising informal economy workers into groups such as savings and credit cooperatives that can be beneficial to addressing decent work deficits, note that the heterogeneous nature of the informal economy may result in challenges. In project design, consider differences between informal economy operators and workers and the eventual potential challenges to scaling up activities after project end. Such consideration may take the form of good analysis of the functioning of types of informal economy activities and possible contextual challenges. Subsequently, envisage, test and measure results to learn lessons. Integrate lessons learned back into new programming.
  7. Promote the creation of Common Interest Groups (CIGs) as a first step towards the creation of cooperatives to enable efficient and effective economic and practical support.
  8. Consider promoting different types of group models depending on the context, the needs and purpose of the groups instead of using the same model throughout. Test alternatives in parallel rather than in sequence.
  9.  Foster more participation of vulnerable groups in informal groups by adapting the criteria to obtain membership and to stay a member. For instance women do not dispose necessary time to participate to all activities, either because of their domestic burden or due to social norms regarding gender roles and relations.
  10.  Keep supporting groups even after a project ceases to operate. Try to sustain technical support for their activities for (at least) another production period and/or better to guide their transformation process in cooperatives. Gradual phasing out of support is preferable to immediate end of technical support at project closure.


Because they are invisible, dispersed, powerless, out of the scope and concerns of policy-makers and the policies they design, and out of the scope of traditional trade unions and associations, workers in the informal economy need to gain visibility and voice.

In this matter no one model fits all in terms of organizing informal workers, all the more so that they are very diverse. Recognising that what is needed is: 1) a change in mindsets of policy-makers to recognise and validate informal workers as real workers through or despite the various forms of employment relationships or arrangements, and 2) change in laws, regulations and policies to protect and promote informal works and their livelihoods, activists in support of these vulnerable populations have to rely on pre-existing forms of organisations at best, or to build a consciousness of shared interests and concerns among these various categories of informal workers through campaigns oriented toward the gain of denied rights: for instance the right to have access and make use of the public space for street vendors or the right to be recognised as workers according to the labour law for domestic workers.

Several models can be distinguished (Chen et al., 2015):

§ Domestic workers, who need solidarity in order to bargain with their employers often form or join trade unions

§ Self-employed home-based workers often form associations to leverage skills training, product design, and marketing services

§ Industrial outworkers who work from their home need to form unions for collective bargaining with employers and their intermediaries

§ Street vendors who need to bargain collectively with local authorities often form unions or market-specific associations

§ Waste pickers who provide recycling services to cities or cleaning services to firms often form cooperatives.

In many countries, there are such unregistered associations that function like cooperatives or trade unions but they find it difficult to register as such: organisational form follows organisational function and recent emphasis put on the Social and Solidarity Economy and social enterprises can provide the ways and means by which the transition from the informal to the formal economy can be achieved.

The same authors remark that at the heart of each of the successful campaigns, except for the domestic workers campaign, there was a legal case for the success of which, access to free pro-bono, high-quality, and responsive legal assistance by the informal workers and their organizations was determinant, as well as the support from the civil society, and the informal workers themselves.

For development projects organising is generally a first step in building trust among the populations of beneficiaries. To this aim, traditional or pre-existing forms of organisations may be helpful that can be used or revitalised to ensure capacity strengthening, encourage savings and credit, payment of social contributions, and improve working conditions.



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