Informal Workers’ Unions Voices are Rising in Latin America and Elsewhere

mexicans-protestMexico City   Some recognition of the role of unions emerging among informal workers is easier to be seen in Latin America. It was unsurprising to read that one of the clearest voices expressing concern about the impact of the devaluation of the peso in Argentina by the new government and its impact on inflation and increase of precariousness for workers was from the Confederation of Workers of the Popular Economy, which represents workers in Argentina’s gray economy, like recyclers and street hawkers. La Confederación de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (CTEP), as it is known in Spanish, describes itself on its website as an independent and professional organization of workers in the popular economy or informal employment sector, and, interestingly, their families as well.

The International Labor Organization more than a dozen years ago estimated that “Informal or precarious employment comprises between one-half and three-quarters of non-agricultural employment in developing countries: specifically 48 percent in northern Africa, 51 percent in Latin America, 65 percent in Asia, and 72 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (78 percent if South Africa is excluded). 60 percent or more of women workers in the developing world are in informal employment, rising to 84 percent in sub-Saharan Africa (non-agricultural).” That’s a lot of workers, and even in the developed world the ILO notes “that three categories of non-standard or atypical work – self-employment, part-time work, and temporary work – comprise 30 percent of overall employment in 15 European countries and 25 percent of total employment in the United States.”

In Mexico, the most notable union including informal workers is the Confederacion Revolucionaria de Obreros y Campesinos, known as CROC which in English would be the Revolutionary Confederation of Workers and Peasants. The union began almost 65 years ago and now claims more than 4 million members and 15,000 collective agreements, though it is unclear how many contracts cover informal workers. The Union of Informal Workers’ Associations in Ghana is a widely recognized federation of informal workers in Africa. The Federacion Departmental de Vendedores Ambulantes de Lima or Federation of Street Vendors of Lima is also well known.

In a 2011 ILO paper another federated model was given attention, highlighting the Manual Labourers’ Association in Pune which united unions of informal workers including street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers, head-loaders, auto-rickshaw and other temporary and constructions workers. Vinod Shetty, director of ACORN India in Mumbai and I visited with KKPKP, the Trade Union of Waste Pickers of Pune, one of the organizing unions of that federation. KKPKP has 6000 largely women members who have also formed a savings and credit cooperative, scrap shop cooperatives to broker their waste pickers recyclable materials for higher prices, and a solid waste doorstep collection cooperative which operates as a subcontractor for several neighborhoods with the municipal corporation.

Formal trade unions have been hesitant and in many cases resistant to taking on the task of organizing informal workers. The income and dues are difficult and erratic, making few of these efforts stand-alone and self-sufficient. As the economy becomes more precarious for workers, the fewer excuses unions will have for not embracing the challenge of organizing informal workers, whether they like it or not. Luckily emerging organizations in Latin America and elsewhere are increasingly providing models that point the direction for unions in the future.