Paris Alison Tate, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) director of economic and social policy and Sharan Burrow, the president of the ITUC, had just flown in from China earlier in the day before Adrien Roux and I met them in a plaza, enjoying the reportedly rare Brussels sunshine safely under an umbrella while pounding espresso. The subject at hand was discussing our progress and projects in organizing unions of informal workers in India, Africa, and elsewhere and getting a sense from them where the work was progressing globally.
As it happened, the ITUC had recently completed a piece in Equal Times that was a special report on the informal economy with case studies of sorts from fourteen different countries, which Alison handed over at the beginning of the meeting. Taking a look later on the train to Paris, much of it focused on fleshing out the work following what they termed the “historic” adoption of Recommendation 204 from the International Labour Organization establishing a standard of “guiding principles” to assist “half of the world’s labour force transition from the informal to the formal economy.” Admittedly, a standard of guiding principles is a pretty thin rope to grab while drowning in high seas, but given the continued acceleration of lower wage, precarious informal work and the stubbornness with which the work and workers are exploited and governments pretend it doesn’t exist, any step forward, no matter how fledgling is progress indeed. Some of the report’s graphics made these points starkly: 66% of non-agricultural employment in sub-Saharan Africa is informal with 82.7% in Mali and 76.3% in Zambia; 46.8% of all Latin American workers are informal; 85% of the working population in South Asia is said to be informal and 65% in Southeast Asia, and so on – you get the picture.
When it comes to organizing, President Burrow was more certain of the ITUC’s progress. They had launched an organizing “academy” to develop “lead” organizers to run organizing programs in various continents. Burrow’s goal was to get to 100 crackerjack organizers through the program and then match them with the same skilled organizers in the formal sector, and see if the combination couldn’t create an explosion of organizing. She felt she already had seen 70 to 80 reach that level, so felt increasingly close to where the ITUC hoped to be.
It was encouraging to hear their reports of national labor federations that had embraced the organizing and affiliation of informal workers unions, rather than marginalizing or ignoring them. It was also encouraging to read the report and see how high the bar had been raised by organizations like the 80,000 member Waste Picker Movement of Brazil. Given our work in helping organize domestic workers in Morocco, seeing that there were 500 members of the Domestic Workers’ Union nearby in Lebanon also gave us another kind of benchmark on organizing progress.
Unionization in this sector is not easy as we know. Many of the reports’ case studies were less about formalization, where informal workers’ unions had been able to leverage the creation of something like an employer, and more about stabilization of work and improvement of workers by developing cooperatives similar to ACORN India’s efforts in Mumbai or access to social security schemes like ACORN’s hawkers’ union in Bengaluru.
Sharan Burrow made an interesting point as we began our conversation about the exciting “energy” of organizing and organizers in this huge, but hidden, sector of the real labor movement among lower income workers, and I think she’s right. Where we generate enough heat, there will be light, and workers will follow those paths to building unions and collective action to victories both small and increasingly large.