Tag Archives: informal workers

Indian Informal Workers are Starving

Pearl River     I have to tell the truth.  It’s hard to read some of these reports from near and far complaining about being required to comply with stay-at-home orders in order to protect their own lives and the lives of their community, once again, near and far.  I totally get the ones that are hurting because that means they can’t work and are still trying to file for unemployment across the digital divide and waiting with hopes and prayers to find out if they really got a check of $1200 from the government to help them make it through so they can figure out groceries and rent.

The ones that I don’t get at all are the stories that focus on dealing with boredom, advice about cabin fever, stories about soaring divorce rates in China and soon in the United States because couples had to stay together.  Games are recommended.  Netflix and Amazon Prime shows are ranked.  YouTube comedians are pushed so that they can have their day.

Maybe it’s me?  I keep wondering what world these people are living in?

ACORN has worked in India for over fifteen years now.  We have members in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Delhi, Chennai, and dozens of other cities.  I get reports from the organizers every day.  We had an emergency WhatsApp call last week with the team in the wake of Prime Minister Narenda Modi declaring a national shutdown in the country with only four hours’ notice.  We have over 50,000 members of ACORN in India and our work is in the mega-slums like Dharavi in Mumbai and in building unions of informal workers in all the other cities.  Our members range from waste pickers to hawkers, street vendors, domestic workers, moto-rickshaw drivers, and informal residential construction workers.  These are daily wage workers.  If they don’t work, they don’t eat.  A stay-at-home order for many is meaningless because no small number are living where they work in their storage sheds or sleeping in their rickshaws.  There is no social distancing in the slums.   The government says it’s going to provide food rations, but they were not ready to do so when they shut the country down, closed the trains for migrant workers to return to their villages, and ordered the police to beat people found out during curfews.  Food is still late in arriving.

An ACORN affiliate and partner, Janapahal, operates more than a dozen night shelters in Delhi for informal and migrant workers without other housing.  I got this message from Darmendra Kumar, ACORN’s Delhi director last night,

“…Janpahal is serving food to migrants in Delhi to support them in surviving 21 days #lockdown.  We are serving more than 5000 meals on a daily basis through out 7 community kitchens to those not having access to food and any welfare measures.”

He asked me to post this on ACORN International’s website, and we will, because we have to do everything that we can do.

My advice to anyone stuck at home and bored is to think about how lucky you are to have food and shelter.  While you’re bored, here’s my advice for a pick me up, and I’ll quote Dharmendra again,

“Kindly donate generously on ACORN International’s website to help us defeat hunger and defeat corona.  All donations will go to feed migrants in India.”

Just say, “Delhi” on the PayPal memo.

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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.

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