A century ago, on the heels of another deadly pandemic, an estimated 10,000 coal workers in West Virginia banded together to march in protest against the cruelty and injustice they experienced working in the mines. It was America’s largest labor uprising and was unusual for that segregated time in uniting Black, white and immigrant workers behind one cause. The forces of business and government combined to crush their rebellion, but not the spirit behind it, which eventually led to many of the protections we take for granted today, like the 40-hour week and minimum wage.
Today we have new versions of the struggle between the coal barons and suffering miners in various forms across the global economy. The weak regulations and eroding labor protections of the globalized economy have contributed to grotesque inequality and concentration of wealth and the mass migrations of people desperate for economic security. Around the world, the working poor are as vulnerable as ever. If there is going to be a new Progressive Era, it needs to start with the world’s informal workers.
Informal work is the essential service that billions of people give to a world that barely notices. These are workers who survive outside the social and labor protections that employees in the mainstream economy enjoy, doing countless invisible jobs. They clean homes and care for children. They sweep streets and collect trash and recyclables. They make and sell clothing, electronic goods and food. They perform manual labor. Their workplaces are inside homes or out on the streets and sidewalks; they are everywhere and yet they are overlooked, forgotten, ignored.
There are about 2 billion informal workers worldwide. They make up more than 60% of all the world’s workforce, and 90% of workers in developing countries. One in five workers in the U.S. is employed informally. Globally, 58% of women who work are engaged in informal employment, a figure that rises to 92% in developing countries.
What all these workers offer—the sweat of their brows, the strength of their arms and backs, their knowledge and skills—has great value, but they are not themselves valued. They work without the benefit of wage and hour and workplace-safety laws, at dangerous and tedious tasks, prone to exploitation by predatory employers and authorities.
The pandemic has exposed how vulnerable these often unappreciated workers are. Lockdowns and unstable economies have forced many more of them into poverty. Society now understands more clearly how much it depends on “essential workers,” many of whom are in the informal economy. But what the world still needs to recognize is how these front-line workers, in defending their own rights and dignity, are upholding these values for everyone. The street vendors who fight for more permits to sell their wares are doing their part to create a more lawful and regulated workplace. The day laborers who win a First Amendment lawsuit defending their right to seek work are defending the Constitution for all. The domestic workers who unite to fight for decent wages and basic rights like paid time off and overtime are building a floor that others in the labor movement can stand on.
In the global fight against COVID-19, informal workers have been caring for the sick, sanitizing public spaces, and making and distributing masks and other life-saving protective equipment. But these contributions have often gone unnoticed. Workers in the informal economy have been disproportionately exposed not just to the virus, but also to injustice and economic ruin. In Senegal, local governments used lockdown as an opportunity to dismantle street-vending infrastructure. In Peru, waste pickers were prohibited from working, while large, private waste management companies were not. Across South and Southeast Asia, home-based workers in the global garment industry saw orders grind to a halt, while brands refused to pay for work already completed. Globally, domestic workers lost their jobs or saw their workload increase without a matching increase in pay.
These workers have found themselves largely excluded from pandemic emergency relief funds and in-kind transfers. Worldwide, the percentage of informally employed workers living in poverty doubled during the pandemic’s first month, to 59% from 26% previously.
In these hard times, many workers are banding together to defend themselves. In New York City, thousands of street-food vendors pushed the City Council to pass a new law administering 4,000 additional vending permits this year, lifting a cap that had been unchanged since 1983. In Argentina, waste-picker unions and other vulnerable workers demanded a seat at the table on the country’s Emergency Social Committee, establishing increased food security for the working poor throughout the pandemic. And in 2019, the International Labor Conference adopted a convention on ending violence and harassment in the world of work, a new measure condemning violence and harassment in all workplaces, including public spaces and private homes.
These actions underscore the power of a growing global movement for informal workers’ rights. And at the International Labour Organization’s 109th conference session this week, the leaders of informal worker networks will demand international governments and employer representatives chart a global economic recovery with the informal workforce at the center.
Global leaders in government and the private sector would do well to take these demands seriously. They can start in three ways: by providing direct representation of informal workers in collective bargaining, adopting universal social protections for workers across all sectors, and ensuring just compensation for informal workers commensurate with the value of their work.
The global forces of automation and inequality are vast and powerful. But a world where most workers are denied labor and social protections is not inevitable. Our policy choices, business choices, choices about who we value will determine our future. We can do more to defend informal workers, and actively bend the economy toward justice.
As we gather for the 109th International Labour Conference, a global coalition of multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-sector workers is once again joining forces, marching into the proverbial town square. Together, let us learn from the past and look toward our collective future—with renewed strength and solidarity.
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