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Law & the Informal Economy
News Covering the Period January – July 2017
Photo credit: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage
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Our Perspective on Legal and Policy Inclusion for Informal Workers
The perception that law is irrelevant to informal workers because they operate outside the law is ubiquitous. Even lawyers committed to development are influenced by mainstream narratives about the informal economy, which include the following:

  • The informal sector is comprised of “plucky micro-entrepreneurs” who choose to operate informally because they want to avoid the costs, time and effort of formal registration, and who need legal rights to convert their assets into formal property (popularized by the Peruvian economist, Hernando de Soto).
  • The informal sector is comprised of micro-entrepreneurs who choose to operate informally in order to avoid taxation, commercial regulations, electricity and rental fees, and other costs of operating formally.
  • The informal sector consists of activity that is illegal, hidden or underground.

WIEGO engages in a range of global policy spaces with the objective of challenging these dominant narratives and shaping new norms about informal work. Our aim is to show that the working poor are productive, and make significant contributions to the GDP in many countries, yet they face enormous barriers and challenges. Existing laws, regulations, city by-laws, procurement policies and labour and employment laws are designed for the “tip of the pyramid” – formal wage workers and formal enterprises. They are most often biased against or inappropriate for, or simply exclude informal workers, who form the “base of the pyramid” – the majority of the workforce – in many countries. We believe that the narrative that should inform development frameworks and strategies is that most informal workers are poor people who work hard to earn an honest living, and they need an enabling legal environment to secure their livelihoods. In the last six months WIEGO’s Law Programme has engaged in several global norm-creating processes to dispel the assumption that informal workers operate outside the law, and to disseminate ideas on enabling legal frameworks. 

Global Advocacy and Norm Change
The UN High Level Panel (UN HLP) for Women’s Economic Empowerment Working Group on Ensuring Legal Protection and Reforming Discriminatory Laws and Regulations
Seven drivers of women’s economic empowerment identified by the UN HLP

In 2016, the Secretary General of the United Nations appointed a High Level Panel (UN HLP) to define priorities and areas of action for advancing women’s economic empowerment; WIEGO was one of two civil society organizations invited to serve on the panel (in addition to Oxfam). During the first phase of the UN HLP process, WIEGO Law Programme Director Marlese von Broembsen co-authored a technical paper entitled, “Eliminating Legal Barriers from the Perspective of the Informal Economy.”  

During the second phase of the process, the UN HLP appointed working groups, which were charged with translating the UN HLP’s initial high-level report into a practical agenda for implementation aimed at influencing different stakeholders, including government and business. Marlese served on the working group focused on legal protection and reform of discriminatory laws and regulations. As a result of WIEGO’s involvement, the working group consulted with representatives from organizations of informal workers including: the International Domestic Workers Federation (which has 58 affiliates in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Europe and North America);  StreetNet (which represents street traders from 55 countries); HomeNet South Asia (which represents homeworkers); and KKPKP, a union of waste collectors in India.  Their views on an enabling legal environment for informal workers were reflected in the working group’s toolkit, and in the UN HLP’s second report.

The working group’s efforts have already had an impact – the World Bank included the working group recommendations in the framing of the World Bank Law, Justice and Development week agenda for November 2017. Specifically, one of the goals of the week is to explore “Creat[ing] an enabling legal environment for informal (and agricultural) workers, extending workers’ rights and entitlements, and recognizing rights to secure housing and land tenure and access to public space, raw materials, natural resources, transport and basic infrastructures and services.”  WIEGO’s Law Programme will host a panel during the week of events entitled, “Creating an Enabling Legal Environment for Informal Workers: Examples of Inclusive Development from the Global South.”

Other Law Programme activities during this period that involve engaging with groups of lawyers to bring the contribution and needs of informal workers into legal thinking include:

  • The law team organized a panel discussion, “Informal Labour in Global Value Chains: Empirical Perspectives and Conceptual Challenges from the Global South,”  for the Labour Law Research Network Conference in Toronto, Canada. The biannual conference (held this year from June 25-27) brings together labour lawyers from around the world.
  • Pamhidzai Bamu, Law Programme Coordinator for Africa, presented the paper “Extending Occupational Health and Safety Law to Informal Workers: the Case of Street Vendors in South Africa,” as part of a panel on informal work organized by the Oxford Human Rights Hub, the University of Kent and the ILO under the rubric of “A Better Future for Women at Work: Legal and Policy Perspectives.” Recent ILO reports, including its 2016 “Women at Work Trends” Report informed the themes that the participants discussed at the conference. The Conference brought together participants from the global North and South to begin the process of developing and exploring transformative legal strategies to ensure that work leads to a better future for all women.
Pamhidzai Bamu of WIEGO (far right) with participants at the Labour Law Research Network Conference

The law team also participated in:

  • A panel on development at the New York University School of Law’s Fifth Annual “Law and Women” Summit on February 16.
  • The Centre for Global Workers’ Rights at Penn State University’s Symposium on Precarious Work in Global Supply Chains from March 23-24.
  • The University of Cape Town’s Africa Day Colloquium on “Women and Work in Africa,” in May. 
Latin America
Waste Pickers and Human Rights
Meeting of waste pickers in Nicaragua

An estimated 20 million people worldwide are directly dependent on waste picking for their livelihoods. They work in landfills or open dumps, or pick waste from garbage bags or waste containers located in public spaces. Waste pickers create significant environmental, economic and social benefits for the societies in which they work. For example, they recover and reintroduce 10-20 per cent of waste generated back into the production cycle; reduce the consumption of raw materials by supplying recyclable materials to private industries in the value chain; create savings in city budgets by extending the useful life of dumpsites and landfills; and generate household income in contexts where there are few formal work opportunities.

Over the years, WIEGO has supported waste pickers in Latin America through research to support their advocacy efforts and capacity building to strengthen their organizations. We have also supported the formation of national and regional organizations of waste pickers, and have engaged with them on policy advocacy efforts aimed at securing their rights.
Our experience supporting the Association of Recyclers of Bogota (ARB) with legal advocacy in Colombia’s Constitutional Court has taught us that framing waste pickers’ living and working conditions and demands in terms of human rights can lead to important legal precedents which recognize waste pickers’ rights. In Colombia, Constitutional Court rulings provided waste pickers with the legal tools they needed to successfully advocate for inclusive solid waste management policies at the local level, leading to improved incomes, and working and living conditions for thousands of waste pickers.

WIEGO’s Law and Organization and Representation Programmes are starting a joint project in five Latin American countries aimed at supporting waste pickers’ efforts to frame their poor working conditions in human rights terms and engage in legal advocacy for improvements. In this process, students from Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic will be working with WIEGO and our partners (membership-based organizations of waste pickers), in Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala to conduct research on human (labour) rights violations that waste pickers are subjected to. Their findings will lay the groundwork for a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on violations of waste pickers’ rights.

Domestic Workers and Social Security
In February 2017, a Latin American regional exchange of domestic workers was held in Mexico City, Mexico. The exchange was jointly organized by the WIEGO Law Programme, the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, and the Mexican Domestic Workers’ Union, SINACTRAHO. The exchange brought together domestic workers from six countries to share experiences and discuss advocacy strategies around social security legislation and ratification of ILO Convention 189 on Domestic Work.  The outcome of this workshop was a platform of demands, which members of SINACTRAHO presented to the Mexican Senate in March.
SINACTRAHO members presenting the platform of demands at the Mexican Senate
WIEGO and Simone de Beauvoir’s advocacy support to domestic workers in Mexico is ongoing. Most recently, we’ve held a capacity building workshop for SINACTRAHO on the relationship between the Federal Constitution, social security law and labour law, from a social protection perspective.

To learn more, read Strategies for Addressing Social and Legal Barriers for Mexican Domestic Workers by Tania Espinosa on the WIEGO blog (Mar 28, 2017).
Capacity Building for Home-based Worker Organizations
In April 2017, WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme (ORP), organized a regional workshop to build the advocacy capacity of representative organizations of home-based workers from six Latin American countries. WIEGO’s Law Programme supported ORP in this process by analyzing the legislation that pertains to home-based work in these six countries, and engaging with workers on this topic at the workshop.
Implementation of ILO Recommendation 204
ILO Recommendation 204 (R204) outlines principles for ILO Member States and social partners to promote the transition from the informal to the formal economy. WIEGO is supporting the efforts of membership-based organizations of informal workers to lobby for the implementation of R204 at the national level.  Specifically, the Law Programme together with ORP are working with the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector (MUFIS – a StreetNet affiliate), to promote the implementation of R204 in Malawi. Malawi is significant because the Malawian government appointed MUFIS to represent informal workers on its Tripartite Labour Advisory Council, its highest decision-making body on labour matters. This means that workers in the informal economy are recognized and are in a position to engage with the government on issues that affect them.

In April 2017, Pamhidzai Bamu and ORP Programme Officer Vanessa Pillay visited Malawi to meet MUFIS and other key stakeholders including informal workers, government and employers’ organizations. The aim of the visit was to understand the key issues affecting the informal economy and identify activities to support the implementation of R204. Following this visit, WIEGO and MUFIS are discussing possible activities to carry out in Malawi. 

Legal Recognition of Social Protection in Africa

In 2016, the Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung Foundation (FES) initiated discussions to start a project to promote the legal recognition of social protection in Africa. The project partners include the International Trade Union Congress-Africa (ITUC-Africa), the African Labour Research Network (ALRN), Africa Platform for Social Protection (APSP) and WIEGO. The project’s specific objectives are to:

  • Promote socio-political discourse on the economic development potential of basic social security, poverty reduction and democratic participation;
  • Promote the legal recognition of social security to promote equitable access to resources; and
  • Ensure that membership-based organizations actively participate in the development of social protection programmes for informal workers.

In April 2017, WIEGO hosted an initial project meeting with representatives of all the partners in Durban, South Africa. The partners appointed representatives to the project steering committee. Pamhidzai Bamu, together with WIEGO’s Social Protection Programme Directo Laura Alfers, are representing WIEGO on the project steering committee.  The steering committee, together with FES, will commission a scoping study to outline key developments relating to social protection in Africa. This will inform the planning process and provide a basis for identifying potential partners and countries to work in.  Pamhidzai Bamu is hosting the next steering committee meeting in Harare later this month.

Administrative Law and Informal Workers

Administrative law governs the daily business of government: typically, the application or implementation of policy after its translation into law. When state officials make decisions or take action in relation to informal workers, administrative law generally applies.  Because of the relevance of administrative law to informal workers, WIEGO commissioned a paper, WIEGO (law) Technical Brief No. 10, that outlines the principles of general South African administrative law and the protections that it offers to informal workers who work in public spaces (street vendors and waste pickers). The brief looks at administrative law in the South African context, although it may also serve as a useful resource for informal workers in other countries with similar administrative law principles.
The Law Programme and the Organization and Representation Programme will conduct capacity-building workshops with street vendors and waste pickers drawing on the material from the brief, as well as other  court decisions and examples, to show street vendors and waste pickers how they can use administrative law strategically in their dealings with the state. The workshops will be held in South Africa during the first quarter of 2018.

Legal Protections for Homeworkers

There are an estimated 25 million homeworkers globally. Homeworkers, who are mostly women, produce goods or parts of goods from or near their homes.  Marlese von Broembsen spent three weeks in India and Thailand with HomeNet South Asia,  HomeNet Southeast Asia, and HomeNet Thailand, to conduct research on the social and contractual relationships between homeworkers, contractors and factories, and to support Thailand with the implementation of its HomeWorker Protection Act.  HomeNet Thailand is now implementing pilot projects in three provinces in partnership with the Ministry of Labour as part of implementing the Act.

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