Main challenges of organising vulnerable workers

Workers are vulnerable to dismissal, to bad health and safety conditions, and to pay that does not meet their needs. That is why all workers need trade unions, says the writer.

Workers are vulnerable to dismissal, to bad health and safety conditions, and to pay that does not meet their needs. That is why all workers need trade unions, says the writer.

Published Mar 28, 2014


All workers are vulnerable. Workers are vulnerable to dismissal, to bad health and safety conditions, and to pay that does not meet their needs. That is why all workers need trade unions. But some workers are more vulnerable than others.

Workers who are working in isolated situations like domestic workers, farmworkers and workers in very small companies, or those who are self-employed such as most street vendors, are extra vulnerable. Big changes have taken place in the formal workplace. We now often have more than one employer in one workplace because of outsourcing, sub-contracting and the use of labour brokers.

And a large number of workers are no longer on permanent, full-time contracts. Fixed-term contracts and part-time employment is becoming more common in many sectors, especially in the services sectors. It is easier for employers to exploit all of these categories of vulnerable workers and keep their pay and conditions at unacceptably low levels.

Migrant workers from other countries are also vulnerable as they often do not know their rights and are taken advantage of by employers. Young women in all sectors are vulnerable because they are exposed to high levels of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.

As a result of the way globalisation has changed the labour market, “atypical” employment relationships have increasingly become the norm – instead of exceptions to the norm. The category of own-account (self-employed) workers was taken into official consideration at the 90th session of the annual International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June 2002 for the first time in Clause 4 of the Conclusions on Decent Work and the Informal Economy, which states: “Workers in the informal economy include both wage workers and own-account workers. Most own-account workers are as insecure and vulnerable as wage workers and move from one situation to the other. Because they lack protection, rights and representation, these workers often remain trapped in poverty.”

The growth in these new forms of work, and decrease or limited growth in formal jobs, has produced an increasingly vulnerable global workforce – which faces challenges at work, and challenges to the exercise of their fundamental rights to organise and represent their interests.

Vulnerable workers are diverse in their employment status. They may be waged or self-employed, working directly for an employer of through an intermediary.

Their workplace may be a shop, factory, office, mine, their home, someone else’s home or on the streets. They may be de jure covered by labour and other protective laws, but de facto be working informally as employers ignore legislation and avoid social protection obligations.

They have common or similar needs, as well as needs specific to their sector and situation. Common needs include organising and labour rights, legal rights and standing, economic rights and rights to social protection.

Organising and labour rights: Vulnerable workers, including those in the informal economy, must be able to effectively exercise their rights to organise and bargain collectively, as well as their other fundamental rights at work. Trade unions have an important role to play in defending formal jobs and organising vulnerable workers.

Legal identity and standing: Vulnerable workers, especially own-account workers in the informal economy and those working in their homes or homes of others, want to be recognised as workers or as economic agents with a clear legal standing in all relevant policy-regulatory legal domains.

They do not want to be relegated, as the poor or vulnerable, to the social policy domain alone; they want to be recognised as legitimate contributing economic agents by policymakers who frame both macro-economic and sector-specific economic policies. This necessitates extending the scope of labour laws to categories of workers traditionally excluded (eg domestic workers, home-based workers, agricultural workers) or amending laws so they cover the full range of relationships under which work is performed.

Economic rights: Vulnerable workers, including the working poor in the informal economy, need and demand a wide range of labour, commercial, and land-use rights in order to improve their employment arrangements and secure their livelihoods; make their economic activities more productive; and use their representative voice to achieve appropriate changes to the wider institutional environment that affects their work and livelihoods. Recognised labour rights are usually premised on the notion of an employer-employee relationship. But many of the working poor are self-employed. For them, the basic right to pursue a livelihood is of principal relevance and importance.

Social rights, including social protection: Social protection coverage must be extended to all workers in the informal economy through social assistance or social insurance mechanisms. This includes rights to housing, education, health, food security, water, sanitation and social protection against the core contingencies of illness, disability, old age, and death, and against work-related risks. Maternity and child care should be addressed as a priority due to the over-representation of women in the vulnerable sectors (including in the informal economy).

For vulnerable workers (including those in the informal economy) to exercise their full labour rights, legal recognition and practical integration of their right to be represented by worker-controlled organisations of their own choice is essential.

They must be able to regulate their working conditions through collective bargaining processes that involve democratically elected representatives of these worker organisations.

For employees such collective bargaining will be with an employer, but for the self-employed such as street vendors or waste pickers, local authorities would be the appropriate bargaining counterpart.

This requires a rethinking of what is meant by collective bargaining.

Multiple actors (eg municipality, suppliers, and enforcement agencies) typically exert control over the lives and work of street vendors. Thus it often makes sense to enter into multilateral negotiations in a joint collective bargaining forum where multiple layers of controls can be simultaneously addressed.

Street vendors are often represented by many associations in the same area, and informal waste collectors/recyclers in the same town may be organised into different associations or co-operatives.

The municipality may not want to negotiate with each of them separately (which can lead to inconsistency, confusion and even conflict). In such circumstances, multilateral negotiations between the authority and many different representative organisations are often the best way to achieve effective results.

Existing bargaining forums are designed for workers with formal employment relationships.

They do not necessarily lend themselves to addressing the issues faced by vulnerable constituencies of workers in the informal economy. New, appropriate bargaining forums must be created.

This requires designing the rules of participation, establishing criteria for determining the issues for negotiation, and envisaging how such new forums will engage with the wider policymaking and regulatory frameworks so that these become a meaningful part of participatory decision-making.

Systems of representation by formal economy representatives in tripartite forums need to be replaced by the direct representation of workers in the informal economy themselves.

This will improve the legitimacy of such forums in changing labour markets and in a changing world of work.

As a result of a decision of the 2012 Cosatu congress, a vulnerable workers task team has been established by Cosatu.

The task team is planning a national campaign to start after the elections in May, to highlight the conditions of vulnerable workers and to organise them into the ranks of trade unions and allied worker organisations in large numbers. The aim is to intensify efforts to organise, among others:

- Farm workers

- Staff in shops, restaurants and hotels

- Street traders

- Home-based workers

- All sub-contracted workers

- Construction workers

- Contract cleaning workers

- Petrol station workers

- Call centre workers

- Expanded Public Works Programme workers

- All young workers, especially women

- Taxi workers

- All migrant workers regardless of legal status

- Security guards

- All workers enslaved by labour brokers

- Domestic workers

The ILO has started to address some of the vulnerable work sectors through its 1996 Convention 177 on Homework and 2011 Convention 189 on Domestic Workers.

This year and next year the International Labour Conference will be discussing a further instrument (expected to be a new recommendation) on “transitioning from the informal to the formal economy” – which is set to highlight the own-account work sectors, such as the majority of street vendors and waste pickers.

During this month, organised workers in some of the affected vulnerable work sectors have been convened by the group Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising in regional consultations in Africa (Johannesburg), Latin America (Buenos Aires) and Asia (Bangkok) to prepare for this process to put their stamp on this new ILO recommendation.

* Pat Horn is international co-ordinator of StreetNet International, an alliance of street vendors. It was launched in Durban in November 2002 to promote the exchange of information and ideas on critical issues facing street vendors, market vendors and hawkers (ie mobile vendors) and on practical organising and advocacy strategies.

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