Gender and informal sector

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Gender and informal sector
World Confederation of Labour


The developments in the labour issue have been obvious in recent years. Whether they bear upon relocation or the growth of the so-called "informal" sector, these developments confront the trade unions with new challenges. If these trade unions are not careful, globalisation risks playing workers from various countries out against one another, though this is really not in their interest. The growth of the informal sector, for instance, complicates the action of trade unions little accustomed to fields that are so changing. Without even mentioning the distrust of everything resembling an institution, including trade unions, a distrust that emanates not only from a more individualistic culture, but also from concrete pressures weighing down on the workers, often compelled to choose between their jobs and their active trade union commitment.

While the social reality is changing, the view on it is growing finer. Whereas formerly there were just "workers", distinction is being made today between men and women, facing problems that are partly similar, partly different. This is particularly true in the informal sector, in which women are present in great numbers. And in which the workers’ organisations therefore have to adapt. They are called on to take into consideration not only the characteristics of this kind of activities, but also the specific conditions experienced by women in this sector.

There is no reason to think that women would be less motivated by commitment and by solidarity. On the contrary, they are even more commited. It is all about creating the conditions enabling them to live by that commitment and solidarity while correcting what has been called on the following pages "acts of discrimination by omission". We must seclude ourselves from reality: the requirement concerns the trade unions as well. For its true that in their working lives women have to contend with specific difficulties like the double working day and the obligations related to reproduction (child care, etc); nor are their lives as activists without obstacles (husbands being against their attending meetings, male-dominated structures, …).

The affiliates of the World Confederation of Labour are more than others established in the informal sector. So, they are directly concerned by the content of this booklet which, far from being a document by women for women, should interest all trade union leaders in the North as well as in the South.

Willy Thys,

Secretary General

of the World Confederation of Labour


1 Why gender and informal sector? 9

2 Definition of the informal sector 15

a. Approach centred on the logic of the production of the informal sector 15

b. Approach centred on its non-legal nature 18

c. Approach centred on the recent evolution of the organisation of work 18

3 Features 19

a. General features 19

b. Kinds of activities in the informal sector 20

c. Positive and negative aspects 21

4 Informal sector – formal sector relations 25

a. Complementary relations 25

b. Integration relations 26

5 Globalisation and trade unions: "informalisation" of work 27

a. New ways to organise work: from Fordism to relocation 27

b. Two-speed work: precarious work and first-rate work 29

6 Informal sector and the trade union organisation 31

a. Gender Relations,

informal sector and trade union struggle 31

b. Possible strategies 34

The WCL and the informal economy 38


Footnotes 40

Conclusions 41

Bibliography 45


Women empowerment takes on various forms, resources, and mechanisms to integrate its concept into different levels. One important mechanism is an urgent call for action on concerns that affect the women workers in the sectors of the informal economy and the export processing zones as well as the migrant women workers.

Lying dormant for sometime, they remain unattended, uncared and exploited. For basic reasons they have remained the subjects for debates and discussions in the bi-partite, tri-partite and multisectoral levels. The process of discussions has taken a lot of toll on them as human beings, as workers, mostly as women.

But how far have we reached as WCL women in giving attention to these different women sectors?

This booklet, together with the other two booklets on Women in Export Processing Zones and Migrant Women Workers emphasizes our role as women trade unionists in caring for these marginalized women workers. Documenting their status and conditions provides awareness and consciousness on their particular situation. The thrust, however, should not remain only in paper. It should continue to acknowledge and uphold the basic requirements of these sectors for work and for life.

With this, is our hope that affirmative actions and mobilisation for concrete actions will be undertaken jointly within and among WCL, its regional bodies and national organisations.

Necie M. Lucero

Confederal Secretary

Responsible for Gender

and Equality and Migration Issues



In recent decades, the world economy has changed thoroughly: the participation of women both in the formal and in the informal labour market has risen considerably. This trend, of course, has resulted in a "renovative current in the working of the labour market and in the aspirations and hopes of the workers; moreover, it has modified the very basis of the social relations on which, to this day, occupational life and society as a whole have been structured".1 At the same time, the quality of life and of female employment is degrading, and the inequalities between men and women are growing worse. We indeed note that women, while being present in greater numbers on the labour market, are also the first to suffer the perverse effects of the globalising economy (more affected by unemployment, they have the least-qualified jobs; for equal work they earn less than men; and in any case their wages are lower because they have less-qualified jobs).

The chronic trade balance and balance of payments deficits due, in particular, to the drop in prices of raw materials and agricultural produce on the international markets have caused an unprecedented economic crisis in the developing countries in general.

The structural adjustment programmes and the introduction of new technologies have reduced employment in the organised sector, contributing to an accelerated rise in poverty. This state of affairs has driven people to undertake alternative income-generating activities enabling them to survive. This informal sector — the term informal refers to its not being legally organised — therefore serves to absorb the shocks of the economic crisis and has become a sort of refuge for the "excluded".

This increasing development of activities in the informal economy is one of the faces the globalised economy has adopted, entailing all its consequences on the living and working conditions of men and women.

Now then, a thorough analysis of the informal sector and a gauging of the actors go to show that women are playing a key part in the dynamics of these activities. Women are indeed present in great numbers; they undertake income-generating activities increasing the family income, in some cases even to the point that they are the only source of family income. And in that they carry out all the family reproduction work and take part in all the non-salaried production work, the economic role of women is marginalised: the statistics even ignore them.

According to the ILO2, over two-thirds of the urban women in West Africa take part in this sector. The underlying reason is that these activities are in many cases the only option enabling women to earn an income while assuming the tasks inherent in their reproductive function. All this without any social and economic protection and in most cases under deplorable safety and health conditions.

This trend is growing as the sector feminises along with the feminisation of poverty.

Women, who are the majority in this sector, are subject to a double marginalisation: for one, the sector as such is considered marginal, for another, most workers are women occupying an absolutely marginal position within the trade unions.

Whereas everybody agrees (in theory) that women play an indispensable part in development and the principle of equal opportunities for men and women is recognised as a basic human right. We note that this development leads us to a situation of social downturn, to a new gender-based division of work and to non-recognition or non-upgrading of the economic role of women.

In view of this state of affairs and despite the obstacles all over the world, women are getting organised. They are mobilising and assuming responsibilities to protect their rights, to try and influence the decision-making processes, to remove the obstacles preventing them from advancing towards equality. In the North and in the South alike, women in trade unions have denounced discriminatory practices for a very long time already, not only on the shop-floor, but also within the trade unions themselves, which are still monopolised by men carrying male models and concerns.

So, the improvement of the living conditions and social status of women is confronted with lots of burdens, with policies worsened by economic obstacles.

At its latest Congress, the WCL made a number of decisions. It committed itself, for instance, to pursuing better living and working conditions for women, particularly in the informal economy.

This document is the fruit of a reflection the women in the WCL3 conducted during their latest international conference, which assembled in Bangkok in November 1997. It does not pretend to remove mountains, but to enable the trade union movement to take the women’s point of view into consideration when analysing an apparently "universal" reality like the situation of the "workers" in the informal economy.

It is our most fervent wish that each trade unionist must be familiar with this document and use it as a teaching aid in the process of raising the trade union leaders’ awareness of the importance of developing policies that favour the participation of women from the informal sector as full-fledged actors in all levels of the trade union apparatus. The document also wants to be a tool for those committing themselves to organising women workers in the informal sector.

It would like to encourage those who want to commit themselves:

to develop concrete actions where women are present and their living and working conditions are precarious;

to build a fair world that takes account of each and everyone on an equal footing;

and especially to use the instrument for analysis called "Gender Approach".


WCL "Women and Work" Department

1. Why gender and informal sector?

The informal sector phenomenon is widespread world-wide; it has become very considerable in the Third World countries where, in some cases, it is now the main source of employment. Yet, the phenomenon is not characteristic of these countries for it also exists in the industrial countries where, indeed, like in all poor countries, recession and the application of structural adjustment policies since the 1980s have resulted in a rise in unemployment. This rise has forced the workers and women workers to seek independent or clandestine jobs ensuring a subsistence income.

The structural adjustment programmes — SAPs — are sets of measures aimed to correct the macroeconomic imbalances in a country (balance of payments, trade balance, inflation, …).

The SAPs are imposed on the developing countries by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in order to solve the debt crisis. The SAPs are rooted in the neo-liberal ideology. Their first purpose is to reduce the internal demand of a country (through cuts in the public expenditure, particularly in fields like education, health, culture, …), followed by privatisation, reduction of the role of the State and the enforcement of the market law as the only regulator of economic, but also social and cultural activities. Their advocates explain that, if a country applies its SAP properly, the dominating economic class will amass so much wealth that this will reflect on the other sections of society.

Likewise, we observe both in North and in South a rise in the informal female work. Women who have never gained normal access to formal work are the majority in the informal sector.

In order to understand this, we are going to use a theoretical instrument developed on the basis of feminist works seeking to explain the why of discrimination against women and studying the social roles assigned to all individuals in accordance with their Gender. This will allow us to understand the causes of the inequalities between men and women. This instrument is called the "Gender approach".

The "Gender Approach" begins by explaining that the Gender-related differences between human beings are of a two-fold nature:

Biological differences: SEX is the whole of biological features

distinguishing women from men according to their role in the reproduction of the human species. If each human being has a well-determined role, this differentiation cannot possibly be a reason for discrimination.

Socially constructed differences: we refer to the term "gender" when speaking of personal features which everybody assumes to be his or hers, right from the initial stages. A baby is born without stereotypes or prejudices about the way it has to act, to dress, to be and to think as a woman or a man. All these are learned at home, at school, in church and in its social life with other children and with adults. This constitutes the socialisation process, given the fact that society establishes for each person the "characteristics" corresponding with his or her sex.

This Gender-related differentiation underlies discrimination, for it has become apparent that the features allocated to women make them look "inferior" to men.

The Gender relations based on this differentiation have led to each sex being allocated Gender roles, ie tasks each individual has to accomplish on account of his or her sex. According to this logic, males have been given the productive role; this role consists in all activities to be undertaken to transform nature and to produce goods and services for consumption and trade.

Females on the other hand are to accomplish tasks inherent in the reproductive role; this role consists in all activities to be undertaken to ensure the survival of the species.

Among these activities figure reproduction itself (caring for children of all ages, raising them, nursing them when they are ill, …) and other activities related to regaining the working capacity of all members of the family (preparing food, cleaning, self-sufficiency cultures, …).

Each of these roles is rated differently: the productive role is rewarded with a salary and gets a positive rating, particularly within the current development model which privileges accumulation. Reproductive work on the other hand is left without a salary; it is despised and as well as the people doing it, the women.

Gender features and Gender roles both result in injustices against men and women alike. A little boy is forbidden to express his feelings of sadness because "crying is not manlike" or a little girl has to look after the men of family "because she is a girl". In the process, the Gender stereotypes are reproduced which indeed deny each human being the right to be and to do what is best for the development of his or her individuality.

On the other hand, this differentiation is the root of the separation between the "public sphere", which corresponds everything related to the productive aspect, and the "private sphere", which cannot be socially regulated.

The above-mentioned elements are part of the theoretical foundation of the Gender approach. Nevertheless, this approach must be seen from its right perspective. It is an instrument that allows to analyse and to get to know the reality, not a detailed and dogmatic description of that same reality.

We see, for instance, that many women do jobs that have to be classed rather under productive work (particularly because of the growing poverty that makes it necessary to raise the family income). Yet, when applying the Gender Approach to analyse this situation, we realise that those women have indeed entered the labour market. But most of them just have access to "female" jobs that are extension of reproductive tasks, eg nurses, schoolmistresses, housemaids, etc.

We also see that very few women have access to other kinds of work and that, if they do, they earn in many cases lower wages than the ones paid to men. "The economic activities of women continue to be basically centred on precarious kinds of employment characterised by low pay and low productivity. Whereas men have the better-paid jobs, women are paid less, down to a mere 50-80% of the men’s pay".4

Furthermore, as has already been pointed out, women have in many cases the precarious jobs available on the labour market. Women have to work under conditions of job insecurity and sexual harassment. Another fact is that women have to make greater efforts than men if they want to climb up to a high occupational position, … provided that she manages at all to climb up to such a position.

"In recent decades, an unprecedented rise in the presence of women on the labour market and in their access to paid work was recorded. Nevertheless, a small proportion of the new job opportunities generated that way fits in with the terms and conditions for traditional and salaried employment covered by social protection systems. The main factors of rising employment are more and more the expansion of the non-structured sector and the development of new kinds of atypical employment such as temp work, homework and subcontracting. Today, most women workers in the developing countries are self-employed, are running micro-enterprise or have made one or the other arrangement to come under the terms and conditions of one of the above-mentioned kinds of employment. The women workers either combine these kinds of activities or change working conditions in accordance with the available opportunities".

Source: ILO5– Development Policies 1998-1999 –

Yet, it remains important to bear in mind that concrete explanations for phenomena like the informal sector, as they emanate from the Gender Approach, neither are nor can be the only instruments for analysis, notwithstanding the fact that this approach is an indispensable one.



2.  Definition of the informal sector

Since the International Labour Organisation published in 1972 its report on the employment situation in Ghana and Kenya, identifying for the first time a kind of work activity that corresponded neither with the activities of the "traditional" sector nor with the ones of the "modern" sector of the economy, lots of studies and papers have been written about what the ILO called the non-structured sector of the economy. All these studies have failed to make it possible to reach an agreement on the name of this phenomenon or on the way to define it.

From among the various names (informal sector, marginal sector, informal economy, non-regulated sector of the economy, etc) we have opted for the term "informal economy", ie the one known best, while pointing out that it is not necessarily the most satisfactory one.

There are as many definitions as studies have on this sector. Most of them are generalisations based on what is "formal" and describing a phenomenon that is no homogeneous reality. On the other hand, they are negative definitions in that they define what "the informal sector is not". It is very difficult to obtain a synthetic definition because a number of them are contradictory. Yet, it would seem that each definition starts to some extent from one of the following perspectives:

a. The perspective centred on the logic of the production of the informal economy

According to this perspective, the basic element of the informal economy is its logic of production, the chief purpose of the activity to ensure the survival of the family group. This logic differs from the one of the "formal" sector of the economy, whose purpose is accumulation.

So, the informal economy has emerged as a result of the existence of a workforce "surplus" that has found no place in the formal sector; it is basically about men and women who have found no place in the modern urban sector. It has emerged, further, as a result of the unequal distribution of resources and as a result of the poverty this generates.

Women would enter the informal sector for three general reasons:

1. The difficult access to the formal sector

It is more difficult for women to have access to so-called "formal" employment because it is assumed that women accomplish inferior work; they would lack the training the formal sector requires in many cases. Their work would also be "expensive" because one has to issue maternity permits or organise additional social services that diminish their productivity. In some cases they are simply unable to gain access to the means of production. In Ghana, for instance, land is considered common property, of which one obtains the usufruct either by cleaning it, which is a typical male activity according to the sexual division of work, or through inheritance, from which wives are excluded in the whole.

An ILO report (1996) points out that discrimination in education (two-thirds of the almost one billion adult illiterates registered world-wide are women) is one of the main causes of female poverty and underemployment. In some developing countries in Africa, eg in Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, Senegal and Togo, or in Asia, eg in Afghanistan and Nepal, more than 90% of the women of 25 years of age or more have never gone to school. Girls account for the 60% of the 100 million minors world-wide who have not had access to primary education.

Even if they have access to education and vocational training, many institutions keep offering girls typically "female" qualifications such as typewriting, sewing, nursing or work in the catering and hotel business. In other words, they continue to restrict the supply of scientific and technical knowledge to them. In the poorest countries it is far more probable for girls than for boys to interrupt or abandon school in order to take up household tasks, despite all evidence of the benefits from an improvement of their training.

Source : Lim, Lin, More and Better Jobs for Women, ILO, 1996

These difficulties are the result of the everyday and systematic discrimination against women.

2. The logic of the informal economy makes their access to this sector easier.

In that they are in charge of the reproductive tasks, women have a decent space in a sector that privileges survival rather than accumulation.

3. The Feminisation of Poverty

Since the early 1980s, the living and working conditions of many women have deteriorated world-wide. Women are the majority in the poorest sections of the population.

b. The perspective centred on the non-legal nature of the informal economy

Seen from this perspective, the main feature of the informal economy is its non-legal nature around which all its other features are defined. The sector is said to be non-legal because it does not observe the tax regulations (no taxes whatsoever are paid), the working regulations (overtime work is left unpaid, the minimum wages are not paid, etc) and other social regulations (social security, retirement pension, etc).

Seen from the perspective of illegality, the informal economy has not emerged for structural reasons but on account of the existence of an inadequate tax system and "inappropriate" standards and laws. As a consequence, some recent studies on the phenomenon conclude that the laws have to reflect the present circumstances. They endorse the viewpoint that the deregulation of the markets and the reduction of the State will make it possible for the informal economy to integrate into the formal sector of the economy.

c. The perspective centred

on the recent evolution

of the organisation of work

Seen from this perspective, the informal economy emanates from the emergence of new forms of organisation of work which bring about a new division of work.

Yet, the emergence of new ways to organise work affects work both in the informal and in the formal sector. So, it is very difficult to find justifications in the fact that such new ways have emerged. We will go into this matter in the chapter on the relations between the informal and the formal sector and in the one on the effects of globalisation in the world of work.

3.  Features

a.. General features

Though there is no consensus on the definition of the informal economy, the research workers seem to agree on the particulars of this sector which consists by and large of small companies employing ten workers at most. In many cases they are family companies in which women work without receiving wages and the benefits are controlled by the husband or the man of the house.

Moreover, these activities use the most available resources, ie the local ones; they also privilege the intensive use of workforce instead of having recourse to – more expensive – technology.

The activities are as a rule invisible because they are not subject to any regulation whatsoever and because they are not recorded in the books of the national economy.

There is a consensus on the fact that the household or reproductive

activities are not characteristic of the informal economy. Nor are illegal or criminal activities considered to be typical of this sector.


b. Kinds of activities in the informal economy

When analysing the kind of activities undertaken in the informal economy, one can see how the division of roles finds expression even in this sector. Women undertake the labour-intensive, least-paid activities and the ones connected with reproduction.

In the services sector, women work as shop assistants, small retailers, chambermaids, hairdressers, laundry women, maidservants, etc. Men work chiefly in the transport branch, where the wages are usually higher.

In manufacturing, women are the minority, but a number of women found in this sector do homework, manufacturing clothes, food products, etc. Or they work as subcontractors in small companies, mills or workshops.

In agriculture, women are

strongly present. In a number of African countries they are even the majority, combining the activities of other sectors like sales and processing according to traditional methods with agricultural work. In other countries women do chiefly seasonal work, which is extremely unstable for the contracts are of a duration limited to one month or in some cases even to one single day.

The migration to the cities due to the lack of job opportunities places women in an even more difficult situation. When the men leave, they have to combine their countless reproductive tasks with tilling of the family land and with undertaking additional informal activities. When women themselves leave, it is "informal" activities that enable them to provide for their families. Usually, however, these activities have to be undertaken in the hostile environment of the big cities.

c. Positive and negative aspects of the informal economy

Positive aspects

The possibility of calling a halt to poverty

It constitutes for many people the sole work option, the informal economy ensures the survival and curbs the effects of poverty generated by the inability of the formal sector to create jobs. For women, particularly for those who are heads of family, the activities in the informal economy ensure their own survival but at the same time also the survival of their families.

Easy Access

Anyone can take up an activity in the informal economy for this kind of activities does not require a high level of training, which women are in many cases denied because the parents prefer to educate the sons. On the other hand, the informal economy makes it possible to acquire the necessary knowledge in the practice of these activities. A further reason why women have easy access to the informal economy lies in the fact that many activities in this sector do not require a considerable starting capital. In order to gain access to the formal sector, however, women have to raise starting capital, which is not always easy for them to do. Indeed, women have no easy access to credits, and the work they usually do, household work, does not earn them wages allowing them to save.

Social Role

Some authors underline the social role of the informal economy that ensures employment and income. On the other hand it is a factor of integration and solidarity that keeps being linked up with its productive logic of survival. All over the world, women show a special creativity in developing survival strategies based on solidarity.

In Latin America, for instance, the experience with group kitchens, which were initially a response to the need for women to combine the feeding of their children with the schedules of their paid work, has gradually transformed itself into a solidarity experience during which they also learnt to read, write and calculate … and other skills.

Compatibility With Reproductive Work

The work in the informal economy gives women activities within a flexible time schedule enabling them to continue their reproductive work. The latter is considered a work which women have to accomplish all on their own.

Negative aspects

Financial Barriers

In many cases people who undertake activities in the informal economy lack the guarantees the banks require before they grant credits. As a consequence, these people have only recourse to informal credits for which they pay much higher interests. An exception is the case of African women who have invented a saving system that enables them to take up an informal activity while satisfying other needs such as marriages, baptisms, funerals, etc. This is the case with the "tontines": a group of women who meet at regular intervals, each bringing in a fixed amount of money. At each meeting the totality of the money collected that way is allotted to one of the participants, who can use it to satisfy her needs.

Non-Financial Barriers

Difficulties of this nature result from a lack of information or from the existence of rules that impede the access to a given activity. A few examples are the problems to obtain a driving license, the activities

reserved for a caste (like the metal processing in Senegal) or for an

ethnic group (like the Betawi printers in Jakarta), for a religion, etc.

Working Conditions

The informal economy is characterised by the non-observance or simply the non-application, due to ignorance, of the labour standards with regard to minimum wages, working time and safety or of other social standards related to the health system, the retirement pension, etc.

Double Working Day

For various reasons women take up tasks that are typical of the productive work. At the same time, however, they

continue to be the only ones responsible for the reproductive work. This fact results in a double daily workload (this is also the case for women employed in the formal sector).

Child Care

Women working as street vendors or outside the house have great difficulty combining their jobs with the care for their children who grow and develop in hostile environment like the streets.

Low Rate of Unionisation of Women Workers

Women workers are the majority in the informal economy, but they are the least represented group in the trade unions. This places them in a situation of precariousness. Indeed, they are left without the possibility of protecting their rights and of bargaining over better working conditions.


4.  Formal sector-informal sector relations

a. Complementary relations

The perspective according to which the main feature of the informal

economy is its non-legal nature and it has emerged in response to the existence of inappropriate laws and standards. This justifies the complementary relations between the formal and the informal economy which are based on deregulation. That way there is a relation between the formal and the informal sector of the economy. On the one hand there is a "formalisation" of the production (production for the national or world markets of the large enterprises), on the other there is an "informalisation" of the work organisation in which so-called useless standards, ie the labour and social standards protecting the workers, are ignored: the employment contracts and working hours are more flexible, and subcontracting and homework are on the rise. This informalisation of work leads to greater job precariousness and to a decrease in the protection of the workers and women workers.

Both sectors are interconnected and complementary, but they do not integrate. The productive survival continues to be the logic of the workers and women workers, whereas the managers preserve the logic of accumulation.

The managers prefer women workers to do the precarious jobs because they consider them to be submissive, fearful and resistant to long working hours. They assume, further, that women workers are not induced to organise themselves in order to protect their rights.

A clear example of the informalisation of work is the case of the "maquiladoras", workshops that are usually located in free zones and where ready-to-wear clothes are manufactured for prestigious labels that commercialise them world-wide.

But these labels do not feel responsible for the precarious working conditions of the women workers, who have no wage protection whatsoever, who are forced to work during twelve hours a day, who are confined in the workshops at night, who suffer from sexual harassment, who are given the sack when they are pregnant, who have to work in hazardous circumstances in places that lack an adequate infrastructure (two toilets for one thousand women workers and a ten-minute break a day).

All these occur with the complicity of the "Third World" governments which take the view that their comparative advantage on the global market lies in the almost slave-like exploitation of the workers and women workers.

b. Integration relations

A number of companies in the informal economy integrate some elements from the formal sector such as a number of basic labour standards in order to avoid problems of non-legality.


5.  Globalisation and trade union

organisation: informalisation of work

Some authors stress the difference between:

internationalisation, which refers to a historical process of cultural, social, economic and human exchange between continents, regions and countries. This process allows the emergence of a "worldwide" space of "common interests" of humanity as a whole. A space where the geographical aspect does not count and where there are no border limits. A sign of such a space being opened is found in international law with a legal chapter aimed to organise the relations between states and individual people. International labour law is part of this;

and so is globalisation, the most recent stage of internationalisation, which is marked by the privileged place occupied by the economic aspect. This phenomenon finds expression in two basic concerns: the definition of a global strategy of the enterprises and the organisation of world trade. Globalisation has gained momentum since the 1980s in particular, marked by the fall of the Berlin wall, the liberalisation of the market and the spectacular advance of the information technology.

a. New ways to organise work: from Fordism to relocation

Until the 1970s, when the employment crisis in the industrial countries started, work was basically organised according to the Ford model. This model was marked by a specialisation of the production tasks, by the insertion of some technological elements (automated production chains) and, in particular, by relatively high wages. This resulted in the so-called social contract, based on the concept that high wages boosted the consumption, which ensured a considerable internal demand in the process.

There is the crisis of work brought about a radical change in this situation. The managers justify their decentralisation and relocation policies by saying that the workers are very "expensive" with all their demands, which forces them to look for "cheaper" labour markets. In reality, they have conceived a complex strategy to side-line the trade union action and the protection of the women workers and workers.

In doing so, they started the era of decentralisation, relocation and flexibility, followed by mass dismissals and growing unemployment. The recourse to small workshops or homeworkers in various regions has become the "key" to the accumulation of maximum profits.

The prerequisite for receiving in a relocated company is to be a region or country where the workforce is "cheap". But this relocation will never be final and can repeat itself to other regions in the country or to other, still poorer countries.

In most cases these new workers are women or youths who work in circumstances that are characteristic of the informal economy with no legal protection whatsoever, no trade union tradition or experience, etc.

Globalisation, going hand in hand with a technological progress in

communications, has enabled the managers to manage their companies globally in dividing the various production stages over various parts of the world. To this day, the trade unions have not really been able to adjust to these considerable changes.

b. Two-speed work: precarious work and first-rate work

That way, work has been fragmented into two kinds of work :

First-rate work

Better-paid, stable jobs under better conditions.

Second-rate or precarious work

Ill-paid, unstable jobs under bad conditions. The workforce is preferably marginal: women, youths and migrants.

The extension of the informal economy is in line with, among other things, one of the strategies of the managers to cut the strength of the trade unions.

In Italy, for instance, this strategy has been called "flexible specialisation": FIAT has applied this successfully since the 1970s. This strategy consists in a maximum decentralisation of the mother company by spreading the production over small companies or subcontracting workshop in other parts of the country or in the poorest countries, where the workforce is less expensive. Another example is BENETTON: 850 people work in the "main" factory in Europe (the company’s only formal workers), whereas 25,000 people work in small subcontracting textile companies in "Third World" countries or in the countries of Eastern Europe.

The recourse to precarious jobs enables the managers to avoid complying with the demands of the workers from the first-rate sector, who find themselves compelled to renounce a lot of their demands in exchange for the "privilege" to keep their jobs.

As a result, the workers are imposed with new kinds of work organisation, which can even take the shape of a "personal implication" in the bargaining, the Japanese way. This personal implication consists in accepting lower wages, worse working conditions and the co-existence with precarious work in exchange for the manager’s promise not to relocate, a promise that is not really reliable.

This division into first-rate and second-rate work and the globalisation that serves at its framework have confronted the trade unions with new problems such as

the crisis of representativeness. Trade union membership is very low, partly due to the fact that trade unions address themselves basically to the active population. Given the rise in the number of precarious workers, the particular demands of these workers meet with no response from the trade unions.

the spreading of the work space. To this day, the field of action of the trade unions has been clearly determined. The factory was indeed the space where the divergent interests were confronted and where the bargaining took place. Today, the factories as production units are yielding to "scattered" factories where the management, production and other components are spread over various territories or countries.

The crisis of solidarity. Within this context of generalised social repression, difficulties arise right within the trade unions. These tensions jeopardise the cohesion of the world of labour, the only chance of an efficient balance of power in the establishment of a global and satisfactory social contract. Trade union negotiations that endanger the social security provisions, accept precarious forms of work (part-time work, clandestine work, sham self-employment) or seek particular benefits through tax evasion, are signs of these tensions and of corporatist withdrawals weakening the trade union movement.


6.  Informal economy and trade unions

a. Gender relations, informal economy and trade union struggle

"The causes of poverty and social exclusion do not only lie in material limitations. They are also explained by the limited bargaining power of the underprivileged groups and their inability to influence the decision-making processes. The majority of the excluded groups, eg female heads of family, indigenous and tribal populations, occasional and seasonal workers in agriculture, homeworkers and workers in the non-structured sector, is not organised and not represented at present. Organising these groups is one of the efficient ways to improve their ability to start a change and to facilitate their access to the means of production, to training activities and to social services. It is up to the trade unions and the official institutions to react and to assume this important task".

Source : ILO – Development Policies 1998-1999.

At the end of this century, the workers’ organisations are facing up to a historical evolution resulting in a reality that differs from the one prevailing at the moment which are defined in their organisation strategy. The efficiency of the trade unions in protecting their rights has decreased by phenomena like the globalisation of the economy, the expansion of the informal economy, the growing flexibility of work, etc. In these circumstances, the number of workers in the new systems of precarious and flexible work (ie informal and informalised work) is on the rise all over the world. These men and women who account for the lion’s share of the workforce in the next millennium are lacking the organisation and representation mechanisms necessary for protecting their rights.

These circumstances compel the trade unions to redefine a lot of their principles, methods and goals and to take up the growing working

population that finds no place in the traditional trade unions.

In the case of women, one may begin to wonder why they are not incorporated in the trade unions. The answer could provide us with concrete situations as experienced by women, those working in the informal economy, for instance. The answer could also indicate the specific problems facing the trade unions, problems that need to be overcome in order to integrate these women workers who have fallen prey to precariousness. We must not forget that the informalisation of work is also a strategy aimed to diminish the ability of the trade unions to respond. As a consequence, it is necessary to find a solution that enables the trade unions to continue successfully their role as protectors of the rights of workers and women workers in all sectors.

Considering things from this perspective, we realise that the incorporation of women in the workers’ organisations is necessary so as to enable them to protect their rights and to reach a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. But is also a necessity for the trade unions, which cannot possibly face up to this reality and bring their struggle for the workers’ rights effectively to a favourable conclusion without solving the crisis of representativeness and solidarity they are currently going through.

Traditionally, the trade union movement has based itself in essence on a concept of universal protection of the "worker". In reality, this "universal" approach is a source of discrimination in that, by "omission", differences are not taken into account and the demands of a distinct group, the women, are put into the background.

Besides acts of discrimination in itself, there can indeed be acts of discrimination "by omission", in that differences are not taken into account. There is discrimination when one applies different policies to people who are equal, but there is also discrimination when one applies equal policies to people who are different.

Health, for example, is a theme that interests the "worker" in general. Yet, looking at the problem from a specific angle, it appears that to "women workers" the reproductive health is a priority in view of the role they play in accordance with their biological function. This is of secondary importance to men. So, this is a health matter that cannot be dealt with in a "universal" manner. Not taking this into account is an act of discrimination against women.

The application of the Gender approach in trade union matters and the necessity of organising women working in the informal economy would make it possible to avoid this "passive" discrimination, because then the specific problems facing women workers in all sectors would be taken into account.

b. Possible strategies

The current economic evolution favours the trend to organise work in such a way that the flexibility and precariousness of the labour market are privileged. This process goes hand in hand with a greater marginalisation of the majority of the world population. The trade unions do not escape this trend. The strategy to replace stable work, based on a social contract, by this kind of work has proved to be efficient, at least to this day.

In view of the entirety of its characteristics, the informal economy is playing an important part in this strategy. Today more than ever, the integration of informal workers and women workers in the trade unions is of paramount importance to both groups.

For one thing, the workers in the formal sector, chiefly women, are more vulnerable by this form of exclusion which precarious employment is. Indeed, in not being organised, they lack the bargaining power only the trade union can offer the workers.

For another, the trade unions will not be able to overcome the crisis of representativeness and solidarity they are currently going through, unless they redefine their platforms of demands. These platforms must necessarily include the struggle against sexist discrimination and the insertion of specific demands of women both from the formal and from the informal sector. In the same line of thought, it is necessary to work out specific policies that take account of the real needs of women, in order to arrive at a larger female trade union membership and at an improvement of their living and working conditions. These policies will not be effective unless they are based on "a reflection on the specific needs and priorities of women and on the important and decisive part they play in the economy".7

In Ivory Coast, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ivory Coast — DIGNITÉ — has succeeded in an interesting experiment with organising women in the informal economy. It constituted a National Federation of Informal Sector Women — SYNAFSI. Its purpose is to unite women in the informal sector according to their specific fields of activity (vendors of fish, fruit, vegetables, …). Today, SYNAFSI has 2,000 members, whom DIGNITÉ supports in several ways which vary from logistic to financial support.

Source: Trade Unionism and the Informal Sector, 2/98, World Confederation of Labour

In Latin America, within the CLAT7, the FETRALCOS (Latin American federation of commercial, office and services employees) takes a special interest in the informal economy. FETRALCOS promotes initiatives that ensure the workers in this sector a better access to credits as well as training and technical assistance. These action are a logical consequence of its insight into the extent of the problem, in terms both of people involved and of deplorable working conditions. The urgent necessity of representing these workers guides the efforts of our organisation, particularly among the women street vendors. These women indeed work without any recognition or legal protection and they have to face bad weather conditions, abuses by the local and police authorities, and sexual harassment.

Training in Gender issues can be an important start and a support in the search of possible solutions. One has to bear in mind that macho behaviour is a social phenomenon preserved both by men and by women. As a consequence, it is no matter of women workers standing up against their male colleagues. It is rather a matter of analysing a problem that affects each and everyone, men and women alike.

So as to get to know the specific needs and demands of women, it is necessary to facilitate the transformation process within the trade unions, so that women can take an active part in all fields of the trade union action. In this sense, women must also have access to the decision-making positions. They must not find themselves only as members, as workers in charge of the meals, as cleaning women or, at the best, as secretaries at the Women and Work Department.

It is necessary, further, to re-focus trade union action in such a way that it takes account of the "spreading" of the production space. Besides centralised factories where it is easy to identify the manager and the workforce, there are also scattered factories, and subcontractors.

While organising the women workers in the informal economy in Senegal, the Union Démocratique des Travailleurs Sénégalais (UDTS) has conducted an experiment that proved to be fruitful for a group of women in Mbour. In order to meet their needs, these women have organised themselves in groups of 20 to 40 women so as to constitute a small capital enabling them to buy raw materials in larger quantities. They obtained from the village authorities some land and a small workshop where they can manufacture and sell their products.

"In Senegal, the trade union action in the informal economy is based on strategies such as the supply of services in the following fields: information, education and awareness-raising on demographic and trade union issues; training (elimination of illiteracy, management, techniques to learn crafts); socio-economic promotion (access to credits, land and means of production, preservation and transport of products); and protection of the material and moral interests of the members".

Source: The Informal Sector in Senegal, WCL – Labor 98/3

In Asia, our affiliate BSSF (Bangladesh Sanjunkta Sramir Federation) has taken a number of initiatives in favour of women in the informal economy. Adult education, health care for mothers and children, co-operatives, productive work projects,… are a few examples of their field of action.

Source: Trade Union and Informal Sector, WCL, January 1998

Women working in the informal economy are not always in a position to join a trade union, but they can maintain solidarity relations and take joint actions with the other organisations of the civil society where women can join. Trade unions have to pass on a rather important experience to the new organisations of the civil society; at the same time, however, they can learn a lot from the new forms of solidarity that emerge within the civil society.


The WCL and the informal economy

By virtue of the Action Programme developed during the 4th International Women’s Conference of the WCL and adopted by Resolution of its 24th Congress assembled in Thailand in 1997, the WCL demands emphatically that the importance of the informal economy should be recognised. It affirms that "since women are the vast majority in this sector, the trade unions have to seek, in accordance with the strategies for family survival, adequate ways to improve the working and living conditions of this population by means of collective action and training aimed to protect their interests with a view to their full participation in the economic and social development."8

The World Women’s Committee in the WCL takes the view that this sector is marked by a two-fold marginalisation: first, the sector in itself is considered marginal and, second, the majority of the workers are women who, in turn, hold a marginal position within the trade union movement.

That is why the women in the WCL deem it essential to organise the women workers in this sector. Alternative forms of trade union organisation can be put into practice. The economic activity of women can be upgraded where women can perfect themselves in these new sectors, and the trade union action in general can be strengthened.

On the other hand, the recourse to the existing work-related international legal instruments provides the trade unions with a strong legal basis the moment they put forward the demands. The International Labour Code consists of almost 200 agreements, covering a wide variety of social issues. Among them we find the basic human rights, minimum wages, work administration, labour relations, the employment policy, working conditions, social security, safety and health at the workplace, female employment and the employment of specific groups of workers (eg indigenous populations).


The social clause :

a means to social development

One of the acknowledged limitations of international law in general and consequently also of the international labour law is the absence of control and sanction mechanisms guaranteeing their application.

The current tendencies that merit the support of the trade unions and of other organisations of the civil society is aimed to establish a link between international economic relations and core social standards. This link can be interesting to the extent that, in view of the current evolution of the world, it is considered necessary to check the omnipotence of the market in the face of the weakness of the social demands on the one hand, and an effective instrument guaranteeing the application of the international labour standards on the other. This theme, called "social clause", has been the subject of many debates on the international scene and recently at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) during its 1996 Conference, which was focused on this theme without, however, leading to concrete results.9

There is a strong opposition on the part of the advocates of the free

market. These people maintain that the market has to be the sole regulator of all fields of life. In no case they want to see commerce limited, especially not by clauses that impose respect for the labour and social rights.

The WCL advocates an all-embracing approach to development. The core social standards are just tools for achieving sustainable development. These tools are not really efficient unless the struggle against social injustice is combined with the remission of the debt, the setting of fair prices of raw materials, goods and services, the regulation of speculation, full employment and the struggle against poverty and discrimination. Social clauses are not a goal in itself, but indeed means to social development.

In a world where commerce, profit, accumulation, exclusion, precariousness and exploitation are global terms, values like justice and equality between men and women seem to belong to the past.

Yet, experiments conducted all over the world have demonstrated that there are other options, based on solidarity and co-operation.



1 Ducci Maria Angélica, La femme et les syndicats : perspectives de rénovation, Education Ouvrière, OIT, 1993.

2 International Labour office.

3 WCL: World Confederation of Labour.

4 Lim, Lin, More and Better Jobs – An Action Guide, follow-up report of the 4th World Women’s Conference and World Summit for Social Development, drawn up by Lin Lim for the ILO, Geneva, 1996.

5 IlO: International Labour Office.

6 Organise the Change, Trade Union Strategies to Organise Women Workers in Economic Sectors Marked by Precarious Working Conditions, FNV/CNV, 1997.

7 CLAT: Central Latinoamericana de Trabajadores.

8 Programa de Acción, in LABOR, 76, 1998/1, p.13.

9 Conference of Singapore on the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, 9 - 13 December 1996.


How can trade unions respond to the matter of living and working conditions of women workers in the informal economy?

Organising the women workers seems to be one of the important elements in the development of trade union action, for it will allow their real democratic participation while satisfying their needs. This supposes a number of changes both in the action and in the traditional trade union structures.

The overall approach to the informal economy as a whole should make room for a differentiated analysis and action in order to adjust to particular situations and to fill the deep gap existing between the trade union movement and the women workers in the informal economy. Through an approach that takes into consideration the specific Gender-related issues, trade unions could at last grow aware of the fact that the women’s lack of interest in the trade union movement is not an innate characteristic. It results from the fact that, for historical reasons, the traditional trade unions have never taken sufficient account of their needs. It is indeed easy to see that problems like child care, sexual harassment, maternity in absolutely degrading circumstances and difficult access to capital are rarely the centre of concern of the traditional trade unions. As a consequence, women remain outside an organisational structure such as a trade union. If they mobilise, they do so in informal, non-registered associations subject to discouraging red tape.

Organising the women workers in the informal economy and mobilising them in legally registered trade unions requires innovative strategies at the level of the recruitment terms, the existing structures, the working of these structures and the kind of actions developed. Concrete activities focused on leisure time, education, training and income-generated projects seem to be privileged means to make the workers aware and to unionise the women workers. Collective training and education actions focused on specific skills, awareness-raising and the possibilities of concerted action are important factors that may advance the autonomy of women.

It would be necessary to favour integrated programmes that are not limited to just the "work" aspect but take into account various personal and environmental factors determining the current living and working conditions.

Likewise, an approach based on networking would make it possible to operate efficiently at the international level and to ensure that activities and policies related to Gender equality are part and parcel of the international, regional and national trade union policies. In the same way, local experiments could form the basis for larger-scale trade union activities.

Fact is that the trade unions are growing increasingly aware of the importance of the women in the informal economy and that a constantly growing number of experiments are being brought to a favourable conclusion at the organisational level. Nevertheless, these efforts prove to be insufficient. So, it is necessary to continue them!

At this end of the century, the difficulties and obstacles are so numerous that the struggle for the social, political and cultural rights of all human beings in general and of the marginalised groups in particular seems to be a utopia.

Eduardo Galeano, a Latin American writer, wonders:

— If utopia is inaccessible, what purpose does it serve?

And quite rightly he replies:

— Well... to go forward.


International standards of special importance to women workers

ILO International labour standards

Equal opportunities and treatment

Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100)

Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958

(No. 111)

Workers with Family Responsibilities Convention, 1981 (No. 156)

Trade union freedom and right to organise

Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87)

Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949

(No. 98)

Rural Workers' Organisations Convention, 1975 (No. 141)


Employment Policy Convention, 1964 (No. 122)

Human Resources Development Convention, 1975 (No. 142)

Termination of Employment Convention, 1982 (No. 158)

Employment Promotion and Protection against Unemployment Convention, 1988 (No. 168)

Social policy

Social Policy (Basic Aims and Standards) Convention, 1962

(No. 117)

Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102)

Equality of Treatment (Social Security) Convention, 1962 (No. 118)

Maintenance of Social Security Rights Convention, 1982 (No. 157)

Maternity protection

Maternity Protection Convention (Revised), 1952 (No. 103)

Plantations Convention, 1958 (No. 110)

Occupational safety and health

Maximum Weight Convention, 1967 (No. 127)

Benzene Convention, 1971 (No. 136)

Chemicals Convention, 1990 (No. 170)

Night work

Night Work (Women) Convention (Revised), 1948 (No. 89)

Night Work Convention, 1990 (No. 171)

Working conditions

Underground Work (Women) Convention, 1935 (No. 45)

Paid Educational Leave Convention, 1974 (No. 140)


Protection of Wages Convention, 1949 (No. 95)

Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138)

Human rights

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

International Pact on Civil and Political Rights

International Pact on Economic Social and Cultural Rights.

Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

Declaration and Programme of Action of the World Summit on Social Development,

Copenhague, 1995.

Declaration and Action Programme of the 4th World Women’s Conference, Beijing, 1995.



Bauer, Jan : "Seul le silence te protégera : les femmes, la liberté d’expression et le langage des droits de l’homme", Essais sur les droits humains et le développement démocratique, Centre International des Droits de la Personne et du Développement Démocratique, Montréal, 1996.

Guerguil, Martine : "Some thoughts on the definition of the informal sector", CEPAL Review No. 35, August 1988.

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Convenios y recomendaciones de la OIT : una revolución silenciosa. www//

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Plan de acción de las Mujeres Trabajadoras de la CMT, 1998 - 2001, Confederación Mundial del Trabajo.

Programa de Acción, Labour Magazine, Confederación Mundial del Trabajo, 76, 1998/1.

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Organizando el cambio, Estrategias para los Sindicatos enfocadas a la organización de la mujer trabajadora en sectores económicos de condiciones laborales precarias, FNV / CNV, 1997.

Tous égaux… même les filles! (Ed. resp. Regis Dohogne), Egal Chance FIC et CSC, Bruxelles.

Un Otro Modo de Ser y Hacer, Sistematización conceptual y Metodológica de Formación en Género y Desarrollo, Coordinadora de la Mujer, Centro de Formación en Género y Desarrollo, La Paz, 1997.

Women in Trade Unions: organizing the unorganized, ILO, 1994.


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