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Instead of asking whether informal workers (IW) are able to organize themselves, the time has come to ask what lessons can be learned from the way they organize and act collectively. This is probably the main point of this book, which is to report on «success stories», i.e. struggles led by informal workers, salaried or self-employed, that have led to the improvement of their working conditions or the acquisition of rights.
The nine examples in this book each take place in a different country: street vendors in Monrovia, Libya; waste pickers in Brazil; young Cambodian women working on commission from Cambrew brewing company in cafés and restaurants and being harassed; port workers in Colombia; informalized retail and hotel workers in South Africa; salaried but informal or self-employed minibus drivers in Georgia; domestic workers in Uruguay; low-wage Tunisian government workers subcontracted to multiple labour intermediaries; Haitian immigrants working informally in construction and private households.
As already shown in a growing literature on this subject, informal workers’ struggles are based on a wide variety of ways of organizing themselves, ranging from forms of unionism—by joining existing unions or by creating new ones—to member associations or cooperatives. The case studies presented in this book are no exception. Sometimes conducted over several years, they also shed light on how different types of populations, sometimes very young, such as street vendors in Monrovia, Libya— often women, in some cases victims of harassment—, manage to be recognized as workers, that is, as people worthy of rights because they make a useful contribution to society. In this way, we could express this “moral claim” that the authors see going through all the cases reported. These cases also show the importance of the support provided, whether from traditional trade unions and/or the State apparatus, through different channels, thus supporting the bargaining power first and foremost, as well as the associative power, of informal workers.
However, the cases presented were not selected from any form of organisation, despite the initial temptation. The cases were chosen at the request of Solidarity Center (created by the AFL-CIO to support the development of workers’ empowerment for their dignity and rights). Solidarity Center has assigned the selection of cases of informal workers’ organizations to Rutgers University, while the identification of self-employed workers engaged in collective bargaining has been assigned to WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), an international network of informal workers’ associations, researchers and statisticians, and practitioners of development agencies (governmental and non-governmental). The idea was that this would distinguish cases of collective bargaining where IW are rather organized by trade unions (salaried informal workers) from those where IW are organized with the help of structures other than traditional trade unions.
The presentation of the success stories follows this line of reference. However, the coordinating team, which also constitutes the editors of this book, has chosen to make this case comparison more revealing by presenting the comparable unit of analysis differently. Thus, the case studies carried out by nine collaborators, most of whom are also researchers, have been analysed by focusing on forms of collective bargaining, rather than on campaigns in the broad sense. Even if they appear different, but demonstrate the pertinence of the definition of trade unionism described by the Webbs, according to the editorial team (which appears to believe the expansion of the repertoire of collective actions observed merely confirms the practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries), the forms of collective bargaining presented here are a particularly interesting empirical contribution. In seeking to identify the common causal variables or processes that feed the conditions for the success of these cases, however, the theoretical framework adopted here remains conventional, incorporating in particular the mainstream concepts of the political process. After reading the cases, it becomes clear that the use of this limited framework of analysis partly amounts to mitigating what these cases are capable of bringing out.
The richness of this book therefore lies in its empirical contribution, which is important to discover for those interested in mobilizing informal workers. The various cases highlight that it is the notion of collective bargaining that needs to be reviewed or renewed. In other words, the case studies show, each in its own way, how much collective bargaining inherited from Fordism (which constitutes a social and institutional construction). They also reveal to what extent we take this for granted when it simply corresponds to a historical period of capitalism, in contexts where the state or the state apparatus (at different scales of intervention) has played a facilitating role. In the various examples discussed, it is the intervention of the State, which cannot be reduced to a structure of opportunity, that determines the possibility of social actors. That is workers’ representatives but also employers who agree to assume this role (who agree to guarantee compliance with the agreements made), even though they do not necessarily recognize themselves as such (even when they pay a salary). These employers may be private or public legal entities. It is important to understand that there is an entire system around an objective or a vision of compromise or coexistence, which enables one form or another of collective bargaining. It is this institutional construction that has been rendered invisible by normalizing collective bargaining as part of a bilateral employment relationship.
The various cases dealt with in this book show how costly it can be in terms of time and energy for the workers concerned to enter into this framework in order to obtain decent wages and working conditions. Even for workers organized in cooperatives, such as recyclable waste pickers in the State of Minas Gerais (Brazil), the process of “formalizing the informal” is far from simply declaring activities to tax authorities, as sometimes the oversimplified statements in the documents of major international organizations seem to give the impression. For example, in the case of the State of Minas Gerais, Brazil, the municipalities that are the interlocutors of cooperatives require them to comply with high standards—standards that cooperative workers negotiate, seeking to preserve an autonomy that is part of their collective commitment. Even in the face of municipalities close to the Workers’ Party, and therefore benevolent a priori in recognizing the rights of cooperative workers, autonomy is and remains an issue under close scrutiny. Could it be otherwise when it is a major issue in the conflict between capital and labour? In other words, collective bargaining is a way of policing this conflict but does not go beyond it. The various examples discussed here raise the question again and again as to whether other institutional constructions, other forms of compromise than that inherited from Fordism and widely challenged in the world, are possible and desirable. In any case, the richness of the empirical evidences presented here allows us to raise some questions.