They clean your hotel room or your home and take care of your elderly parents; they sweep the floor at the hair salon and polish your nails; they chop the ingredients for your take-out food; they shovel snow, mow grass and haul concrete at construction sites. They live in informal housing settlements. They sell refreshments from street carts on the street, or collect garbage for recycling. They are among the millions who make up the informal economy. It’s difficult to imagine how large cities around the world would function without the millions of people who labor for low wages while often residing in informal housing.
The informal service economies are the fuel that keeps the modern economy humming. But the workers, while essential, are usually underpaid and frequently deprived of basic rights — like time off for illness or family emergencies. They are also disproportionately women. Many of them are undocumented. In other words, they feel vulnerable. Call in sick and lose your job. Stay away from work for a day and there won’t be enough money for food or rent. Complain about ill treatment and perhaps be deported by the immigration authorities. There are few paths for these workers to assert their rights.
In recent years we have seen the growth of grassroots organizations for and by domestic workers and workers in the informal economy. In New York State, domestic workers organized themselves and learned how to lobby for legislation that grants them basic rights, like sick leave and overtime pay. Across continents, women who work in the informal economy have similarly learned how to organize themselves and lobby local governments for their rights under the umbrella of WIEGO (profiled on this site). The struggle for workers’ rights is very much a work in progress, but the achievements of the last few decades in terms of tangibles like realizing legal rights and in the less tangible areas of empowerment and self-confidence are salutary and undeniable.
In another aspect of the informal sector, the struggle for the rights of slum dwellers arose out of two salient circumstances. The first was that the global trend of massive urbanization means the growth of slums could not be stopped. The second, related, circumstance is that the people who live in those slums provide vital services to the cities in which they live. The high cost of housing in major urban areas in emerging economies, relative to income, means that people who migrate from the countryside are forced to live in slums. They are not just the destitute or the working class, but also employees of the service industry and manual laborers.
Municipal authorities know that the functioning of their cities depends on the labor force that lives in the slums. But those sprawling, unplanned urban areas also present them with infrastructure problems that can seem all but insurmountable. In areas where hundreds of thousands of people living without any urban amenities — no electrical grid, sewage system, reliable clean water supply, municipal transport or even street names — the results are easy to imagine. For years, the authorities’ response to the crowding and filth was to arbitrarily destroy the slums and try to force the inhabitants to the cities’ peripheries. This, of course, imposed huge hardships on the people who were now cut off from their workplaces and from their community structure.
In the struggle to assert their rights, grassroots activists in the slums have started working with the authorities to win certain provisions, such as property ownership. They have also based their activism on international precedents, such as the 1976 Declaration made by the UN Conference on Human Settlement, which stipulates that, "Adequate shelter and services are a basic human right which places an obligation on governments to ensure their attainment by all people.” They are indirectly supported by international institutions like the World Bank, which has recognized the economic importance of slum dwellers and as a result links government aid to recognition of their rights.