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Informal workers’ rights have a home in Costa Rica and El Salvador

An ILO-supported project aims to counsel informal workers and establish institutional partnerships to create collective strategies to promote workers’ transition from the informal to the formal economy.

Feature | 26 July 2016
SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica (ILO News) – It is a rainy Monday in the capital of Costa Rica, but there is a hustle and bustle at the Informal workers’ rights Counselling and Monitoring Centre as people come and go. Many are youngsters, many are women. “There are a lot of pregnant women who come alone,” says Kattia Barquero, coordinator of the recently opened office.

© J.A. Reyes and R. Lobo
This Centre, and one like it in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador, aims to foster the channels and mechanisms which promote transitioning from the informal to the formal economy. Locally they are known as “The House(s) of Rights”. According to Barquero, the informal workers visiting them normally belong to the most vulnerable population groups – namely, women and migrants.

“There are a lot of street vendors and domestic female workers. They completely lack social protection and are at the mercy of their employers, often suffering psychological and physical violence as a result. Most of them are unaware of their rights, although this is changing,” adds Barquero, who is also administrative secretary of SINTRACOPEA (Permanent Patented Trade Workers and Associated Union).

The Centres were founded in the framework of the ILO-supported project “Promoting Respect for Informal Sector Workers' Labour Rights in Costa Rica, El Salvador and Honduras” and endorsed by the Tripartite Dialogue Local Councils. They were created with the assistance of regional informal workers’ associations in those countries.

As well as encouraging the informal to formal transition of labour they aim to promote the respect and compliance with labour rights of informal workers.

There are a lot of street vendors and domestic female workers. They completely lack social protection and are at the mercy of their employers."

The Centres provide information about local procedures and paperwork, offer arbitration in situations of conflict with local authorities, and help with legal advice regarding work activities. Informal workers also benefit from employability skills development, entrepreneurship and organizational strengthening training.

Barquero points out that the project is based on the guidelines laid out in ILO’s Recommendation No. 204 concerning the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy.

During the first month, the Centre in San José has helped already more than 300 people. For publicity, the project’s coordinators resorted to new technologies. “WhatsApp and Facebook have been very useful to communicate the existence of the Centres and to follow up with people who have paid a visit.”

The ILO designed and implemented this project, as well as issued recommendations for its sustainability and provided skills training for the Centres’ employees, since they are expected to function independently from August 2016.

The employees have been trained in migration, labour legislation, human rights, politics and leadership development.

Scale of informal employment in Costa Rica and El Salvador

According to the Costa Rican Continuous Employment Survey (ECE) from 2014, 825 thousand workers laboured in the informal sector (323 thousand being women). Six out of ten work for an employer, company or institution; the rest are entrepreneurs.

© J.A. Reyes and R. Lobo
According to the same survey, most of the people employed in the informal sector belong to the 25-34 years and 45-59 years age groups. They tend to have lower education levels: 76 per cent had not finished primary education and 11 per cent dropped out of secondary school, just 13 per cent have a university degree (15 per cent of women).

The majority of informal workers labour in a local farm or business (42 per cent), 28 per cent work at their home or at their employer’s, 19 per cent in the streets, as independent workers in the trade, transportation or storage business.

38 per cent of employed informal workers earn a salary lower than the minimum wage.

For El Salvador, in 2014 almost three quarters (72 per cent) of non-agricultural workers worked informally. In the same year, 42 per cent of men and 52 per cent of women in the urban areas have informal jobs in various sectors (very frequently domestic work for women).

One of the main causes for the prevalence of informality amongst Salvadoran women, mostly in the domestic sector, is the flexibility it allows for in regard to work-life balance (normally, women are still the home makers in this country). The absence of public policy for dependent care does not help either.

Entrepreneurs are a special case: 80 per cent labour in the informal economy, and consequently suffer from job insecurity and legal and economic vulnerability; they can seldom afford the cost of transitioning towards formality. Women are more common in this sector: 70 per cent of women resort to entrepreneurship as a livelihood, and face additional hardships regarding credit access, technology and training.

Both in Costa Rica and El Salvador, support for transitioning to the formal economy have been included in current national employment policies, and approaches have been synchronized between governments, unions and employers’ organizations.

But for common people, according to Kattia Barquero, “the House of Rights is where you can go to if you feel lost. You will get help if you do not even know where to begin.”