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93rd International Labour Conference ILO Knowledge Fair: Uniting workers and employers to address the challenges of the informal economy

As recent campaigns to end poverty have shown, a common cause links people worldwide: at the International Labour Organization's annual conference, a Knowledge Fair on the informal economy sponsored by the ILO secretariat with financial support from UK Department for International Development (DFID), has seen some interesting encounters. Shortly after the fair opened, a Mexican trade union leader established a warm rapport over shared concerns with a trade union leader from Cameroon despite their inability to speak each other's language fluently. What bridged the linguistic divide? Their struggle to achieve the same goal - social protection and rights for workers outside the formal economy. The Fair highlights examples of how action on decent work and the informal economy is critical to fighting poverty. In a panel on 13 June, employer and worker leaders stressed the need to look at the causes of informality. They voiced their commitment to promoting job creation and social protection, while ensuring that fundamental rights at work are respected wherever people work.

Article | 17 June 2005

GENEVA - The Mexican State of Nuevo Léon specifically mentions informal workers in amendments to state law. This represents a significant achievement for the National Federation of Non Waged Workers Organizations in Mexico (Federación Nacional de Organizaciones de Trabajadores No Asalariados) who have been striving to improve conditions for those whose work lies outside formal employment structures which provide social protection.

Gilberto Vazquez Muro, the Secretary-General of the organization, praised the ILO's efforts to address the situation of informal workers - which he acknowledged poses difficult problems for governments and employers.

In 1982, the Federation started by helping street vendors organize themselves to counter the threats to their livelihoods from bribe-demanding local officials, who sometimes resorted to destroying vendors' merchandise.

Since then, the Federation has spread to organize and protect up to a million people, from home-workers for maquiladoras, various groups of self-employed workers and artisans as well as the original street vendors. The 10,000 who officially pay their union dues are only a fraction of those represented, but the very fact that they are organized and able to contribute is an achievement. Many of these members were recruited from early leafleting campaigns.

The organization is now working on a magazine that will spread information on progress achieved and inform people of their rights. And, as Mr. Vazquez Muro says they would love to be able to mount a mobile exhibition like the one currently on show at the International Labour Conference.

While those within the formal economy - the salaried workers - enjoy various benefits in Mexico, those outside formal salaried employment have limited, if any access to social protection. The Federation of Non-Waged Workers has struck a deal with the Ministry of Social Services in Mexico ensuring that, on payment of a small contribution, informal workers in some areas now have access to some health and housing benefits, albeit only in the north of the country at present. And in Nuevo León, the law now also protects the rights of vendors by regulating the space they occupy and protecting their pitches - for a monthly payment roughly equivalent to two day's of minimum wage, or approximately a hundred pesos.

As Mr. Vazquez Muro discovered, street vendors also abound in many African countries, and employment is equally precarious, so the Mexican trade union leader had plenty to discuss with a comrade from Cameroon. And as another African unionist was keen to point out, street vendors also pay taxes, although they do not always reap the benefits of their civic contributions.

The General Secretary of the Pan-African Federation of Clerical Workers, based in Togo, Mr. Chrysanthe Koffi Zounnadjala, decried the lack of social services for those forced to survive by becoming street vendors or casual labour, and noted that many of them are still expected to pay local and municipal tax. Some even pay state tax, but despite this, he said, little is being done by governments to create stable employment for them.

For Mr. Zounnadjala the roots of the problem lie in the effects of the structural adjustment policies of the Bretton Woods Institutions, but he sees hope in the ILO efforts to promote social dialogue which encourages governments to include social protection and employment creation to assist those working in the informal economy. In Togo trained doctors and other graduates cannot find work and run moto-taxis instead. Even they are harassed by officials, he says.

The Director of the ILO Gender Bureau, Linda Wirth, notes that many women in the informal economy are the ones most affected as they struggle for the survival of whole families. Providing respect for rights, income opportunities and social protection for the empowerment of women and promotion of gender equality in the informal economy is a key strategy for combating poverty.

As Daniel Funes de Rioja, Employer Vice-Chairperson of the ILO Governing Body, notes "Employers have two main priorities in relation to the informal economy: influencing government legislation and policies that create an enabling environment for all levels of enterprises, and extending the representation of employers' organizations to the informal economy and making links between formal and informal enterprises". He and employer colleagues from Jamaica (Ms. Coke-Lloyd), Kenya (Mr. Konditi) and Mongolia (Mr. Ganbataar) offered concrete examples in a panel organized by the Fair on 13 June.

On the same panel, the Worker Vice-Chairperson of the ILO Governing Body, Sir Leroy Trotman, praised the Fair for showcasing what the ILO and its partners are doing to address the dire straits faced the many in the informal economy who are in it because of necessity. "We can learn from each other about what is possible and what is successful in bringing about decent work in different contexts", he added. The coordinator of an ICFTU-sponsored project on organizing workers in the relatively new informal economy in Central and Eastern Europe, Sergejus Glovackas, commented that he was learning a lot from experiences in other areas of the world.

The ILO Knowledge Fair exhibit at the International Labour Conference displays examples of good practice and concrete results obtained from programmes carried out around the globe by ILO work with partners. Submissions from ILO regional offices and from headquarters have been grouped to cover four key themes: policy environment, building and strengthening representation, expanding jobs and markets, and improving conditions and social protection. Since the exhibit is modular and multilingual it can be used beyond the conference to inspire other social partners to address the issues covered. For example, a CD-ROM will capture key documents and media features from the Fair after its conclusion on 15 June.

The exhibit will next be on display at ILO headquarters in Geneva to coincide with the Knowledge Management for Development (KM4DEV) event on 20-21 June.

The Fair illustrates how employers' and workers' organizations, along with governments, are taking action to put into a practice a consensus on Decent Work and the Informal Economy, reached at the International Labour Conference in 2002. "The informal economy is of growing importance, and this Fair shows a wide range of concrete action the ILO and its constituents are taking to address it", said Anne Trebilcock, Deputy Director of the Policy Integration Department, which organized the Fair.

The Fair stresses the need for action one three fronts: stopping a slide into informality, formalizing where possible, and addressing the needs of people in the informal economy. In addition to a multimedia presentation, a newspaper, panels, banners and more, the Fair has featured live demonstrations of the ILO Resource Database on the Informal Economy, a publicly available source which groups around 500 documents and tools on the topic.