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“Step out of the shadow!”: How cartoons support a campaign to formalize the Kyrgyz economy

Last year, the International Labour Conference adopted the Recommendation concerning the transition from the informal to the formal economy (No.204). An innovative project in Kyrgyzstan shows how this transition can be facilitated in practice.

Feature | 06 June 2016
BISHKEK, Kyrgysztan (ILO News) – According to Government estimates, 70 per cent of the employed in Kyrgyzstan are working informally. Since the country became independent the treasury has missed out on revenues of at least USD 3.265 billion.

Most of the informal economy can be found in services, industry, agriculture, construction – individual entrepreneurs are particularly concerned. Kyrgyzstan's Government recognizes that the informal economy seriously affects economic development, and threatens the country's economic security.

2015 was declared the year of strengthening the economy in Kyrgyzstan, and formalization of the informal economy was set as a priority. The Government has adopted a national plan for 2015-2017 to reduce the informal economy. With all measures at the policy level already in place, the missing element was how to reach out to the informal workers themselves. And that was where the Kyrgyz trade unions have stepped in taking the lead on an awareness raising campaign.

Reaching out to all

“The main challenge for us was to find the most appropriate tool for the campaign,” explains Rysgul Babayeva, Deputy Chair of the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan. “It had to be simple, appealing and easily understandable for all – illiterate and highly educated people, children and grown-ups, women and men – as the informal economy relates to all social groups without exception. So we were considering different options, and I do not remember who was the first to refer to ‘cartoons’ but when the word was spelled out, we all realized that the right tool had been found.”

The next step was to invite a group of multimedia artists to a brainstorming discussion with representatives of the trade unions from industries with the highest share of informal employment.

“It was the first time in my professional life that we, as the multimedia artists, got feedback from the audience even before the work started,” recalls Gulira Aitymbetova from the Multimedia Studio, in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgysztan. “We discussed literally everything – from the overall concept and topics to be covered to the way characters should be dressed, and every word they should say. In fact the trade unions were real co-authors of the cartoons and their involvement was key to success.”

The series of animated cartoons depict real situations and risks associated with the informal economy.

This retired worker will not get an adequate pension…

… this woman loses her job because she is pregnant…

…and this young man will not be able to pay for medical treatment.

The message is clear: Step out of the shadow! Work formally!

The cartoons were endorsed at a high-level tripartite roundtable with the participation of Kudaibergen Bazarbaev, Minister of Labour and Social Development. “People today accept any job available, looking for immediate payment but they should be aware of what will happen to them when they retire after years in informal employment,” he said.

As of today, people in all regions of Kyrgyzstan have viewed the cartoons: some ten national and regional TV channels have broadcast them free of charge, as social advertising.

“If you ask me why these informal economy cartoons have been such a success, I would say that, first of all, because they were initiated by the social partners who were fully involved from the very beginning and felt ownership of the process. They were produced by the local artists who made all characters recognizable and the stories much more appealing,” concludes Rolf Buchel, Chief Technical Adviser of the ILO’s Finnish-funded project - From the Crisis towards Decent and Safe Jobs - that supported the production of the cartoons. “Another reason is that the cartoons were not an isolated action but an integral part of the national campaign to address the informal economy and of the global campaign to promote ILO Recommendation No.204.”

Meanwhile the heroes of the cartoons may soon move from the screen to posters – the Kyrgyz trade unions are already considering the idea of a poster campaign.