Informal work is compensated work that is itself legal but falls beyond the reach or grasp of standard employment laws. “Beyond the reach” means work that simply is not covered by those laws. Self-employed workers like street vendors, but also many employed by others - domestic workers, agricultural workers, day laborers - are informal in this sense in much of the world. “Beyond the grasp” means that in theory the law applies, but in practice it is not implemented. This includes many workers in smaller enterprises - think of small retail stores or restaurants - but also some in very large enterprises. Informal employment is most emphatically not limited to people employed by informal, off-the-books businesses. In Mexico, for instance, most informal workers labor in formal enterprises. Though informal work may seem a marginal phenomenon of limited interest to many in the Global North, most workers in the world work informally, and it is past time to pay more attention to informal work and how it could be improved.
Another term, “precarious work,” has recently caught on. The term, most often describing formal work that meets basic legal requirements, refers to work that is insecure and poorly paid compared to a normative “standard employment relationship.” The two concepts overlap: precarious work does not necessarily avoid or violate employment laws, but most informal work is precarious.
Precarity is spatially and temporally relative
Both precarious and informal work are defined in relative terms, so it is crucial to ground them in national contexts. At a conference ten years ago, I heard Ghanaian labor scholar Akua Britwum respond to a presentation on precarious work by International Labor Organization (ILO) officials by saying, “What you call precarious work sounds like what, in Ghana, we call… work.” Years later, another ILO official commented to me, “What German workers complain about as precarious work, Korean workers would love to have. What Korean workers complain about as irregular work, South African workers would love to have.”
So what is new about all this? Informality and precarity are definitely not new. In fact, the way Marx and Engels described manufacturing workers in 1848’s Communist Manifesto sounds remarkably like descriptions of informal work today. This is not to say that all work was informal back then. Much of the world worked in unfree forms of labor governed by elaborate sets of rules - chattel slavery, indentured labor, peonage, sharecropping, and so on. It would be more accurate to say that in Marx’s day new forms of precarious informal work were arising and growing.
For that matter, informal and precarious work never went away. For instance, Japan’s famous lifetime employment model always covered only a minority of workers, excluding women, young and elderly people, and migrants. Even in Northern Europe and the United States and other former British settler colonies during formal labor’s “golden age” in the 1950s-1960s, many toiled in informal or precarious jobs. This applied above all to women, young workers, and migrants. Migrants included both cross-border and internal migrants: in my country, the United States, the largest migrant group in those decades was six million native-born Black people migrating from South to North, but the bracero program importing guest workers from Mexico also generated 4.6 million labor contracts over its 22-year existence.
What is new is in some ways a repeat of what was new in 1848 - informal and precarious work is spreading to places and populations where it hadn’t been found before. This raises a question: informal and precarious work is defined relative to some “standard” form of employment. But what happens if that “standard” employment becomes so exceptional that it’s hardly “standard” anymore? This question is particularly urgent in the Global South where informal work often employs most of the workforce (over 90% in India). The real problem here is not conceptual but practical: how can we defend the quality of jobs that are being degraded by informalization and precaritization?
Organizing by precarious workers
A key part of the answer is organizing by the workers involved. Informal workers in Marx’s day certainly organized, in some cases establishing trade unions that persist to this day. And today’s precarious and informal workers are organizing as well, forming trade unions where it is legal, as well as associations, cooperatives, and other groups. Indeed, they have scored some of the greatest global working-class victories in recent years: for example, the ILO’s adoption of Convention 189 affirming the rights of domestic workers, or India’s recent law legalizing street vending.
Three things are particularly distinctive about how precarious informal workers organize. First, their relationship with capital is often complicated. The true employer can be concealed by layers of subcontracting, or workers may be exploited primarily by powerful suppliers or middlemen. Most have relatively little structural economic leverage - a strike may not be an effective tactic. And in many cases the government is implicated in the exploitation of informal workers, as when the US government set terms for the bracero program, or when the police harass or extort street vendors. For all these reasons, precarious and informal workers often target the state, pressing for benefits and protections.
Second, the groups most concentrated in informal and precarious work continue to be those who are marginalized in other ways, especially women, subordinated racial or ethnic groups, and migrants. Thus, they often organize around these identities as much as around work-based identities. In many cases their identities are intersectional, incorporating varied identities.
Finally, the fact that they seek to get the state to act on their behalf and the fact that they have varied and intersectional identities means that these groups of workers often build power by alliance-building - for instance with the women’s movement, the immigrant rights movement, ethnic advocacy organizations, as well as unions.
Defending the rights of informal and precarious workers is the greatest challenge labor faces globally today. These workers themselves are taking the lead. The rest of us - as workers, scholars, and citizens - must join the fight as well.
Chris Tilly, University of California, Los Angeles, USA and member of ISA Research Committees on Sociology of Work (RC30), Labor Movements (RC44), and Social Classes and Social Movements (RC47) <email@example.com>