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Ballard, Richard (2006) Informalisation of women’s labour and new types of labour organisations: the cases of Sewa and Sewu. ISA World Congress of Sociology : 1-19.

Informal economy has recorded an unprecedented growth in all parts of the world, particularly in the developing countries in the era of new global restructuring. Informalisation and feminisation of labour has become one of the most crucial aspects of the new labour system, which has transformed through decentralisation of capitalist production and the new international division of labour. These processes have simultaneously created new dimensions in defining and organising labour. The exploration of new patterns of work and accordingly, the emergence of new types of labour organisations, organising informal workers, became crucial for the future of the labour movement. As Assef Bayat (2000:533) argues, “a major consequence of the new global restructuring in the developing countries has been the double process of integration, on the one hand, and social exclusion and informalisation, on the other. These processes, meanwhile, have meant further growth of a marginalized and deinstitutionalised subaltern in Third World cities. The new global restructuring is reproducing subjectivities (marginalized and deinstitutionalised groups such as the unemployed, casual labour, street subsistence workers, street children and the like), social space and thus a terrain of political struggles that current theoretical perspectives cannot on their own account for.” The inspiration of this paper is coming from the situation of the informal workers as being one of the marginalised groups in the era of new global restructuring. How do the informal workers organise as a response to their marginalisation in the new global restructuring? Though Bayat considers them as deinstitutionalised, this paper focuses on their institutionalised aspects, such as new type of labour organisations, established and run by informal workers. My hypothesis is: “The rise of informalisation of women’s labour has created a need for new ways of organising, which is leading to the emergence of new types of labour organisations”.

The informal economy in almost all developing countries is growing. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) reports that 25% of the world’s working population are active in the informal economy and generate 35% of global GDP. In Latin America, more than 57% of all non-agricultural workers were in the informal economy at the end of 2000. The informal economy in Sub-Saharan Africa employed more than 72% of the urban workforce. Particularly in South Africa it is 51% of non-agricultural employment. In India, 90% of workers, and in Thailand, 70% are in the informal economy. A crucial character of the informal economy is that the vast majority of workers are women. The ILO estimates that 60% of women in developing countries are in informal employment.

Women’s labour force participation in the informal economy is an integral aspect of this paper. From the early 1980s onwards, the increasing importance of export oriented manufacturing activities in many developing countries had been associated with a much greater reliance on women’s labour. Flexibility of production and the flexible use of labour force increased the informalisation of women’s labour. Women workers, who have lower reservation wages than their male counterparts, are more willing to accept longer hours and unpleasant and often unhealthy or hazardous factory conditions; typically they do not unionise or engage in other forms of collective bargaining to improve conditions and do not ask for permanent contracts. A substantial proportion of such sub-contracting in fact extends down to home-based work. Many women became self-employed by doing home-based work or street vending. Briefly, the informal character of women’s labour is highly increasing. As women’s labour share became one of the main characteristics of the informal economy, its leading role in the new types of labour organizations also became critical.

The changes in the labour market resulted in reducing the size of the formal sector labour force. Accordingly, the organised workforce is shrinking and trade unions are becoming weakened as their numbers decline. What used to be called ‘a-typical work’-i.e. part-time, casual, temporary, seasonal, contract, home-based, piecework and unpaid family labour- is becoming increasingly typical in the labour market. The existence of the informal sector is being used as leverage against trade union demands in the formal sector. Trade unions confronted with such problems have tended to concern themselves only with protecting the rights and positions of their existing constituencies in the formal sector rather than attempting to extend their aims and constituencies and addressing the problems and needs of labourers in both sectors. This was a strong reason for the emergence of new types of labour organizations, organising informal workers. There are different ways of organising workers in the informal economy: According to Horn (2001), one way is, still, for formal sector trade unions to change their constitutions by broadening their definitions of workers, so that they include workers in the informal economy in their particular industry, in their scope of organisation. South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) is an example to this kind of organisation. The other way of organising workers in the informal economy is to start new organisations specifically for particular sections of the informal economy. Self-Employed Women’s Union (SEWU) in South Africa and Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) in India are examples for the second type. This paper examines the latter, which reflects the initiative of informal women workers in organising informal workers in new types of labour organisations.

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