Should labour rights be decoupled from formal employment?

By Séverine Deneulin

Earlier this month, I attended the weekly meeting of ‘Vendedores Libres’ (or free sellers). They are a group of people who try to make a living by selling goods on the city streets and on public transport. They are an estimated 10,000 street vendors active in the 21 square kilometre boundaries of the federal capital city of Buenos Aires. Occupying the public space is illegal without a permit, but the city administration has consistently refused to issue permits to street vendors. In the face of constant threat of eviction, and pervasive bribing, manipulation and violence, they decided to unite so that they could know their rights better, develop strategies to carry on their work without fear, and most essentially, being recognized as workers entitled to the same labour rights as private and public sector workers.

According to the International Labour Organization and based on data from household survey of National Office of Statistics, there was in 2013 an estimated 7.2 million informal sector workers in Argentina, or about 46.8% of the working population. The Argentinian informal workers prefer to refer to themselves as ‘popular economy workers’. They try to avoid the formal/informal work distinction as it does not account for labour rights (cooperative workers can be ‘formal’ because they form a legal productive entity yet not benefit from insurance against labour accidents or sick or holiday leave), and also the distinction does not account for the profound links between the formal and informal economy. For example, the cartoneros (cardboard pickers or rubbish recyclers) sell the plastic found on street rubbish to the multinational Danone. Popular economy workers also enter the formal economy as consumers. This is why they prefer talking of the ‘popular economy’, or the economy of people, as the work that people who are unable to enter waged employment or regularized self-employment create in order to provide for themselves and their families.

Many Argentinian popular economy workers are no longer waiting to one day get formal employment in order to benefit from labour rights. They have started instead to organize to acquire the same labour rights as private and public sector workers without having to give up their current work. As one of the leaders of ‘Free Vendors’ told me, he had been producing anti-stress cushions at home which he has been selling on the streets for more than 10 years, and what he wants is for his work to be recognized as a legitimate form of work. Why should his work be treated differently from the one of a factory worker producing anti-stress cushions sold in shops instead of street markets?, he asks. Why does he have to endure constant threats from the police in order to work? Some cartoneros have already won some basic labour rights. The activity of picking up rubbish has been legalised in the federal capital city, and after many struggles, there is now a direct agreement between the city government and a set of cooperatives of cartoneros to recycle the city’s rubbish. The agreement includes a decent salary, health insurance and pension contribution, child care facilities, and sick and holiday leave.

The Confederation of Popular Economy Workers, created in 2011 by a number of popular economy work sectors to demand labour rights, estimates that, so far, only approximately 20,000 popular economy workers have full labour rights, that is, about 0.3% benefit from what other workers take for granted such as a decent wage, health insurance, opportunities to take vacation, and access to training. So far, the Argentinian state has refused to recognize union status to the Confederation. The powerful unions of public and private sectors are opposed to popular economy workers forming a union because they fear of losing the current power they hold within the Argentinian state. They also fear that unionising popular economy workers might legitimize informal work and diminish incentives for companies to create employment.

Is the road of decoupling labour rights from formal employment the one to take? Can informal sector workers gain decent pay for work, health insurance, skills formation or paid holiday leave without being formally employed by a company? The Confederation of Popular Economy Workers firmly believes so, and has little hope in the capacity of enterprises whose capital is not owned by workers to generate employment and to have the wellbeing of workers and contribution to society as their objectives. On the contrary, they see the dynamic of a capitalist economy inherently being premised on the maximisation of capital at the expense of workers’ fulfilment, and the generation of ‘leftovers’, ‘disposable’ human beings.

Meanwhile, I spent some time last week helping out some other popular economy workers with their curriculum vitae so they may have a better chance to get formal employment, improve their living conditions and offer a better future for their children. And I have started to explore ways in which businesses and entrepreneurs can reach out to those caught into a cycle of marginality and offer some special training and employment schemes. The scale and complexity of informality requires a policy response that matches its heterogeneity. The worker who has decided to sell anti-stress cushions in order to live may ask for his work to be recognized and legitimized as a valid form of work, but the worker who has decided to cut people’s hair in her house in order to live may ask for a formal work where her artistic design talents can be developed. Decoupling labour rights from formal employment is certainly one valuable innovative policy proposal, but business incentives and regulation, as traditional policies as they seem, still have a long way to go to provide the conditions for dignifying work.

Séverine Deneulin is Senior Lecturer in International Development at the University of Bath and currently on sabbatical research leave in Buenos Aires. With thanks to Maria del Mar Murga and the members of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers for facilitating this reflection.

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