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Uncertainty and vulnerability are hallmarks of life for the world’s poor, in low and high income countries. Collective action helps on different levels, across different dimensions of life, to overcome.
In New York City, on a tree-lined residential street in Harlem, Tito handles the block. In exchange for occasional tips and gifts from people like me, he retrieves residents’ packages, hoses down the sidewalk, walks dogs, and moves cars on alternate-side parking days, which happens twice-a-week to allow for street cleaning. In seemingly more affluent neighborhoods, Tito’s services are formally offered by doormen. Dealing entirely in cash, with no registered business and hardly anything in the way of a paper trail for his transactions, Tito lives in a world of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Tito is an example of the informal economy. As noted by the International Labour Organization, an informal economy often means poor working conditions. More broadly it means a lack of social protection, which may include paid time off when an employee is sick, retirement plans, health insurance, or the power to unionize. It is unregulated and untaxed economic activity, and very often it emerges as a result of prohibitive business regulations. The World Bank’s Doing Business rankings, though imperfect, show just how difficult formal entrepreneurial endeavors can be in many countries.
Martha Chen, the International Coordinator of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and also a member of the BRAC Governing Body, points out that in the developing world, “the majority of all workers—and a significant majority of women workers—are informally employed.” In a global context, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have the highest percentage of women in the informal economy, at 74 percent and 83 percent, respectively. Vulnerable groups, such as women and migrants are at the highest risk of living in poverty within the informal economy.
But uncertainty and vulnerability extends even into the formal sector, particularly where laws are little-known and little-enforced.
Take, for example, the collapse of Rana Plaza, the garment factory in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed 1,129 people. Building codes exist in Bangladesh, but there’s hardly any legal or political pressure to enforce them—and plenty of economic pressure to ignore them, leaving millions of women in jobs where safety and health are huge vulnerabilities.
So what can people like Tito and the garment factory workers of Rana Plaza do to reduce uncertainty and vulnerability?
Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder and chairperson of BRAC, writing in The New York Times highlighted the importance of collective action in response to the Rana Plaza tragedy:
The solutions start with the workers themselves; they must be allowed by their employers to unionize, so they can engage in collective bargaining and hold their employers responsible for basic standards of pay and safety. Their organized power is the only thing that can stand up to the otherwise unaccountable nexus of business owners and politicians, who are often one and the same.
But what about those in the informal sector, like Tito or like the hundreds of millions of women in some of the world’s poorest places? They don’t exactly have a larger employer with whom to bargain for better safety in the workplace, higher wages, or better benefits. For them, one answer has been, in the words of Sir Abed again, this time in the commencement speech for Central European University this June:
…poor people, especially women, can be organized for power, and that with right set of organizational tools, they can become actors in history.
Instead of unions, Sir Abed and BRAC organize women into village organizations for microfinance, parent-teacher associations for schools, social and financial empowerment clubs for youth, local committees for water and sanitation, volunteer task-forces for the ultra-poor, and other organizational models that are under constant monitoring for improvements today.
While nothing can remove all uncertainty and vulnerability from anyone’s life, especially the lives of the working poor, units of collective action both large and small can help reduce resulting anxiety to a more manageable level—a level at which people can have hope for a better future.
Martha Chen put it nicely last month at the book launch of Women in the Global Economy: Leading Social Change: “Don’t ban, but improve. There is always a worse counterfactual.” The solution isn’t to push Tito out of his job or do away with garment factories in Bangladesh, but rather to create the conditions that will allow both the workers and their employers to thrive.