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Organising on the edge

Caroline Elliot reports on a wave of grass-roots organising in sub-Saharan Africa bringing together workers in the informal economy

March 18, 2011
5 min read

Anyone who has travelled in the global South will have experienced streets alive with the hustle and bustle of vendors and market traders, trying to sell you anything from drinks to second-hand clothes, from apples to electronics. Whether in the marketplace or on the streets, these workers form the basis of large and growing informal economies.

In November 2010 a unique gathering of such workers took place in Kitwe, Zambia. This meeting, funded by the Commonwealth Foundation and supported by War on Want, was the world’s first international conference run by street vendors for street vendors, and brought together organisations from Kenya, Malawi and Zambia.

The rise of the informal economy

In the countries represented at the conference, street vending is commonplace. The informal economy accounts for 83 per cent of the labour force in Zambia, 77 per cent in Kenya and 88 per cent in Malawi. Yet this has not always been the case. Previously, jobs in the formal sector were the primary means of earning a living, but there was a near total collapse of labour markets throughout the region following structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF and World Bank in the early 1990s. Job losses occasioned by privatisation forced many people into resorting to independent, creative means of generating income, and resulted in the informal sector’s phenomenal growth.

The copper mines in Zambia provide a classic example. Much of the population had worked not just in the mines but also in the hospitals, schools and services attached to them. Privatisation of the industry led to an exclusive focus on the core activity of mining, leading to massive job losses in the associated services.

The informal economy encompasses a wide range of jobs, from bus and taxi drivers, carpenters and artisans to small-scale tea and poultry farmers. What unites these people is that they all work outside formal structures of employment, frequently working alone or in micro and small businesses. In some cases, especially for street vendors, their work is labelled as a criminal activity. Their income frequently leaves them well below the poverty line. Without formal contracts or legislative protection, workers in the informal economy have limited rights and are subject to abuse and harassment.

Strength in numbers

The rapid, widespread growth of the informal economy has not only led to it eclipsing the formal sector and becoming normalised, but to informal sector workers beginning to recognise their rights and come together to demand them. The past decade has seen the rise of powerful informal economy associations across southern Africa. These include the Alliance of Zambian Informal Economy Associations (AZIEA), the Malawi Union for the Informal Sector (MUFIS) and the Kenya National Alliance of Street Vendor and Informal Traders (KENASVIT).

Imitating the structures of formal trade unions, they are organised at the grassroots either by location or sector. On top of representation, the associations provide basic support and services. This includes training, loans, assistance with funerals (which are commonplace in the region due to the HIV/Aids pandemic) and medical needs, as well as advice and guidance.

Incorporating the marginalised

Informal sector organisations, particularly those in Kenya and Malawi, have a good record of incorporating marginalised groups, such as women, disabled workers and those living with HIV/Aids. This was highlighted in the conference last November, in which strategies for effective engagement and representation were discussed.

Despite their amazing work, trade union bodies have had mixed reactions to the rise of these new players. MUFIS is now formally recognised as a trade union in Malawi, but AZIEA has the status of an associate rather than an affiliate in Zambia. KENASVIT is not recognised at all by formal trade union structures in Kenya, despite the fact that membership and potential membership of informal economy associations often eclipses that of formal sector trade unions.

Like all unions, the informal economy organisations receive contributions from their members to sustain them. However, their members frequently fall well below the poverty line, so members frequently cannot afford their contributions. Of course, this is when their need for effective representation is greatest. Consequently, their representative bodies must rely on external sources for funds.

With the ongoing global economic crisis, the informal economy in sub-Saharan Africa is set to continue growing, making the work of informal economy associations even more vital. The fact that they have managed to survive in the face of increasing criminalisation at home and minimal support from the international community bears testimony to their significance. No doubt they will continue to be a progressive force in the future development of grass-roots struggle in Africa.

Caroline Elliot is War on Want’s programmes officer working with informal economy associations in Africa

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