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
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant