Global Resources

Organising women workers in the informal economy

Author: N. Kabeer, K. Milward, R. Sudarshan
Publisher: Gender and Development
Publication Date: Jul 2013
There are numerous challenges facing organisation amongst the hardest-to-reach women in the informal economy. This paper, published in Gender and Development, examines the various factors determining the success and failure of attempts to organise, and seek economic justice and recognition. The paper analyses organisational strategies in different contexts and for different workers, to identify a battery of weapons among these organised women which offer significant advantages over the strategies they had previously relied upon when unorganised. This article discusses these issues with particular reference to two case studies: the MAP Foundation in Thailand, and KKPKP in Pune, India. The paper focuses on a number of themes: the need for shared identity in building cohesive and lasting organisations; the importance of culture, discourse and information, or ‘soft power’, when navigating confrontational issues; the practicalities of everyday life for organisational members, and the expectations they have for organisational support; making the law work for workers, allowing them recourse to their rights and, according to MAP, reducing reliance on strikes to settle grievances; engaging in politics and policies, e.g. the KKPKP gaining government endorsement of union cards and access to medical insurance schemes for bin collectors; and finally, dealing with inequalities, in particular caste, race, gender, and legality. The paper concludes by outlining four key lessons from the research. Firstly, it is important to start with local issues, allowing freedom for locally-minded strategies and processes to emerge, facilitated by external catalysts where needed. For women in the informal economy, the politics of redistribution, which converges with traditional trade union roles, must be joined by the politics of recognition; for many, dignity is as much a concern as daily bread. Secondly, being responsive to local contexts will necessarily entail more time; the variety, difficulty, and sensitivity involved in building trust and participation amongst hard-to-reach women must be properly understood. While outside agencies may be needed, it is important that local groups evolve at their own behest and rate. The third lesson is that strategies evolve over time. It is often necessary to first focus on building relationships and shared culture; initial efforts to address central issues may fail to bring women together. Beginning with gentle, less confrontational strategies can build self- and group-confidence to a point where they become empowered enough to assert their rights for themselves. Finally, the authors noted some of the payoffs and tensions to collaboration between the local-global divide. Organisations working with vulnerable sections of society must be well-attuned to the realities of life experienced at the local level, yet, if genuine representation of local voices can be amplified by international organisations, there is great potential for informing the trajectories and deepening the perspectives of global movements in ways that validate vulnerable groups claims for representation.