Organizing the unorganized


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TRADE unions essentially derive their power from their membership or more correctly their numbers relative to the workforce levels at a point of time in a given space. The recent decades have witnessed a decline in both indices, though this is not universal (see ILO 1997; Calmfors et al. 2001). The union, a classic collective organization, has to modify its structures, orientations, values, organizing methods, industrial actions and attitudes towards other social agents, in order to reinvent itself to be relevant and continue to contribute to social and economic development. Other social agencies in civil society, such as NGOs, could also organize and provide a voice to vulnerable sections of the working class.

The ethical and social case against unions, that they work for a minority often at the cost of the majority and ignore vulnerable sections who in fact need more protection, strengthened the search for alternative ‘voice’ organizations. While stressing the need for alternative forms of labour organizations, these accounts even proclaimed ‘the death of the union’. A moderate perspective is that unions are relevant, more now, when workers’ rights and welfare benefits are more threatened than in the past.

Nevertheless, other social organizations could also work along with unions given the space for other entities representing the interests of labour. The dynamics of the movement can however both create conflict between various social organizations as well as promote coalitions and cooperation between them. A softer version implies complementarity between them. Various social experiments in India and abroad, in particular the entry of NGOs in the arena of labour, have thrown up interesting possibilities of organization.

The sea-change in the economic sphere, especially in the organization of industrial production prompted by globalization, challenges traditional forms of unionism. Specifically, the tremendous advances in transportation and communication technologies have enabled transnational corporations (TNCs) to restructure their production processes to create a ‘new geography of production’ and a new international division of labour. ‘Footloose’ capital seeks low cost areas and organizes a production chain that stretches to even home-based workers in far corners of the globe. The globalization drive resulting in intensification of competition has prompted firms to adopt a ‘low road’ strategy of cost-cutting exercises via seeking numerical flexibility, downsizing, sub-contracting and outsourcing of production, and so on. Thus, informalization is a process of sub-contracting either to subsidiaries or locally independent firms, often by local contractors or middlemen to small units or home-based workers (Cheru 2001).

These tendencies towards informalization are evident even within the formal sector thanks to numerous flexibility strategies; consequently temporary, casual and contract workers suffer from job attributes usually associated with the informal sector. Apart from these interdependencies between formal and informal sectors, the rigidities inherent in the former are said to spawn the growth of the informal sector.

Another facet of globalization is the privatization of public sector firms (Standing 1999:73-4). The drive for privatization, at least in the short run, is associated with loss of jobs. Arguably, these tendencies force not only men but also women and children into poor quality employment in the informal sector. The link between globalization and informalization has been noted by several scholars (e.g. Beneria 2001; Cheru 2001; Hensman 2001). These developments pose a serious challenge to traditional unionism which must redefine its goals and strategies in order to play a socially productive role of providing voice to the disadvantaged and promote equity. This paper attempts to locate the problems of unions and examine their prospects for renewal.



Traditional unionism based its organizing drive on two criteria: the existence of employment relationship and wage-earner status of workers. Labour law, by adopting a similar criteria to define workers, helped union organization. Trade unions performed an important function of aggregating and filtering worker preferences and presenting a set of demands and grievances to employers and the state. While performing this onerous task, unions assumed homogeneity of its constituents and focused on the mass element related to the dominant segment of the workforce. Thus, the policies and interests of unions are based on the existing distribution of power within the working class (Hyman 1998: 97). There has always existed a core (dominant) segment of the working class which the unions sought to represent, consequently excluding the periphery (minority) – to wit, unions after all were the forerunner of the core/periphery distinction!



The logic of cost effectiveness led unions to focus on workers who are in large numbers – male, full time, regular, native, blue collar workers employed in large scale factories. They paid little or no attention to women, contingent, young, immigrants, workers in small establishments and in the informal sector. The former set was deemed socially important and politically relevant, hence a fertile ground for operation. The market legitimacy of the union lay in securing ‘differential terms of employment’ (i.e., union gain) for its members, gains that were denied to non-members (DeMartino 1999). These factors, resulted in their obsession with the formal sector at the cost of ill-organized minority workgroups in the informal sector. In the case of the latter, indifference and antipathy was mutual. Unions, employers and the state were bound by a social contract whereby unions received a pay-off for institutionalizing collective relations and managing discontent, keeping at bay the radical, social movement based unions.

This form of unionism, classified variously as pure and simple unionism, commodity unionism, or business unionism, suffers from many limitations and contradictions, ultimately limiting its effectiveness and eroding its representativeness. Members become instrumental, constantly pressing for material benefits. Ironically, if the same benefits were provided by the employer (via HRM) or the state (through legislation), they would not ‘buy’ union identity! Second, unions earned a bad name in society for securing a union differential for its customers. This competitive organizing resulted in unproductive conflicts driving capital to non-unionized sectors, eroding the union base while widening the unorganized one. The historic neglect of women, contingent employees and informal sector workers, coupled with erosion of its traditional base, considerably affected the viability of unions.



Finally, traditional unionism’s focal organizing point was the work-place (firm/industry). But flexible labour market strategies have created footloose workers called contingent or atypical workers. These workers do not have any long term association with specific firms and are disinclined to invest heavily in union activity (Blank 2001: 734), which is neither flexible nor universal. They prefer ‘exit’ options and change jobs to maximize benefits to ‘voice’ options. As is well known, unions can provide services to its customers (members) only when the risks are shared by them (see DeMartino 1999).

It is likely that the very nature of the traditional union movement is responsible for its crisis; exogenous factors like globalization at best intensify it. Two reasons are ascribed. One, the decline in unionism started well before the advent of the globalization process (see DeMartino 1999); second, the decline in union membership is not universal (see Calmfors et al. 2001; Hyman 1998; ILO 1997). Belgium and the Nordic countries continue to enjoy relative union stability (the latter owing to centralized union movements). Similarly placed IR systems like the US and Canada show differing records: relatively stable and higher union density in Canada compared to the US. If globalization is the factor, why these differences?



Traditional unionism had to confront three types of challenges that underlie its crisis. An increasing differentiation of workers (heterogeneity) has created a crisis of interest aggregation; the abstraction of mass workers under an assumption of worker homogeneity no longer suffices. Second, decentralization of employment regulation to enterprise levels has resulted in a crisis of worker loyalty. Third, unions have failed to organize the new and dynamic high technology oriented service sector, causing a crisis of union representation (Miller-Jentson 1988-89 cited in Hyman 1998: 98; Munck 1999: 18). The crisis in the union movement coincided with the revival of civil society organizations. The social non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are important constituents of a democratic system. They give people a voice in the affairs of their life, defend human rights, fight to establish a clean and safe environment and a just and equitable society – in brief improve the quality of life. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that they also seek to represent the interests of labour.

Women, contingent workers (part timers, temporary, casual, contract workers), immigrants, youth, workers in the informal sector constitute a segment which trade unions, due to several reasons (numerical insignificance, gender and racial bias, absence of permanent points of contact, among others), historically neglected in union organization drives. But these workers now matter because their numbers are increasing and they constitute marginal and socially vulnerable sections who urgently need ameliorative action from social agents. It may, however, be useful to bear in mind the constraints inherent in organizing these types of employment categories. Flexi-categories are created precisely because they are both non-unionized and non-unionizable, thus easily manipulable and least costly to organize; two, they do not enjoy long term employment in a particular firm and are difficult to contact; three, they often have dual employers, principal employer and contractor, which create legal issues such as who is responsible for the welfare of these workers; four, absence of contractual rights puts them out of the bargaining segment (Bonney); five, women perform multiple roles and often prefer flexible work, neither amenable to unionization.



It is important to note that while the new labour market and production processes have caused the removal and distancing of a number of workers from unions, the insecurity created by these very processes has intensified a desire for protection in these workers. Second, the fragmentation and heterogenization of the working class doubtlessly created a crisis in the union movement by depleting union strength. The crisis has been a real wake up call to stagnant and slumbering union organization and leadership to take measures to revive unionism. Fortunately, unions have now started organizing these workers. One, numbers are what unions basically want. Two, the social dimension attached to taking care of women and contingent workers. Unions have begun to address these problems and concerns (see Moody 1998; Wever 1997; Munck 1999 cites ICFTU’s document ‘The Trade Union Vision’, 1995). More importantly, union interest in these hitherto neglected workers owes to the significant presence and important work done by NGOs (especially the union-cum-NGO like organization, SEWA). This has rudely awakened the unions to their own inadequacies.



Trade unions have neglected informal sector workers over a long time. The informal sector was generally perceived as a transitory phenomenon that would, through development, be eventually absorbed into the formal sector (Gallin 2001a; ILO). As such, it was not considered prudent to invest resources in it. Second, the informal sector is small in size, widely scattered, unstable, heterogeneous, complex and invisible – factors not conducive to organization. Third, unions face heat in the formal sector and given the organizational constraints it was neither possible nor advisable to embrace the informal sector. Fourth, all the identities that serve as a basis for organizing, viz., employment relationship, contract, wage earner tag – do not generally obtain in the informal sector; they possess little organizational basis. Fifth, the self-employed constitute a significant portion of the informal sector and are seen more as entrepreneurs than workers (see WIEGO; ILO). Trade unions expected and even advocated state intervention, but this strategy has been either ineffective or counter productive.

Also, the issues, problems and concerns of the informal sector workers are unique and different from those of formal sector workers. They constitute a mixed bag. Their issues/ concerns include land security, permanent space for operation, easy access to cheaper credit, lack of training to upgrade skills, absence of income security, and so on. As is evident, they do not emanate from the workplace and involve multiple agents: employer, community, government agencies, financial institutions and so on. But the presence and growth of the informal sector threatens ‘to undermine the acquired rights and conditions of workers in regular employment’ (ICFTU 1992 cited in ILO).



It is not only the threat aspect that should prompt and compel trade unions to organize informal sector workers both at national and international levels (see ILO, for international union federations thinking on this issue). There are other reasons also. One, the informal sector is not a transitory phenomenon as was assumed; it is here to stay. Its share vis-à-vis the formal sector is increasing. Though the informal sector is considered atypical in a moral sense, in numerical terms it is the formal sector that is atypical – for example, the proportion of the informal sector in India (including agriculture) was 92% in 1998 (Gallin 2001a: 228).

Two, the organizing potential of the formal sector is decreasing. Three, universality of representation, which the union movement should aim for, means coverage of all sectors, including the informal sector. This would ultimately lend stability to formal sector unions. On both grounds of organizational growth and social legitimacy, the trade unions cannot afford to ignore the informal sector any longer; also NGOs’ entry into this sector adds muscle to their organizational efforts.

Four types of organizing informal sector workers have taken place: (1) All the major central union organizations (CTUOs) in India (like AITUC, BMS, HMS, INTUC) have attempted to organize workers in the informal sector. We review briefly here the attempts and strategies of CTUOs and the problems faced by them. The CTUOs, used as they are to easy ways of organizing workers in the formal sector, find similar efforts in the informal sector a tough terrain. The differences in the effectiveness of organizing workers in the two sectors were summed up by a union leader: ‘In the organized sector, 20% work gets 90% result. In the informal sector 90% work gives 10% result’ (quoted in Venkata Ratnam 2000b: 70).



The reason is that in the organized sector the bulk of the employees are at one place and conflicts between management and workers are resolved here, whereas workers and the self-employed in the unorganized sector are scattered. (See the interview given by O.P. Aghi of BMS on unorganized sector in Vishwakarma Sanket, September 2002.) The CTUOs concede that they only began to show interest in unorganized sector workers sometime in the 1980s. The Bangalore session of the AITUC in 1983 recognized the need to organize the unorganized as a priority. It was admitted that their achievements in this regard were ‘too little compared with the magnitude of the task’ (AITUC 1997 quoted in Venkata Ratnam 2000b: 71). O.P. Aghi also admitted that special attention on these workers by BMS was only shown in the 1980s. However, a beginning has been made. The AITUC organized workers in the beedi, cigar, construction industries; the BMS has formed eight federations, organizing workers in beedi, construction, handloom industry, fishermen, and anganwadi workers (Aghi, ibid.); HMS has organized forest workers, workers in brick kiln units and rickshaw pullers in Punjab, fishermen in Tamil Nadu (see Venkata Ratnam 2000b, for more details).

The CTUOs have drafted various strategies and programmes for organizing workers in the unorganized sector and to take up issues and concerns relevant to these workers for policy resolutions. The main components of the strategy are: (a) to create organizing units in the union federation for informal sector workers and provide fresh guidelines to existing unions; (b) extension of legal aid to informal sector workers; (c) demand that a commission for informal sector workers be instituted and a comprehensive bill for this sector enacted – the BMS claims that as a result of its demand, the government added unorganized sector workers to the terms of reference of the Second National Labour Commission (SNCL) headed by Ravindra Verma (see the interview by Aghi, ibid.). (d) organize various forms of public demonstrations to sensitize the societal agencies about the problems of unorganized sector workers. Finally, the legal battles relating to contract labour abolition and regularization, action at various levels (social, policy-making bodies, international fora) to deal with the problems of child labour and other issues by the union federations constitute their interest around the unorganized sector.



It is important to flag two recent developments which should greatly help unorganized sector workers. First, the ILO Convention on Home Workers (1996). This convention requires the national policy to promote equality of treatment between home workers and other wage earners in relation, among other things, to the former’s ‘right to establish or join organizations of their own choosing and to participate in the activities of such organizations’ (Article 4). Second, the SNCL has recommended easing of eligibility conditions for forming workers’ unions in the unorganized sector: workers in the unorganized sector can form unions even in instances where the employer-employee relationship does not exist or is difficult to establish; second, the eligibility condition of a minimum membership of 100 workers or 10% of the workforce need not apply in their case (see SNCL Report, Vol. II, 6.50). Also, the amendments to the Trade Union Act passed in 2001 allow greater number of outside leaders (half of the total number of office-bearers) than allowed for unions in the formal sector (one-third of the total). These developments should provide impetus for greater organizing efforts by trade unions.

(2) New trade unions have been created specifically to organize informal sector workers, e.g., Self Employed Women Association (SEWA) in India established in 1972 as a trade union is the old and classic instance. It organizes, among others, home workers, street vendors and refuse collectors and has more than 200,000 members covering four states in India. Though registered as a trade union, it offers a number of services like micro credit, vocational and training programmes, pensions (see Kurane 2002, Venkata Ratnam 2000a; Ramaswamy 2000 and their own websites for information and analysis of the work done). Self Employed Women’s Union (SEWU), an affiliate of COSATU in South Africa, is another example.

(3) Parallel to efforts of workers in multinational corporations to form global alliances and organizations, unions and associations associated with informal sector workers have also established international networks and coalition organizations such as HomeNet, StreetNet, Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing, WIEGO. Various groups and associations organizing informal sector workers in many countries, both in the North and the South, came together in 1994 to establish an international network called HomeNet. Its aims are (i) to create an international network combining various forms of organizations connected with home workers, (ii) to coordinate international campaigns aimed to improve conditions of work for home-based workers at various foras and levels, (iii) to build a data base and disseminate information to members of the network and other related organizations, and (iv) to provide technical assistance to members of the network (see http://www.



StreetNet is an international alliance of street vendors and includes organizations or support groups in 11 countries. It is a network consisting of street vendors, activists, researchers, and institutions associated with street vendors to ‘increase the visibility, voice and bargaining power of street vendors throughout the world.’ The network aims to promote exchange of ideas and information relating to various issues concerning street vendors to organize and work out advocacy strategies. Its longer term objective is to build a strong case and mobilize international support for establishing a convention on the rights of street vendors similar to the existing convention for home-based workers (see The National Alliance of Street Vendors is an Indian affiliate of StreetNet; it was established at the initiative of SEWA in September 1998 to work for the formulation of National Policy for Street Vendors (see; see also their Bangalore Declaration which demands recognition of their role and existence and a place in the decision-making bodies affecting them (

Women Working Worldwide (WWW) is a small voluntary organization in the United Kingdom working with the global network of women worker organizations. It was formed by a group of researchers and activists in 1983. It supports the rights of women workers through networking with women organizations to exchange information and influence international policy-making bodies (see WIEGO is a worldwide coalition of institutions and individuals formed to improve the status of women in the informal sector. Its founding members include grassroots organizations, research and academic institutions, and international development organizations; the principal players are SEWA, Harvard University, and UNIFEM.

WIEGO represents two concerns: informal sector women workers are a part of the globalizing economy, and there exists a need to organize these workers both at local and international levels. It is concerned that the important contribution by women workers (largely stemming from low-income households) to economic growth and poverty alleviation is not reflected in official statistics and policies. It aims to improve the status of women in the informal sector, contribute to compilation of better statistics and research, and develop programmes and policies (see In fact, WIEGO, works closely with international trade secretariats (ITS) like International Textile Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation (ITGLWF), International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), and with other NGOs like European Home-working Group secured the adoption of Home Workers’ Convention No.177 (see ILO; WIEGO).

(4) Social movement unionism is another strategy to bring the concerns of informal sector workers to the negotiating table. It emerged from the recognition that unions of industrial workers constitute a minority in the new working class (Moody 1998: 207). Alliances with organizations of workers/employees in other sectors of the economy – public sector unions, women’s organizations – are needed in order to build a broad based movement. It includes alliances with working class fractions such as ‘movements of other non-unionized or non-unionizable working classes or categories such as petty commodity sector, home workers, peasants, housewives, etc.’ (Waterman 1993 quoted in Akca 2001). It is socially inclusive unlike the traditional unionism and distinct from old economic unionism or political unionism (see Munck 1999; Ramaswamy 2000).



An important aspect of organizing in the informal sector is the relationship between trade unions and NGOs. The dynamics of such a relationship is of interest and concern. Some trade unions advocate a separate but cordial relationship with NGOs so as to not mix labour issues with other agendas and dilute the former. Others welcome NGO assistance but want unions to lead the coalition. However, the NGOs prefer to work with unions on an equal footing for two reasons: NGOs are an increasingly important and relevant constituent of civil society; they also organize categories and sectors of workers neglected by unions. Unions are wary of NGOs as they draw middle and upper class intellectuals and professionals. They question the locus standi of NGOs in the labour movement, as they lack experience in organizing workers as unions do, nor have they crossed picket lines. Also, there are other vital differences between the two (see Compa 2001; Gallin 2001b; Hernandez 1998).



Trade unions are member based organizations; the leaders, elected by due process, are accountable to their members. There exists a hierarchy and a system of operation. But NGOs, though voluntary, need not be member based. The leadership is self-appointed or coopted. Their accountability systems too differ: leaders are at best accountable to the funding agency and in a larger sense to public opinion – no ‘popular’ validation as in unions. All these create doubts regarding their legitimacy, transparency and accountability. But the very structural processes that distinguish unions from NGOs reportedly make the former rigid, bureaucratic, oligarchic (ironically), and the latter democratic and flexible.

There are several factors that generate tensions in the relationship between the two. We briefly discuss one here: Corporate Codes of Conduct (CCC). Trade unions regard NGOs as ‘accomplices in the company’s attempts to use the code as a means to avoid unionization’ (Gallin 2001b). It is no mere coincidence that companies which enthusiastically adopt codes are also opposed to unions. Unions feel that codes not only undermine or preclude their presence, they affect labour law enforcement (Compa 2001). Suspicion also prevails over the code monitoring mechanism. Monitoring systems lack credibility and NGOs’ compliance could lend legitimacy to companies otherwise seen as dubious. The unions may ask: what better monitoring agency could there be other than themselves? But NGOs point out that their intervention via codes implies a ‘third way’, supplementing the role of classic methods, viz., government regulation through law and union regulation by collective bargaining (Compa 2001).

But surely there are bases for cooperation between the two? Both desire to check the exploitative, abusive practices of TNCs, establish and protect basic human rights and trade union rights, and think of larger social issues like sustainable development and education. Both have more in common with each other than with government, international organizations or business corporations (Compa 2001). Therefore, the interface between the two needs to be strengthened.



An increasing differentiation of workers, the rise of a new working class, and a rise in the numbers of flexible and informal sector workers has created a crisis of union representation. Clearly, traditional unionism in trouble. The current model of organizing labour markets, namely liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) has created multiple insecurities, viz. job, employment, income and interest representation insecurity (see Standing 1999). As Standing (1999:388-92) rightly points out, effective voice regulation must take into account the concerns and needs of the workers on the margins of the labour market: they too must become ‘a part of the shadow of the future.’ The need for representation is greater now than in the past. The vulnerable, the weak, even the high paid workers need voice institutions and mechanisms.

A crisis in the union movement and the rise of new social movements has helped to create new experiments, innovations in organizing workers and society. Union renewal is visible: they are now more relevant to workers and society than ever in the past. The renewal is a result of introspection, changes in its organizing strategies, focus, positions and so on. Unions have begun to work with the unorganized and unorganizable either on their own or with the help of other social organizations. They have created new models of representation like occupational unionism model, community unionism model, social movement unionism model, and so on.



We argue here that unions are well placed to play a bigger role in the new social processes that have emerged to organize labour and allied classes. They are still a dominant form of social organization (Munck 1999). Employers spend considerable resources to preempt, prevent and uproot unions (Rothestein 1997). Unions enjoy core competencies in leading the movement of and for labour – they have a long history of organizing workers and vesting them with rich organizational experience; they are financially sound and independent, have an ideological base and an extensive network of organizations across borders. The most important reason is that they have begun to change, modifying the old mould, constantly innovating and redefining their orientations. They can supply tools for struggle. They are ideologically poised to oppose injustices and discrimination in the system: their fight against arbitrariness provides legitimacy (‘sword of justice’ role of unions).

The union is a powerful voice institution. It can and should play a pivotal role in building a larger social movement. Various social organizations like NGOs are important players in the labour arena, whose contributions in organizing informal sector workers cannot be ignored. We emphasize complementarity, a sense of social partnership between the social and labour organizations working in the labour sector. All these constitute a search – experiments for constructing new social identities for labour. Indeed, the process for designing a new strategy for labour is underway.


* Revised version of the paper presented at the 44th Annual Conference of the ISLE in Amritsar, 15-17 December 2002.



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