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Dressing the Wound: Organizing Informal Sector Workers

Fatma Ülkü Selçuk teaches sociology at Atilim University in Ankara, Turkey.

Neoliberal capitalism, which has dominated the world’s economies for the past thirty years, has been disastrous for the exploited and oppressed masses. Not only have workers been increasingly oppressed, but the nature of the work they do has changed dramatically. While organized workers try to remain on their feet, production moves to the unorganized sectors. The production process is dispersed to small-sized enterprises. Outsourcing has spread so much that millions of workers bring their work home to continue production for their factories. Employment without insurance no longer constitutes an exception, but has become the norm. A worker with insurance is considered to be lucky. The number of unorganized women and child workers has increased rapidly. Working hours and labor laws have become more “flexible.” Order-based production has destroyed job security. Full-time, regular employment has been gradually replaced by part-time, temporary, and precarious work. Thus, the informal sector (which encompasses child labor, migrant workers, temporary workers, contract workers, domestic workers, homeworkers, and workers in small production units and subcontractor firms) has become more and more prevalent around the world.

But still, certain worker organizations strive to find a salve for their bleeding body. Among such endeavors, some succeed, some fail. But all provide valuable experiences. And they bring forth fissures in the empire of capital.

There are promising instances of workers’ struggle against the anti-union current, even in the informal sector and among the unemployed. The experience of the Argentine unemployed workers reveals the possibility of organizing even the most dispersed sectors of the working class. In this paper, I will examine a wide range of organizing in the informal sector of the economies in a variety of countries.

Subcontractors and Small Enterprises

South Africa

The Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) succeeded in unionizing migrant workers and launched a campaign against the destruction of squatter camps during apartheid.


Although it has not been long since the trade unions started organizing in the informal sector, there are countries where this has been successful. India is one of these countries, and it has a wealth of experience in organizing the unorganized. In India, even the hamals (porters) have organized themselves. The Chhattisgarh Mine Workers Union (CMSS) of India is also an example of organizing in the informal sector. The CMSS was established in 1977 when workers in the unmechanized mines, where workers are hired through contractors, organized in revolt against the indifference and neglect of the central trade unions that represented workers in the mechanized mines where workers were employed directly by the mine company. After tough struggles, the CMSS succeeded in avoiding retrenchment, increasing wages, establishing shorter working hours, and providing bonuses for its members. However, many of its members and their families were deprived of health services. In response, the CMSS transformed one of its rooms into a medical clinic where the doctors worked voluntarily. With time, the poor peasants and the tribal members who stood in solidarity with the CMSS also started to use the clinic. When the clinic was unable to meet the demands of its growing number of patients, the CMSS created a fund to establish a hospital. The services provided by CMSS proved beneficial to the community. However, despite all the constructive activities and the peaceful approach of CMSS, many CMSS activists were detained and several murdered by the police or the people hired by employers.

South Korea

The trade unions in South Korea tried to develop labor solidarity, at least at the regional level, and to overcome the isolation of workers employed by subcontractors. To accomplish this, in 1987, the Federation of Industrial Unions and the Council of Regional Labor Unions were founded. The Council of Regional Labor Unions and the Council of Labor Movement Groups have striven to consolidate labor power by region. A number of other organizations have also tried to weave solidarity among those employed by the subcontractors of a particular firm. In 1987, in the automotive sector, unions at Hyundai’s subcontractors established the Ulsan and Ulju Council of Small Business Unions. In 1989, unions at 25 percent of Daewoo’s subcontractors established an association called Tikkul for labor cooperation. The unions at Kia’s subcontractors also tried to organize a council of Kia subcontractor unions. However, these solidarity attempts did not end in victory due to the indifferent attitude of the parent firms’ unions, harassment by parent firms, and intervention by the state. Nevertheless, these experiences became a catalyst for later organizational activities in small and medium-sized companies.


In Italy, the textile and garment workers’ union (FILTEA), affiliated with the Italian General Federation of Labor (CGIL), has also carried out organizational activities in small enterprises. Its activities in the cottage industries have accelerated since the early 1990s. In FILTEA, there have been two types of membership: full membership and indirect membership. When a worker is a full member, the employer is informed of the membership and the dues amount to 1 percent of the wages. When a worker is an indirect member, the employer is not informed of the membership and the dues are paid directly to the union at a fixed annual amount. This arrangement has actually facilitated organizing in the informal sector. A major impetus for informal sector workers to become FILTEA members has been the trade union’s legal assistance on a variety of issues such as unfair dismissals or severance pay. FILTEA has even helped these workers in filling out tax forms, pension claims, and other types of documents required by the state. The social activities organized by FILTEA also contribute to the unionization process. Yet, the blacklist prepared by the employers continues to constitute a big problem which the union needs to solve.

Domestic Workers

Brazil and Namibia

In addition to organizing workers in small enterprises, certain worker organizations have succeeded in organizing the domestic workers in the informal sector. The Union of Women Domestic Employees (UWDE) in Brazil and the Namibia Domestic and Allied Workers’ Union (NDAWU) are among those which have enjoyed a considerable degree of success.

In Brazil, domestic workers began to organize in the 1960s with the initiatives of the Young Catholic Workers. Between 1964 and 1985, domestic workers struggled to establish associations. Originally, UWDE was established as an association. It won the status of a trade union as late as 1989. However, as its association status enabled UWDE to receive international donations, it continued to retain this status as well. In 1992, UWDE became an affiliate of the Central Workers Union (CUT), which considerably increased the number of its members. Legal support provided by UWDE also contributed to winning new members. Leisure activities organized by UWDE have been fundamental in attracting domestic workers, especially the young.

In Namibia, NDAWU was officially established in 1990. In the Namibian case, informing the workers of their rights again played an important role in unionization. Only a few years after its establishment, NDAWU succeeded in organizing as much as one-third of the domestic workers throughout the country. However, it could not overcome financial difficulties, as its members earn very little and cannot pay their dues regularly.


The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) established in India in 1971 is another remarkable organization in the informal sector. The SEWA has organized both self-employed women (part of the petty bourgeoisie) and wage-worker women (part of the working class). Despite its blurred class character, SEWA could succeed in developing a flexible sui generis structure with all its cooperatives, unions, financial programs, and organizational activities.

Other Countries

There are many other examples of informal sector organizing. The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines has tried to extend the social security system to the informal sector. Both Tanzanian and Colombian trade unions have shown interest in the informal sector, passing resolutions and developing action programs. In Burkina Faso, the National Organization of Free Trade Unions has organized both male and female self-employed workers. In Côte d’Ivoire, the National Union of Informal Sector Women has helped to develop cooperative activities for self-employed women.

Today, the number of homeworkers has been growing in all parts of the world and they constitute a difficult sector to organize. Nevertheless, there have been considerable efforts to organize them. Among the unions that have developed noteworthy action programs with considerable membership are the General and Municipal Workers’ Union (GMWU) in the United Kingdom; the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in Canada; the Union of Home-Based Dressmakers in the Federal District and State of Miranda (SINTRACOSDOMI) in Venezuela; the Independent Union of Home-Based Clothing and Allied Workers (SITODVA) in Uruguay; and the National Union of Clothing and Allied Workers in Argentina.

Turkey: A More Detailed Examination

Since I am from Turkey and am very familiar with the Turkish labor movement, I offer the following more detailed analysis of organizing informal sector workers.

In Turkey as elsewhere, it is ordinarily socialist activists who lead these sorts of struggle. However, among those who desire and fight for unionization are a wide range of workers with different political orientations. It is not uncommon for the antisocialist attitudes of the extreme nationalist and Islamicist workers to undergo a metamorphosis in the course of the struggle. Also, the more that intellectuals stress the need to organize the unorganized, the more systematically activists attempt to organize informal sector workers.

There are already signs of this trend. For instance, the growing interest of the Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey (DISK) in precarious employment became evident in the course of the 1990s. In October 1994, DISK started the “Do Not Work Uninsured” campaign. This campaign aimed to raise popular awareness of uninsured work and inform the workers of their legal rights. The campaign was waged in twenty-two cities for fifteen days. It gave priority to reaching workers in the textile, metallurgy, rubber, leather, tourism, office, and commercial sectors. During the campaign, placards were posted and leaflets were distributed in the worker districts and in industrial regions. DISK carried out a similar activity also after the enforcement of the new Social Security Act in 1999, and distributed insurance declaration forms to the workers.

Another project implemented by DISK was the formation of “worker houses.” This project was launched with the initiative of the trade union affiliated to DISK in the press sector. In 1996, two worker houses were established, one in Kartal and another in Ümraniye, working-class districts in Istanbul where socialists were once strong. The new worker houses were founded as trade union locals. The aim was to improve communication with unorganized workers and draw new members to the trade unions. Organizing in local communities enabled the cooperation of trade unions from different sectors and had the advantage of overcoming the legal restriction against unionizing across different branches of industry. The worker houses not only united the workers from different industries, but also received support from various democratic organizations. Shortly after their establishment, new contacts were made with non-unionized and uninsured workers. Unfortunately, in 1998, the state closed them on the grounds that there was no article in the trade union’s bylaws that would allow their establishment. However, as the worker houses tended to move beyond what the union leaders had envisioned, that is, beyond their control, DISK leadership remained reluctant to appeal the court’s decision. Nevertheless, today, the activists inspired by the experience of worker houses have started to establish worker commissions in the “people’s houses,” which are the democratic organizations in the neighborhoods.

The United Metal Workers’ Union, also affiliated with DISK, is another worker organization that carried out activities to unionize the workers in the informal sector. The Anatolian branch of the union attempted at least twice to organize workers employed by subcontractors. The first attempt took place in Ankara in 1986. It was in a company where the top management was supposedly sympathetic to the left. However, when they heard about the unionization activity of the workers, they straightaway established four subcontractor firms. By the time the union succeeded in gaining authorization for collective bargaining, the employer dismissed the workers and shifted production to a subcontractor with non-unionized workers. However, the union followed the employer to the subcontractors and tried to organize them. Originally, 200 workers were employed in the factory, but during the three-year struggle 1,000 workers became union members as a result of the dismissals and production shifts. Finally, the employer decided to close the factory and continue production in a different place. However, the metalworkers’ union’s decisiveness in organizing the unorganized workers continued. In 2000, an important event took place in the metal sector at a factory (Ditas) owned by a giant nationwide capital group, in the small town of Nigde, a place with little labor struggle experience. When the Anatolian branch of the union began to organize, the employer asked the wives of the foremen to establish firms that would function as subcontractors. After it had established eleven subcontractors, the employer registered the Ditas workers to these firms. Nevertheless, the union succeeded in organizing the majority of the workers and appealed to the Ministry of Labor to be authorized for collective bargaining in both Ditas and its affiliated subcontractors. Workers were fired the next day. The dismissals were followed by seven months of resistance during which the subcontractors disappeared from the scene. In August 2001, the workers won the struggle and started to work with wage increases. However, once again, the employer refused to negotiate and disregarded the official authorization given to the trade union. In July 2002, the workers went on strike. After eight months, the strike ended in success. The employer sat at the negotiation table and reached a compromise with the union.

There have been many other attempts, some successful, to organize informal sector workers, mainly workers in subcontractor firms, including workers at Sony subcontractors; warehouse workers in the southeast Turkish city of Gazientep (overcoming a perception among the workers that they were self-employed and therefore ineligible for union membership and social security insurance); leather workers laboring under inhumane conditions in Istanbul; temporary airline workers (who struck at the height of the tourist season); and workers in privatized spheres of the electric industry (in defiance of the labor laws which prohibit the mixing of workers and “civil servants”).

All of these examples indicate that struggles for organizing the unorganized sectors have started going beyond the traditional models of unionization in the formal sector. These cases also indicate that the workers do continue to struggle for survival.


It is clear that the neoliberal policies that have impoverished workers are not without contradictions. All over the world, workers are in a struggle for survival. They organize and resist the tendency of capital to divide them. And thanks to these struggles, the working class is beginning to dress its wounds.

For over a hundred years, trade unions have played a central role in defending and improving the interests of the working class. Worker organizations continue to assume important responsibilities for building a world in which human beings can live humanely. Indeed, their organizational experiences in the informal sector offer important clues and lessons for the future. The working class has never been a passive receptor of capital’s policies. On the contrary, it has preserved its ability to transform social, economic, and political relations. However, the strength and permanence of the struggle has always been closely related to the demands and forms of organization developed in the course of struggle.

If the unions cannot succeed in introducing effective measures against growing unemployment and precarious work, the workers’ movement will suffer a serious defeat. Just as capitalists undermine unionized workers in the formal sector with the threat of giving their jobs to the unorganized in the informal sector, they discipline all workers by threatening to replace them with the unemployed. It is clear that unless unions develop effective forms of struggle, they will sooner or later vanish from the scene of history. Yet, there is hope and it is growing stronger. If unions organize the unemployed and the informal sector workers, they can present a serious challenge to the anti-union current and start healing the wounds of the labor movement.

Selected References

Ronaldo Munck, The New International Labour Studies (London: Zed Books, 1988); Shauna L. Olney, Unions in a Changing World (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1996); Shankar Guha Niyogi, “Beyond Conventional Trade Unionism in India,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 3, no. 24 (1992); Illina Sen, “Women’s Participation in Trade Union Struggles,” Economic and Political Weekly 22, no. 27 (1987); Yong-Sook Lee, “Industrial Subcontracting and Labor Movement: The Korean Automotive Industry,” Journal of Contemporary Asia 23, no. 1 (1993); Margaret Hosmer Martens & Swasti Mitter, eds., Women in Trade Unions: Organizing the Unorganized (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1994); Maria Luz Vega Ruiz, Home Work: A Comparative Analysis of Legislation and Practice (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1996); Kalima Rose, Where Women are Leaders: The SEWA Movement in India (London: Zed Books, 1992); Ursula Huws, ed., Action Programmes for the Protection of Homeworkers (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1995); George Aryee, Promoting Productivity and Social Protection in the Urban Informal Sector (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1996); Nesecan Balkan and Sungar Savran, eds., The Ravages of Neo-Liberalism: Economy, Society and Gender in Turkey (New York: Nova Science Publishers, 2002). The SEWA Web site is

2005, Volume 57, Issue 01 (May)
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