Thursday, February 3, 2011

Trade unions and the informal economy; a critical analysis of informal workers organizing and the building of workers’ power

The proportion of the workforce in formal employment which had never been very significant in Nigeria has further declined in the past three decades, starting from the period of the Bretton Woods Institutions-inspired Structural Adjustment Programme, with consequent expansion of workers within orbits of informal labour and employment relations. This paper considers how informal workers have been and are being organized; situating this within the broader picture of the problems and prospects these pose for envisioning and broadening the capacities of workers in their struggle(s) for better working conditions and a better society.
The informal economy has been dominant in Nigeria since the late 19th century advent of capitalism and introduction of modern work forms in the country. The process of post-traditional urbanization which commenced from the beginning of the 20th century took on added steam in post-colonial Nigeria, particularly from the period of structural adjustment in the mid-1980s, leading to an ever-expanding urban informal economy. The bulk of workers in this vast swat of the country’s economy do however remain largely faceless and voiceless. Despite this, in several ways, informal work relations and social conditions have become major sites of contestations of power, at the micro- and macro- levels. This paper is concerned with examining how different modes of organising and organisation outside formal employment have been and/or could be contributory to this phenomenon and the building of the power of workers as a class in the country.
Representational authority and institutional power are considered as key variables in building workers’ power within social work relations and for negotiating economic (and political) reforms, in the broader economy and polity. Solidarity, binding workers across formal and informal, geographic or (industrial) sectoral boundaries is considered key in conceptualising such combinational power of different organisations of workers as the basis of capacity of workers’ power that could win and defend thorough-going reforms and possibly transformation of the politico-legal structure of the country. The: self-organizing dimensions of informal workers on craft/artisanship basis; (formal sector) trade union organized structures for informal workers organizing and; the more recent organizing of informal workers organizations as a “centre”, are considered as overlapping, partial dimensions of the nexus between organizing and the building of workers’ power within and beyond the informal economy.

Theoretical point of departure

The authoritative Women in Informal Economy Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) network on its website describes theories on informality as being located in three clusters: dualist; structuralist and; il/legalist. Kate Meagher (2008), a leading scholar on informalization in Nigeria captures these as: traditional; neoliberal and structuralist. The legalist approach of De Soto and the illegalist views best expressed by Maloney, being the dominant neoliberal theories of informality innocuously limit the challenges of the formal sector-informal economy divide to the informal economy’s entrepreneurs’ avoidance of taxation and the red-tape of regulatory processes . This approach and its latent dualist crux would be critiqued as being inadequate, and utopian.
The structuralist theory which this paper utilizes on informality is however to be distinguished from the historical institutionalist structuralism of Kate Meagher (1993; 2005; 2008) for example, which leads to a location of the epicentre of informal economy combinations in extra-workplace social networks. This paper with its focus on organising and empowerment builds on established conceptual interstices across the domains of informality and movement theories, both of which it tries to bridge, with its historicist labour process-based structuralism, drawing from the perspective of Frundt (2005) where “structural theory focuses on class-based movements”. The empowerment of informal economy workers for decent work emerging from the process of organising and forms of organisation is engaged as part of the challenge to the establishment of the socioeconomic status quo by the excluded subaltern producers in informal employment relations.
The paper’s point of departure thus situates the informal economy as being largely constituted by the “industrial reserve army” of the working class and its expansion as emerging from the neoliberal strategy of formal sector “lean and mean” restructuring. Possible generating mechanisms for empowering organisational forms of informal economy workers’ organisations are sought in embedded political opportunity structures rooted in the working class resistance to neoliberal globalization’s attacks and the environmental contingencies which include the ILO Decent Work Agenda and the opening up of policy-formulation space by the state, albeit limitedly, with democratisation.

The concept of “marginality” developed by Quijano, is central to situating producers in the informal economy as workers who are marginal to the technical division of production , but by the same token play a key role in the social reproduction of the capitalist system. Organising informal economy workers thus serves not just to get a set of workers, albeit within the particularly distinguishing character of informality of employment relations, organised. It could amount to a process of safeguarding the improvement of working conditions and wages of workers as a whole, or at the very least contribute to such dynamics especially where and when it is part of a broader organizing drive for building workers organizations across the boundaries of sectors and tiers of work.
Specificities of industry and geography have to be taken into cognisance in analysing the impact of organising types. The historical evolution of workers organizations as part of a totality of the socio-economic development of a society which is influenced by and influences it is of cause central to appreciating why certain form(s) of informal organizational forms might be more predominant than another at particular points in time. The challenge of conventional wisdom which the on-going efforts at forming an “informal workers’ organisation” centre in Nigeria reflects has to be interrogated through the lens of national and global struggles of sections and segments of the working class for decent work and qualitative life. A dialectical assessment of conflicts and consensus, dialogue and confrontation would be instrumental to tracing the historicity of informal sector organising in Nigeria, for subsequent broader work on the subject.
In summation as its conceptual point of departure, using structuralist theory rooted in a historical materialist approach, this paper seeks to unveil the underlying class dynamics within the informal economy in its relation to the broader mechanisms of capitalist social reproduction and how within this, informal economy organisations of workers emerge and struggle for better working conditions and life. Possible propulsion or constraints that the forms of organisation and organising could engender would similarly be interrogated.

The changing world of work, and informalization

The National Development Plans of the 1960s/70s fashioned in the post-War Keynesian/Fordist order during which Import Substitution Strategy was in vogue for developing and less developing countries seeking to lift themselves by the bootstraps with trappings of developmental states saw to appreciable increases in formal sector employment as industrialization was given priority, even if the extent of such was limited.
Typical trade unions expanded, as the primary organs for the defense of workers rights and interests within both the industrial relations system and the broader polity. Neoliberal globalisation, which has, however supplanted this era of class compromise over the last three decades, has been marked by a restructuring of work processes involving the flexibilization of labour. This has resulted in the preponderance of informal employment relations and the expansion of a heterogeneous informal economy with increasing precarity of work and worker insecurity, particularly in the Global South, where it has contributed to a worsening of the crises of development Munck (2002).
The consequent decline in the quantity, quality and meaning of work engendered by this new “great transformation” and its attendant sharpening of inequality in society resulted in several moments of the Polanyian double movement’s second note of concern for safeguarding labour and indeed social cohesion against capital’s rampaging logic of a free market utopia. A first major moment of this was in 1998 – 1999 with the ILO’s Declaration of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and launching of the Decent Work concept the following year Somavia (2007: 5).
The Decent Work concept initiated by the ILO in 1999 somewhat represents concerted efforts at counter-balancing the excessive trans-national power of (footloose) capital. It incorporates 4 strategic objectives: 1) the principles and rights at work; 2) the central focus on job creation as a political mandate; 3) social protection as an ethical mandate of the ILO which should be considered as part of a more complex vision of socio-economic protection, or in other words, the denominated “people’s security”, and; 4) tripartism and social dialogue . The 2002 International Conference’s report on Decent Work and the informal economy identified six key securities the lack or inadequacy of which amounts to decent work deficit, represented a major deepening of the Decent Work concept, particularly with respect to workers in informal labour relations. These are: labour market security; employment security; work security; job security; income security and; representational security . Representational security, being the protection of the collective voice of the worker, is critical to, envisioning the enthronement of the core social democratic objectives of the ILO, as stated above, and having the capacity to pursue it within the context of social dialogue.
At the heart of representational security are combinations: informal economy organisations of workers, representing their interests as workers at national, sub-national and enterprise levels. Concern for how forms of organisation empower workers’ within informal labour relations by strengthening their collective representational capacities, can not be overemphasized. Indeed it could be argued that a major reason for the greater deficits of the other five securities in the informal sector is to be found in the near total lack of the representational security of informal workers within the structures, processes and regimes of labour relations in the country. This undermines not only the power of informal workers and their unions but indeed working class power as a whole, especially with the depletion of the formal sector workforce, particularly those in the secondary sector.
The relationship between the informal economy and the world of work in its largely formal sector conception of the industrial relations system is not a simplistic one of merely the expansion of the former as a result of the restructuring and consequent depletion of the latter. The informal economy itself is being greatly transformed, and while it had always had diverse contours, the process of informalization itself being a key dynamic within the logic of neoliberal globalization, throws up even greater heterogeneity within the informal economy . This situation which is more visible in capitalist development in the periphery of the “globalization” train, though not limited to the “developing world”, has consequences on the range of possible forms of organizing informal workers.
Through a critical analysis of different forms of informal economy workers organisation, continuities and ruptures with categories of “workers” and “trades unions” could as well be distilled; sharpening theoretical conceptualization of the changing structure of the working class in general, in relation to the contemporary technical and social divisions of labour, building on a broad conceptualisation of the “working class” and a wider understanding of class struggles Bieler et al (2008: 1, 6 & 7) which interrogates the tensions between social reproduction and transformation. Possible best practice approaches to organising workers in the informal economy, particularly in Nigeria could thus be envisaged, while noting that these can not be cast in stone, and that these different forms overlap and are intertwined, reflecting the very heterogeneity and complexity of the informal economy. This paper can thus at best, present an introductory challenge towards a more detailed comparative study of such, due to the limitations of space and time, at this juncture.
A rigorous investigation of organisational forms and processes that facilitate or impede the empowerment of workers in informal relations in a developing country like Nigeria, where some three quarters of the population are in the informal economy, would contribute to theory and practices which privilege participatory and emancipatory developmental paths, moving beyond the one-size-fits-all approach that has thus far been dominant in the developmental debate of the (Post-)Washington Consensus periods.

Informality and organizing; a broad overview

It could be argued that there have been two broad waves of literature and praxis around the question of informality and organization. The first commenced in 1971, on the eve of the neoliberal counter-revolution. That year, in India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association branched out of the Textile Labour Association with the initial support of that union and Hart conducted his path-breaking studies for the ILO in Ghana which gave birth to the term “informal sector” as against the earlier traditional versus modern sector paradigm for understanding patterns of economic organisation in developing countries .
Discourse centred on interpreting the “urban informal sector” deepened in the decades of neoliberal globalization as shift to services in the metropoles and worsening under-industrialization at the fringes of the periphery put informality in a position of centrality within the global restructuring of work processes and the international division of labour. The socio-economic phenomenon of informality was severally conceptualised as: an irregular economy, Ferman and Ferman (1973); a subterranean economy, Gutmann (1977) and; an underground economy, Simon and Whitte 1(982). A common denominator of these interpretations was their view of the phenomenon of informality as being temporal, unregulated activities by enterprises on the margins of capitalist development which “would tend to be absorbed by the modern economy”, Beniria and Floro (2003: 3). Rooted in a dualist perspective that saw the challenge informality presented as just the creation of more jobs in the formal sector, concern for forms of informal economy organisation was hardly on the discursive radar.
Contestation with the dominant traditional view cropped up early in the 1980s . McChrohan and Smith (1986) further propositioned the informal economy as an interpretation, laying the basis for a re-conceptualization that would influence the adoption of this formulation which expanded the conception of informality beyond enterprises into the broad gamut of employment relations by the International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 1993. The new view of informality grasped the permanent nature of the phenomenon, realized its multifarious linkages with the formal sector and its own heterogeneity. Chen et al (2004) provide an excellent perspective on the evolution and differentiation of informality conceptions.
The dominance of the new view of informality which accepts its permanence and the seeping out of membership from trade unions grounded in the formal sector into the informal economy served to bring attention to bear on “informalization and the crisis of representation” according to Webster (2007). There have been different approaches propounded on how to address this identified crisis. The thrust of each of these has been largely hinged on the role it ascribes to the (subaltern) producers and service providers in the informal economy within the social relations of production.
Some authors, such as Gibson and Kelley (1994) aver that they are “neither capitalists nor workers but rather constitute a distinct social class”. Others disaggregate the producers into employers, own-account owners and workers while stressing the continuum these fall into as against quantum separations, Chen (op cit), while others assert that the concept of working class does need to be re-conceptualized to include even some self-employed category of producers in the informal economy . All the three perspectives do however seem to be in agreement that informal economy organisation would not only assure informal economy producers some extent of representational security, but would be in the overall collective interest of labour.
There are two broad means of thus organising the informal economy, generally and for our specific concern here, in Nigeria. These include producers in that “sector” being organised by a trade union or alternatively through independent self-organising as expatiated by Pam Sha (2007). Understanding how each of these two approaches could contribute to empowering informal economy producers and the working class and also the constraints they could confront provides a crucial thread for grasping the tensions and possibilities between informal workers organizing and the building of workers’ power.
Sanyal (1991) in stressing informal economy operators’ distrust of governments, parties and organised labour explicitly expresses the view that they should not join traditional unions, but set up their own structures. Pat Horn (2007) however shows that in recent times trade unions have taken up the challenge of organising in the informal economy as a defensive strategy in the face of declining membership. This does seem to be the case with the organising of garment workers by the textile and garment workers’ union in Nigeria. The textile sector that had provided employment for over 350,000 persons in the early 1980s had barely 100,000 wage workers by the late 1990s as Andrae and Beckman (1999: 68 - 69) point out while noting the strong working class identity of those thus thrown into the informal economy from the textile sector. They were to be the initial core of the successes of T&GWU organising in the informal economy.
The auto-repair sub-sector has a rich pedigree of self-organisation, expressing the second main form of organizing in the informal economy. In Nigeria, “the first evidence of a trade union was the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Provident and Mutual Improvement Association, formed in July 1883” . The current incarnation of the mechanics union is the National Automobile Technicians’ Association (NATA). It was formed in 1962 and actually was considered as any other trade union until the re-structuring of unions, supposedly along industrial lines by the Federal Military Government in 1976-78 . It is now the driving force behind the newly established Federation of Informal Workers’ organizations of Nigeria .

Workers’ power, political opportunity and the organizing model
Men and women, as individuals and more especially as social classes and groups make history, but do so within contextual circumstances which are not of their making and which constrain or engender the forms and contents of their actions. All social actors, in being able to control or influence their system within which they act, do have some form or extent of power. Power is thus relational as well as associative with regards to social actors. The concern of this section, leading to the next is to identify linkages between workers’ power, conjunctures and opportunity structures and the forms of organization and organizing of informal workers in Nigeria. In doing this, we project to consider challenges that have to be prefigured in furthering the building of workers’ power through the deepening of informal workers organizing
There is today such sharp focus on informality that informal workers organizing would seem something novel. On the contrary as pointed out earlier with reference to Fashoyin, indeed, the first trade union in Nigeria, the Mechanics’ Mutual Aid Provident and Mutual Improvement Association, was a combination of workers in what we now describe as the informal economy. Similarly, the carpenters strike action was one of the earliest in the country. Further, as also pointed out earlier, the National Automobile Technicians association was formed in 1962, a decade and a half before the restructuring that gave birth to most of the present trade unions in the country. Several associations of artisans and other workers in the informal economy have as well been built in the last half a century of the country’s Independence, but mainly on localized basis. The bold step of a federative form of informal workers organization does however represent a new organizational form, which overlaps with the continued myriad of forms such as: the localized networks of informal workers/small-scale owners associations; informal workers organizing by the formal trade unions; pan-national independent informal workers association and; the affiliation of informal workers associations within trade union federations.
There are both practical-political and theoretical-ideological bases for this seeming newness of informal economy organizing. On one hand the impact of the re-ordering of work relations and its consequences on formal sector unionism which now rises to these challenges on the one has led the trade union movement back to its social movement organizing beginnings, albeit as with all new beginnings, with noticeable differences from its humble beginnings being in this case the trade clubs of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. In this case, such new elements of the return to the organizing model is the prime place it accords to mobilizing not just the trade union movement and the working class but diverse civil society organisations at local, national and transnational levels. On the other hand the overcoming of the ideological blinkers of “modern” versus “traditional” sectors with the theorization of the “informal sector” starting, so to speak, with Hart’s 1973 essay. This has allowed for more in-depth engagement with the characterization of the informal economy producers, as well as of informality within the formal sector.
The application of social movement theory has been focussed more on new social movements, situated in the broader civil society and which are more political than economic. While combinations of workers, no matter how non-partisan or strictly economistic are, or do have an element of the political in them at least in curtailing the unilateral power of employers or some institutions/authorities of the state or the other, unions, be they in the formal sector or informal economy are primarily economic concerned fundamentally with improving the welfare of their members in the production and distribution processes. The new social movements such as those for; environmental justice, gender equality and women rights, civil liberties and pro-democracy are concerned more with the strictly political sphere. The spotlight of analysis bridging organizational studies (OS) and social movement theory (SMT) has thus focussed more on, as McAdam and Scott (2005: 5) put it: “the importance of organizations and the organizing process” in relation to informal networks of activists.
This does leave gaps in the SMT in relation to furthering the development of workers power in general, which Frundt (Op cit) for example tries to bridge in application to transnational workers activism. Its application to the informal economy is however apt and needs more theoretical and empirical studies towards properly situating how organization and organizing of informal workers contributes to the forging of greater workers’ power.
A key element of the application of SMT to the forms of informal workers organization and the building of workers’ power can be gleaned from how changes in the ideology and institutional structures by such (more) powerful political actors as the state creates political opportunity structures for the emergence or development of “insurgent” platforms .
The seizing of these political opportunity structures and conjunctures by organizers of and in the informal economy has been greatly influenced by the presence of pre-existing political and organizational infrastructure even, where they have assumed new organizational forms. Where a synergetic forging of collective action frames with such infrastructure which in the case of Nigeria includes the efforts of some formal sector trade unions and the forging of labour-civil society networks, in organizing the informal economy producers, workers’ power is enhanced within society as a whole, to the benefit of working people in both the formal and informal sectors of economic activities.

Informal workers organization and organizing trends in Nigeria
The trajectory of the development of dependent capitalism in Nigeria made it inevitable that the earliest evidence of trade unionism would appear within informal labour relations and then the public service, before the formal industrial sector. Industrializing the country was never the intent of the British overlords after the cessation of the slave trade. The forms which legitimate trade then took with minimal administrative presence could not but have seen to the blossoming of artisans before a proletarian working class was born. Resistance being born by exploitation, combinations such as those of the mechanics, casual workers in the Public Works Department, carpenters on temporary or more permanent basis became the nucleus of the earliest expressions of trade unionism in the country.
The recognition of the Nigeria Civil Service Union, established in 1912, as the first trade union, reflects the bias against considering combinations of non-formal workers as trade unions. Such bias is entrenched by the conception of the “industrial relations system” being composed of 3-actors i.e. the state; workers/trade unions and; employers/employers association, which John Dunlop’s ground-breaking work instituted. Related to this is the prime place of “collective bargaining” as a, if not the, pivotal element within industrial relations practice, particularly as it relates to social dialogue. In the informal economy, where the worker might as well be the owner or an apprentice, how does collective bargaining take place? Can “consultation” be anything but a poor substitute to “collective agreements”? Between which actors could collective bargaining be deemed possible? How do “workers” in the informal economy and their organizations fit into the Dunlopian 3-actors characterization of the industrial relations system without clear cut employers and employers’ associations? Ultimately this leads back to questionable assertion of Gibson and Kelly (Op cit) that producers in the informal economy are “neither capitalists nor workers but rather constitute a distinct social class”.
It is instructive though that in the period between the Trade Union Ordinance and the 1976-78 restructuring of trade unions, a number of “house unions” were actually organizations of producers in the informal economy or casual/daily paid workers in informal labour relations. A good example once again is NATA which was affiliated to the Nigeria Trade Unions Council.
This was possible due to a number of reasons. But undoubtedly one of this was the political opportunity established with the Trade Union ordinance’s baseline of five members for the formation of a trade union and the independence of workers themselves to form their unions. The restructuring by the military in the mid-70s robbed associative workers outside the formal sector (and indeed some within it) of being deemed as being unions. Interestingly though, road transport workers, the bulk of who work within informal labour relations were however constituted as one of the unions established by the instrument of DN 22 of 1977. The political significance of road transport workers, as aptly demonstrated from the 2nd Republic, and the strategic place of road transport might explain this, especially when the incorporationist intent of the restructuring was had been made clear with the new labour policy that had preceded it.

Informal workers organizations from the 1980s took a number of forms (some continuous with forms before this period); all geared more at mutual-aid purposes than “collective bargaining”. These organizations particularly those of artisans had as their backbone, the guild system. Apprentices after tutelage would “graduate” or gain their “freedom” and then join the association properly, by first presenting gifts to the “master” and the association, after which s/he then starts attending the (usually) monthly meetings.
These associations set standards of workmanship and prices for their services. Examples are those of barbers, beauticians, tailors, automobile technicians and air conditioner /refrigerator technicians. The associations which are often locally based with networks between several locals, but which hardly extend beyond the state level, would wade in when a member has work-related problems with the authorities or a customer. Monies from the collective till could be used for such purpose. A number also operated cooperatives of some sort or the other, such that a member in need of money for work-related (and even possibly more personal) purposes could be borrowed from the association’s purse, possibly with an interest rate which is however low.
It could be argued and rightly so, that, such members saw themselves not as workers, but as (aspiring) property owners or entrepreneurs. Not surprisingly, during the reforms of the period of the Structural Adjustment Programme which the General Ibrahim Babangida regime introduced in 1986, at local levels, a lot of these associations collaborated with such institutions as the Peoples Bank towards winning credit access for members. The intent of the state was to build networks of “small and medium scale” entrepreneurs and “industrialists” and not to constitute informal economy producers as working class combinations.
SAP however laid the basis for endogenous challenge of the forms and directions of informal workers organizations. With the avalanche of retrenchments in the formal sector, workers hitherto within formal labour relations were thrown into the informal economy, in their hundreds of thousands. Nmadu (2008) reports that, in the textile industry alone, the workforce declined from 350,000 in the early 1980s to 100,000 by 1995 and by 2004 was a mere 50,000.
Amongst the new entrants to the informal economy were workers who had been active as members of the union while in formal employment. Andrae and Beckman (Op cit) for example note that such activists from the National Union of Textiles Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria constituted an important element in the organizing of informal economy tailors by the union. Organizational bridges built by formal sector trade unions with the informal economy thus emerged as a new form of informal economy workers combination.
In a few instances, the formal sector union actually constitutes such informal economy union or does at least urge its establishment. A possible example of this is that of the National Union of Construction Civil Engineering Furniture and Wood Workers. In Ondo state, it played a key role in the establishment of masons and carpenters associations which have associative relations with it. Similar success was made in Warri by the union. NUCCEFWW occupies a particularly important place in understanding informal-formal workers relations. With the nature of the construction industry’s work being seasonal, its membership strength cannot but continually fluctuate, with declines during the rainy season when construction work go on at a much slower pace. In helping some of its members to establish informal workers organizations, it does help them to be able to tide through the rainy day as well.
The case of the textile industry earlier pointed out is slightly different. Its informal economy organizations comprise workers who had been in the industry but who do not return at any season as they have been retrenched and as well a large proportion of tailors who have never been in formal employment. These organizations of tailors are in a sense independent as well as localized. They are however at the same time units of the union, participating actively within structures of the union in their zones. The most successful efforts of the union have been in its Aba zone.
In both unions, the members in these organizations pay to the association, which pays a flat rate on behalf of each member to the union. Subscription is thus not as with the check-off system which in which a set percentage of each members remuneration is paid as subscription dues, based on the non-wage system predominant amongst them .
The Agricultural and Allied Employees’ Union of Nigeria is also a union with much opportunity for establishing such bridge organizations. It also has passed resolutions to the effect of doing this.
The expansion of informal work relations within the formal sector has led to the expansion of yet another form of organizing and organization of informal workers, represented most aptly by the Fitters Union and the Welders Association, both of which are relatively new combinations operating in both the informal economy and within the formal sector. The two unions affiliated directly to the Nigeria Labour Congress in 2007. They are also both affiliates of the newly formed FIWON. While they started as associations of owner-workers in the informal economy, the sub-contracting of the work their members do, particularly within the oil and gas industry has led to their having footholds in such formal sector establishments. The Welders Association has also challenged the management of the Calabar Free Trade Zone for the right to organize welders’ there, leading at a point in time to its activists arrest at the EPZ. While both aspire to being national unions though, there strongholds are still limited to the South-South parts of the country. There affiliation with NLC does however represent the undoing of the deed of DN 22 and 21’s strait-jacketing which the Trade Union (Amendment) Act 2005, unwittingly did. This reflects once again the creation of political opportunity for a change in the collective action frame of the working class, with institutional changes wrought by the state.
NATA is probably the most successful informal economy organization in the sense of being independent and having a pan-national membership base. It had intended to affiliate to the NLC, but for a number of reasons this did not work out. It then became the rallying force for the establishment of FIWON. The association is organized around a national secretariat based in Lagos with councils in all states of the federation and branches of these spread across the different localities with mechanics workshops. Its structures have been very active in NLC/TUC/LASCO struggles and in some states of the federation have been much more involved in building the Labour Party than NLC structures have been.

Problems and prospects for informal workers organizing and the building of workers’ power

The various forms of informal workers organization described as trends above, overlap in the present scenario in Nigeria. The question to ask at this point in the paper would not be which is most apt. The heterogeneity of both the informal economy and the evolution of organizing modes in different sections of the informal economy as a whole, make such a mute concern. The challenge one might say, is how the different rivulets of organizations could through organizing in the informal economy and between the informal economy and the formal sector, be brought together into an ocean of workers’ power. Such would entail amongst other things being able to win greater representative security for workers in the informal economy and pushing the decent work agenda within it as well.
FIWON would play a central role in this. A problem of representational security does however face FIWON itself. Since by the labour laws of the country its members can not be considered as constituting trade unions, it can not be registered by the Registrar of Trade Unions. The Corporate Affairs Commission which it has approached for registration has placed obstacles before it, including that of having to change its name. Intense organizing which place the issue of the welfare of the members of its affiliates at the front burner of public discourse would however to a great extent, with time, lead to overcoming such challenges and winning a voice for informal workers.

The Nigeria Labour Congress and its affiliate unions would as well have to redefine their relations with workers in the informal sector from a perspective that takes organizing the informal economy producers from a defensive point of view. A major step in this direction would be the bringing of FIWON as a body into the Labour Civil Society Coalition (LASCO) which is presently organized as a tripod comprising Nigeria Labour Congress, Trade Union Congress and the Joint Action Forum representing radical civil society.
The forging of international relations with similar informal economy organizations in other nations and those that are transnational such as Streetnet International would be of immense value for meeting the ends of building workers power, in organizing informal economy workers.
The contentious nature of employment relations which confront informal economy workers is a major problem that would have to be frontally challenged. Limiting the form of inter-collective relations which informal economy workers have with those in power to consultation might deepen representational security and in a sense consolidate workers power. It however still leaves it relatively hollow and with vast residual powers outside the hands of the workers concerned.
Christine Bonner (2006) drawing from experiences in various countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America presents a broad spectrum of how this major challenge could be confronted. These include: using labour law procedures; applying the law of natural justice; negotiating “private” dispute procedures; adapting common procedures for informal workers &; using the law to resolve disputes. Creative use of these means could greatly alter the forms and dynamics of labour relations in the informal economy, further the expansion of the decent work and greatly deepen workers power in the country. Through these social dialogue would be fostered and qualitative democratization promoted in the country.


The paper has tried to examine the relations between trade unions and the organizing of informal workers, utilizing an historical-structuralist theoretical framework, situated within the radical school of industrial relations. In doing this it considers how different forms of informal workers organization have emerged and their overlapping intersections. A broad overview of informality and organizing was presented towards putting these in proper perspectives. It then attempted to engage with possible problems and prospects in the pathways of efforts at organizing marginal workers within informal employment relations in the country.
In summation, it has to be stressed that in as much as informality does seem to have come to stay thus requiring its being of both theoretical and practical significance for labour and employment relations scholars and practitioners concerned with building workers power; workers in the informal economy can not play the central role. The mainstream base of working class power, the industrial proletariat, or workers within the core activities sphere of the formal sector, however, can not singularly wield workers’ power (particularly in peripheral countries like Nigeria) without informal workers, in the larger society. And even within the workplace, the industrial proletariat’s associative power would be greatly hampered, without organizing and building strong organizations of workers within informal labour and employment relations.

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