Faced with the difficulty of organising in the informal sector, trade unions in the Democratic Republic of Congo are taking a step-by-step approach

Faced with the difficulty of organising in the informal sector, trade unions in the Democratic Republic of Congo are taking a step-by-step approach

Women sell vegetables at the central market of Virunga, Goma, eastern DRC. These workers operate in the informal sector, which accounts for an overwhelming share of the Congolese economy (between 81.5 and 97.5 per cent).

(Bernadette Vivuya)

Kettya Kamin Ket has a successful small business selling pagnes, traditional fabric, at the Liberté market in Kinshasa, located between the city centre and Ndjili International Airport. Today, she makes enough to provide for herself and can even afford to hire an employee. But this wasn’t always the case. A few years ago her business was faltering, not least because of tracasseries, the common practice of state agents extorting workers in the informal economy under the pretext of a new tax or imaginary offence. Municipal officials, for example, demanded that Ket pay twice the official amount for the licence she needed to operate.

Thousands of workers fall victim to such exploitation. In every neighbourhood of every city, people struggling to make a modest income are forced to stop their activities because of harassment by local officials. Such abuse of independent workers is commonplace in a country where, according to the World Bank, informal work represents 81.5 per cent of the economy. According to the Trade Union Confederation of Congo (CSC), that figure is 97.5 per cent.

Kettya Kamin Ket’s only option was to seek help. “I couldn’t manage on my own. Things changed when a trade union conducted an awareness-raising campaign in our neighbourhood,” she explains. Trade unionists from CSC were able to talk to some merchants at the Liberté market. Crammed together with buyers, sellers and goods in the muggy atmosphere of the giant covered market, it was an opportunity for the union activists to learn about the difficulties that these workers face. “Every time we visit we hear the same thing,” says Joséphine Shimbi Umba, head of the informal economy division of the CSC.

“These workers run the gamut from dressmakers to motorcycle taxi drivers, fabric sellers and food vendors, but they all have one thing in common: they work without an employment contract, in an unprotected environment. When it comes to health problems or accidents of any kind, they have no one to rely on but themselves.”

In response to the difficult situation these workers face, the CSC has set up a section dedicated to informal work. “We have to be realistic. We know that we won’t see all of these people protected by a work contract any time soon. In the meantime, we’re trying to address one problem at a time. By joining forces, we can find solutions to very real problems such as harassment and extortion by government officials. This is a real problem that prevents many Congolese people from making ends meet.”

Faced with the pervasiveness of this racket, the CSC turned to the authorities. Putting an end to this system of commonplace extortion won’t be easy, as it is rooted in the difficulties that civil servants face, including unpaid salaries. Without a large company behind them to bring these officials to task, informal sector workers are often the first victims.

Kettya Kamin Ket saw immediate changes after joining a trade union. “The harassment stopped. My situation is regularised, the agents know that, and they know that I know they have no business asking me for anything!” she says with a laugh. “Now they don’t bother me anymore. This has had very tangible results: I can work and provide for myself. Most importantly, I was able to save money to grow my business and I now have an employee.”

While the problem is difficult to address at its source, trade union action enables workers who are willing to organise to better assert their rights and thus improve their situations.

Trade union activists highlight these success stories when encouraging workers to join their ranks. “Making first contact isn’t always easy,” says Joséphine Shimbi Umba. “Informal workers are people who have started their own businesses, they’re used to organising things their own way. We don’t try to tell them how to do their job, we simply explain that when faced with problems, we are stronger together.” This is all the more important as the informal sector is made up of a high number of workers who left school relatively early and in any case lack the legal training necessary for dealing with abuses by authorities.

The support that the CSC provides is part of its efforts to establish a framework to monitor the implementation of ILO Recommendation 204. Adopted in 2015, this document encourages member states to facilitate the transition to a formal economy, a daunting task given the size of the country’s informal sector. However, the process has already resulted in some legal improvements, according to a Compendium of Practice published by the International Labour Office (the ILO’s permanent secretariat).

A functional economy to protect all workers

The CSC’s support does not stop at individual cases. With the state able to do little to support the development of independent economy activities, the CSC encourages workers to organise themselves into cooperatives.

“These structures offer several advantages,” says Jean Lowaka, head of cooperatives for the Fédération des Oeuvres et Coopératives du Mouvement Ouvrier Chrétien de la RDC (Federation of Works and Cooperatives of the Christian Workers’ Movement of the DRC, FOCOM) in Kinshasa. “In particular, we are addressing a major problem in a country where many workers live on a day’s earnings [and therefore have no savings to fall back on in case of hardships], essentially a seed money problem. Our cooperatives offer small loans that double the capital provided by the worker.”

Luc Mboyo Bongondo, a dressmaker in Kinshasa, was the recipient of one such loan. He was previously barely able to make ends meet and was unable to save enough money to open his own workshop. The Lisanga cooperative allowed him to benefit from its loan system, which doubles the contribution amount.

“With the help I received I was able to start my own business. The income I earn today allows me to properly provide for my family.”

“The cooperative also supported me by negotiating with the authorities to spread my tax payments over twelve months. If I had had to pay the full price of this tax [45,000 Congolese francs, about €20), I wouldn’t have been able to start my business,” he says, in his workshop in Kinshasa. Organising into cooperatives allows workers in the informal sector to increase their margins, which in turn helps to address one of the major challenges facing workers in the DRC: the lack of social protection. A simple illness, resulting in a few days without work and thus without income, can have a devastating short-and long-term impact on the lives of workers and their families. For example, lost income can hinder a family’s ability to send their children to school, thus depriving them of the opportunity to access education and quality employment.

In West Africa, projects have been set up to provide a basic degree of solidarity in the event of hardships. While this model is difficult to implement in the DRC due to the precarious situations that informal workers face, it nonetheless remains one of the CSC’s priorities. “This project is essential for us but at the moment we’re being held back by the fact that most workers in the informal sector are unable to generate sufficient income to contribute to such a system,” explains Shimbi Umba.

The work being done within the framework of the ILO Recommendation has led to the adoption of a law on health insurance funds. This represents an important first step, one that was welcomed by the International Labour Office.

While waiting for the difficult work of organising workers to result in the creation of a more secure social framework, the CSC is continuing its efforts to mobilise and take action on the ground. “We are achieving results that make a real difference in the lives of the people who have too often been neglected,” says Shimbi Umba.

However, the trade unions’ hard-fought advances must be adopted by the political authorities in order to be sustainable and, above all, to benefit a greater number of workers. The political and economic difficulties that the Congolese government and its administration face make this a distant prospect for the time being. But Shimbi Umba doesn’t let this discourage her. “Given the number of informal workers, this step-by-step policy is currently producing the most tangible improvements. Our challenge now is to convince more people to join together to protect their rights,” she says.

This article has been translated from French by Brandon Johnson

This article was produced with the support of the Belgian trade union ACV-CSC and the Directorate General for Belgian Development Cooperation.