Regulated working time is a must for all workers, especially those in the informal economy

Recently, on May Day, we remembered the fallen heroes of the 1886 Chicago strike where workers demanded an eight-hour working day. We also celebrated the subsequent hard-won victories of employed workers in the regulation of hours of work. It is no accident that the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919, was the very first ILO instrument to be adopted. It is also no accident that the ILO has adopted a myriad of further Conventions regulating working time – including on hours of work, rest periods, night work and annual holidays. After all, working time (and by implication leisure and rest time) is at the heart not only of decent work, but of a decent life.

In compliance with many of the ILO Conventions regulating working time, almost 80 per cent of countries around the world have legislative provisions applying some kind of maximum limit on weekly working hours, including overtime. And 97 per cent of countries enshrine the right to a minimum period of paid annual leave in their legislation.

All sounds great, doesn’t it? But here’s the rub: the regulation of working time applies to less than half of all workers worldwide. The reason is that, without almost without exception, the regulation of working time applies only to workers with an identified and regular employer. Independent contractors – which is a growing category of workers and is usually a form of disguised employment – are excluded. Casual workers, also a growing category of workers, are excluded from many laws and regulations, as are many part-time workers.

Sub-contracted workers often fall through the working time regulatory net not so much because the law doesn’t apply to them, but because employer is often elusive, and enforcement is a challenge. The fragmentation of employment relationships under neoliberalism therefore means that for employed workers the struggle for regulated working time is far from over.

Over and above this, there is an additional and very large constituency of workers that is invisible to many. Many of the employed workers referred to above can be defined as informal workers. Added together with self-employed workers, they constitute 61 per cent of all workers worldwide. That is a staggering two billion workers whose working time is not regulated in any way.

According to the third edition of the ILO report Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture, in Africa 86 per cent of all workers are informal, in the Americas 54 per cent, in the Arab States 69 per cent, in the Asia-Pacific region 71 per cent and in Europe and Central Asia 37 per cent. No region of the world, and no country, whether developed or not, escapes the phenomenon of informal employment. These workers make a significant contribution to the GDPs of most countries. According to ILO research from 2002, for example, Ghana’s informal enterprises contributed to 58 per cent of the GDP, and in Zambia they contributed 24 per cent.

This significant contribution to national economies is, however, at the expense of the health and welfare of most informal workers, who have little or no time to rest, for recreation, or for social engagement, including with their own families. In developing countries where social protection in the form of free or subsidised child care, care of the elderly, and social pensions is limited or absent, the burdens carried by informal workers are exacerbated. Informal workers are compelled to work longer and longer hours without rest in order to generate sufficient income to cover care costs and savings towards old age.

The cycle of unfettered working time is in this way perpetual for informal workers, particularly for those living in developing countries. It is not a ‘choice’ to work long hours, with no breaks and no vacation time. For most informal workers it is inescapable. It is not a problem that can be self-regulated.

Two-pronged approach

So, what then is the answer to the challenge of unsocial working time for informal workers?

WIEGO, a global network of membership-based organisations of informal workers as well as researchers and development practitioners advocates for a combination of interventions which could produce conditions of more social working time for informal workers, including self employed workers.

We argue for a two-pronged approach. First, we argue that social protection should be enjoyed by all workers, regardless of status of employment. Self-employed workers should have the same pension rights and provisions as employed workers.

They should be able to access income relief when they are sick or lose their livelihood for any reason. Income relief should exist for those who need to take parental or family responsibility time off work – including maternity. And access to free pre-school child care as well as free elderly care is critical if the cycle of excessive working time for informal workers is to be broken. WIEGO has a programme of research and advocacy that focuses on social protection, including a global campaign for universal access to quality public childcare services.

The second leg of WIEGO’s advocacy and organising support to create the conditions where the working time of informal workers is more social, is infrastructure. Most informal workers, but particularly sub-contracted informal workers who work from their homes as well as self-employed workers, rely on some or all of the following infrastructure to sustain their livelihoods: running water, electricity, storage space, working space, and public transport.

If the infrastructure that informal workers rely on is inadequate, unreliable and/or too expensive, this impacts directly on their livelihoods in general and on their working time in particular.

WIEGO therefore works with its member organisations of informal workers to develop demands and negotiating platforms, particularly with local municipal authorities, in order to create the infrastructural conditions, which make decent livelihoods (including social working time) possible. In this respect, collective bargaining is not the exclusive domain of the traditional employer-employee relationship.

In 2018, 132 years since the Chicago working time strike which gave rise to the universally celebrated May Day, WIEGO appeals to trade union members worldwide to join hands with the informal workers of the world, including the self-employed, to make social working time a reality for all workers.