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Workers' organization in the informal sector

Final Report Summary - INFOWORK (Workers' organization in the informal sector)

Final report

There is an increasing separation between the reality of work and employment worldwide and academic studies of this. In a context in which precariousness and informalization of working conditions and the dismantling of the welfare states are becoming the pivots around which capital accumulation relies, studies in the fields of industrial relations and the sociology of work remain attached to the idea of a regulated and orderly system of employment relations. In terms of workers’ representation, trade unions continue to be the reference point for research, despite their worldwide decline. Starting from this evident discrepancy between social reality and academic and political interpretation of it, the research underpinning this project has aimed to study the organizational processes of precarious sector workers, by focusing on the city of Buenos Aires, a paradigmatic example of the informalised employment pattern of the global cities. How does, a group of unprotected, unorganised and, often, for the nature of their work, geographically dispersed workers build collective organization? What resources are available to them? What conditions can favour their association? How does the socio-political and institutional context play in shaping the forms and timing of precarious workers’organisations?

Considering these aims, in the project three interrelated objectives/activities have been set and implemented.

• Theoretical objectives and activities
This first activity has concerned an investigation into theoretical approaches to labour and labour relations from interrelated disciplines and a reflection on how these could be integrated and used to account for the cases analysed. This activity has, on the one hand, provided the basis for the empirical part of the project, helping to frame the research questions, and, on the other hand, has led to the publication of an edited book ‘Workers and Labour in a Globalised Capitalism: theoretical issues and current perspectives’. This book, that has been published in December 2013 by Palgrave as a research based textbook in the prestigious Management, Work and Organisation Series, represents one of the first attempts to nurture the field of industrial relations with theoretical insights coming from interrelated disciplines. Studies on global labour history, on the role of women in the work of social reproduction and social anthropologists studies on work and value, for instance, criticizing the traditional focus of the labour relation literature on the waged and formally employed workers, all converge on the view of enlarging and broadening the subject of study of labour relations to categories of workers traditionally excluded (Further details of the book can be found at Following these lines of inquire, a call for paper in the journal Working USA and conference streams have been organized,;

A second leg of theoretical investigation has concerned the relation between class, agency and resistance in the global cities. Recent research by labour geographers, the work of David Harvey on the Right to the City and his study of urban social relations in Paris and Saskia Sassen’s theses on the global cities pose fundamental questions in terms of the relations structuring the urban with the social and the economic with the employment patterns.

Empirical objectives and activities
Data have been collected in two stages. In the first, using ethnographic techniques, two organisations have been studied, SIMECA (mail and small goods delivery service) and UTRA (technical staff involved in shows and events). In the second stage of fieldwork the main aim was to enlarge the sample of cases of organizations of precarious workers in order to generate insights into the different forms of precariousness and workers’ opposition to it. Data have been collected on 12 organizations in different sectors of activity and across the formal/informal divide (fishing, textile and agricultural industry; public sector, subcontracted service and professional work). Fieldwork results have been presented at various conferences, including Work, Employment and Society Conference (Warwick Sept. 2013), Latinamerican association of labour studies (San Pablo July 2013) and International Sociological Association World Congress (Yokohama July 2014). Articles based on these conference papers will be published in the journals Labor History and Advances in Industrial Relations.

Impact and social relevance

Throughout the project opportunities have been promoted to disseminate results of the research to a non academic audience. Within this, the following activities can be outlined:

➢ Co-operation with the International Transport Federation’s/Global Labour Institute, in the project 'Informal transport workers organising' in developing countries’ (2015-ongoing)
➢ Think piece article ‘Alternative work for alternative societies’, for UNDP 2015 Human Development Report on ‘Rethinking work for Human Development’
➢ Knowledge transfer for union activist in the MA in trade unions studies at Ruskin College, Oxford (2014-ongoing)
➢ Organisation of the Forum ‘Voices from the bottom up’ with activists from workplaces in the UK, Chile, Italy and the International Transport Federation 23-24 April 2015
➢ Participation in a debate on trade unions action in Brasil, Chile and Argentina organized by the Chilean Construction Workers Union, 15 October 2014
Researching the issue of precariousness in a global city and the forms and structure of workers’ resistance to it is deeply relevant to understand issues of social change and governance, particularly in the metropolis of the Global South. With social inequality firmly at the centre of the global economic development, the sustained and forecasted urban population growth poses growing concerns in terms of its social sustainability. Can metropolis be the incubators of new social and labour unrests? Around which axes of concern and groups of workers can discontent potentially coalesces? Will a new social compact be likely to emerge? Cities, precariousness and forms of social and labour representation are inextricably linked and will probably be the most important keywords leading research in the field in the next future.