The rights of 'informal' workers
Many workers are employed in 'formal' workplaces such as factories, depots, mines or offices. They usually have a contract of work and know who their employer is. They are more likely to be organised in trade unions, and benefit from the collective bargaining agreements between their union and management. Their rights are laid down in national legislation, even if not fully upheld.
There are other workers whose status is much less clear. They include those in family enterprises, those hired for very short periods of time, and those working in their own homes even though on repeat contracts for the same boss. They include clandestine or 'illegal' migrant workers used as cheap labour in a largely hidden workforce.
This is often called the 'informal sector'. It is a large and growing proportion of the world's workforce. Women and children are disproportionately employed here. Trade unions are very weak, if organised at all.
In today's world of free market globalisation, many companies - large and small - have been ridding themselves of their formal workforce, with all the legal obligations and labour costs that this entails. Some companies have casualised work contracts, hiring workers only for short periods even when the contract is repeated time and again. Some put workers onto a part-time basis, especially where part-time workers have fewer legal rights
Some of the world's most famous brand-named companies produce little or nothing themselves. They sub-contract their production to factories in low-cost countries such as Indonesia, China and Vietnam, playing sub-contractors off each other to achieve the cheapest price. These factories in turn may sub-contract to sweatshops, small family enterprises, or homeworkers. Other sub-contractors are 'owner-operators' - single persons who own (or have been enticed into debt to buy) their equipment but are tied into long-term contracts. This is becoming common, for example, in the trucking industry.
In such ways, the so-called 'formal' and 'informal' sectors are closely interlinked. Governments have contributed to this shift towards 'informal' labour. They have been privatising and 'outsourcing' work previously done by their own employees to sub-contractors with part-time or casual workers. They have been weakening protective labour legislation, claiming that employers need this 'flexibility'. 'Flexibility' to workers, by contrast, usually means more insecurity, lower wages and poorer working conditions.
Many migrant workers have work permits and are part of the formal labour force. But there are untold numbers of others who do not, for a wide variety of reasons. These undocumented, hidden or clandestine workers are at the mercy of unscrupulous employers. They are vulnerable to abuse and desperately poorly paid. They often work in hazardous, even illegal conditions.
In October 2002, a cleaning company was ordered by the High Court in Dublin to pay nearly £70,000 to four Brazilian workers hired as cleaners. They had been made to work long, unpaid hours, and had to rely on a priest and a neighbour for food. In Northern Ireland, there have been media exposés about employment agencies trafficking people from Lithuania, for example, to work in the mushroom industry and food processing.
People can be found working in their own homes, often assembling goods, using machinery and parts supplied to them by a local factory. Homeworkers, the vast majority of whom are women, are another hidden and vulnerable group of workers. Very often they are not recognised as workers at all. They are usually paid below legal minimum wages and do not get paid holidays, sick leave or other benefits. They often have no work contract, which means they can be easily victimised by being denied work. Being scattered in their own homes, they can find it very difficult to organise.
In 1996, the ILO Convention on Homework, No.177 (1996) was agreed, giving homeworkers the same rights as other workers. It was a great victory for Homenet, an international network of homeworkers' associations in many countries. The Convention says that homeworkers must be protected against discrimination and work hazards. They have rights to pay, social security and maternity protection. They can set up or join organisations of their own choice. Ireland is one of only three countries to have ratified this Convention.
"The low terms and conditions of 'informal' workers are being used to undermine the higher standards achieved by trade unions for workers in the 'formal' workforce. Whether by recruiting them into our trade unions or by working together with their associations, organising these vulnerable workers has become crucial to the fight to maintain working standards for all."
Peter Bunting, Assistant General Secretary, Irish Congress of Trade Unions