Rina Agarwala & Chris Tilly: Informal Workers


Research Committee on Labor Movements (RC44) presents:


Marx, Polanyi, and… Informal Workers?  Toward a New Social Contract for Workers


Rina Agarwala

Johns Hopkins University

Chris Tilly

University of California Los Angeles


Neoliberalism has battered worker rights around the world.  Neoliberal policies have shredded the social contract in the United States and much of Europe, shattered the iron rice bowl in China, and rolled back developmental and redistributive policies in much of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.  How can workers rebuild labor standards and a social safety net across the world?  Karl Marx and Karl Polanyi offered grand theories predicting that workers will always rebuild.  In this essay we argue that new forms of informal worker organizing offer some of the most useful insights into exactly how workers as a whole can solve this age-old problem in the contemporary era.

Marx, writing 150 years ago, argued that the technological forces of production had outstripped hierarchical capitalist relations of production, and that the currently subordinate proletariat would overthrow the capitalist class and run production themselves.  Marx said little about how this would happen, but emphasized how the intricate capitalist division of labor, within but particularly between enterprises, literally organizes the global proletariat into an articulated whole.  Marx, a keen observer of history and politics, was well aware that political processes built in a wide range of historical contingency, but was confident that in the “last instance”, the economic impetus of the forces of production would lead to socialism.  However, many Neo-Marxists, with the benefit of an added century of hindsight, have concluded with Louis Althusser that “the lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes”—retaining class analysis and the conceptual framework of capital accumulation, but abandoning determinism even for the long run.

Karl Polanyi, writing 70 years ago, offered an alternative theory better suited to explaining changing directions in the evolution of capitalism—in particular, the shift from the bare-knuckled capitalism of Marx’s era to social democratic and developmentalist regimes.  Polanyi wrote that rising capitalism disembedded markets from society, threatening workers’ well-being, economic stability, and even the earth itself.  This “movement” provoked a “counter-movement” to re-embed markets and establish social protection.  Unlike Marx, Polanyi did not privilege the working class as the leading agent, instead suggesting that a variety of sectors with interests in social protection built the counter-movement (indeed from the right and the left).  Polanyi did not foresee that the historical “pendulum” he described would swing back the other way toward neoliberalism.  Neo-Polanyians such as Fred Block and Margaret Somers, writing seven decades after Polanyi, study this new “movement” and search for sources of a new global “counter-movement.”

That brings us to informal workers.  Informal work, in the sense of work providing legal goods and services but not protected by traditional labor laws that rely on a formally recognized employer-employee relationship, is growing in much of the world.  This is true in Europe, the United States, and Japan, where the standard employment contract extends to ever fewer; in India where the standard employment contract has long excluded the vast majority of the workforce; in China where most of the 200 million-plus rural-to-urban migrants work in unregulated contexts; and elsewhere.

Though many observers feared this turn toward informality would spell an end to worker organizing by removing the structural bases of trade union power, informal workers have proven them wrong.  China’s labor NGOs have combined social services, advocacy, and organizing to advance the interests of migrants in manufacturing but also in services (though the Chinese government has cracked down on NGOs in recent years, and has intensified its pressure even in the last few weeks as we write).  US worker centers and Japanese unions of youth, women, and even the unemployed, undertake a similar mix of activities.  In India, Ela Bhatt, who founded the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) over 40 years ago, not only won government recognition as a trade union federation—despite a membership and organizational form distinct from any other trade union federation—but launched what today is India’s largest union federation, with about two million members.  More importantly, SEWA is not an anomaly; India is also home to countless other informal workers’ organizations.  In recent years, local-level efforts to organize informal workers have made a striking attempt to join forces at the global or transnational level.  For example, the International Domestic Workers Federation mobilizes organizations in more than 40 countries—organizations that rivaled far longer-standing and more populous global union federations in their global coordination to win ILO Convention 189 on the rights of domestic workers.  The StreetNet network of street vendor organizations, based in South Africa, has a similar global reach and has played a central role in struggles against megaprojects and urban “upgrading” that threaten to drive out vendors.  Could these models point the way to a new social contract?

Our own research and that of colleagues around the world, many of whom are connected through the Experiences Organizing Informal Workers (EOIW) research network, documents and seeks to understand how informal workers across countries of varying levels of industrialization organize, win, and fail.  This global research is still in its early stages, but we would suggest six propositions about informal worker organizing based on our own research across several industries and organization types:

1. Informal workers primarily win in the political arena. Those who worried that informalization undermined the economic underpinnings of trade union power were, on the whole, right.  Informal workers, who are often dispersed and typically work with limited capital and skills, are ill equipped to use traditional economic weapons such as the strike.  But they have gained outcomes ranging from the simple right to ply their trade, to higher rates of pay, to social security benefits by exerting political  This can take the form of vote banking, protest, or generating public sympathy.  It often involves what Jennifer Chun calls classification struggles—fighting to be considered as workers and therefore entitled to the same rights as other workers.

2. To win in the political arena, informal workers need powerful allies. Vote banking can win political parties as allies (and not only left parties, as author Agarwala has shown).  US worker centers, which include large numbers of non-voting immigrants, have won over churches with moral appeals, Latino organizations through ethnic solidarity, and trade unions through a common commitment to organizing the unorganized.  Domestic worker organizations in many countries have been able to mobilize organizations of supportive employers of domestic workers.

3. To win powerful allies, informal workers need to build strong organizations. Gaining support depends on demonstrating what Charles Tilly called WUNC (worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment), all of which depend on effective organizations, not just a few people with good ideas about reform.

4. To build strong organizations, informal worker organizers activate varied identities. It’s striking the extent to which many organizations of self-employed as well as other-employed informal workers, around the world, have working-class consciousness, rather than, say microentrepreneur consciousness.  But few informal worker mobilizations tap only class identity.  Gender, migration status, nationality, ethnicity, age group, and other identities have been critical to successful organization-building.

5. Variety in organizational form and strategy are the order of the day. Though we have emphasized commonalities, informal worker organizations vary enormously.  A key objective of the EOIW research network is to build understanding of how different organizational models and approaches arise, and under what circumstances, why, and how they succeed or fail.

6. Victories are limited so far. The social welfare plans garnered by Indian organizations studied by author Agarwala are skimpy ones.  The US day laborers and Mexican street vendors examined by author Tilly and colleagues have principally won the right to use public space in their work.  In many cases, a “win” by an informal worker organization just moves their constituents from at or slightly below the margin of survival, to slightly above it.  But we would note that early trade union victories were usually small, temporary, or both.  As in that earlier trajectory, the importance of today’s limited wins is that they establish principles, precedents, and organizational and institutional infrastructure that can nurture further advances.

Informal worker self-organization is far from achieving a new social contract, but its progress in recent decades is impressive.  Perhaps it is early to elevate Ela Bhatt to the pantheon of theorists of pro-worker social change that includes Marx and Polanyi.  But we would argue that the potential of informal workers’ initiatives is promising indeed, both on its own terms and relative to alternative strategies for rebuilding worker power.  We challenge those reading this to join us in seeking to understand informal worker organizations better, in order to help them scale up, deepen their impact, address their vulnerabilities, and make decisive advances toward the new social contract the world needs.


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Rina Agarwala is Associate Professor of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University. Agarwala publishes and lectures on labor, international development, migration, gender, social movements, and Indian politics.  Agarwala is the author of Informal Labor, Formal Politics and Dignified Discontent in India (Cambridge, 2013) and the co-editor of Whatever Happened to Class? Reflections from South Asia (Routledge, 2008). She has also worked at the United Nations Development Program in China, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, and Women’s World Banking in New York.

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Chris Tilly, Professor of Urban Planning and Director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA, studies labor and inequality in the US and global context, with a particular focus on bad jobs and how to make them better.  Tilly’s books include Half a Job: Bad and Good Part-Time Jobs in a Changing Labor Market; Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits: Women’s Work, Women’s Poverty; Work Under Capitalism: Stories Employers Tell: Race, Skill, and Hiring in America; The Gloves-Off Economy: Labor Standards at the Bottom of America’s Labor Market, and Are Bad Jobs Inevitable?


Banner Image: Photo by courtesy of the United Workers Congress (UWC), https://www.unitedworkerscongress.org.


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