Informal Workers’ Aggregations & Human Development

Routh, Supriya (2016). 'Informal Workers’ Aggregations & Human Development' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

The idea of informal insofar as workers are concerned recognizes the diversity and heterogeneity of work relations and social contributions of the majority of workers across the globe. Informal is conceptualized contra form, that is, the post-industrial revolution industrial relations form, which bore the appendages of master-servant relations. Unfortunately however, a neat employment relationship form, which succeeded the master-servant model, is unable to characterize the economically and socially valuable activities of the enormous number of workers working mainly in the global South, and also increasingly in the global North.
Because the traditional idea of industrial relations is founded on the industrial employment model, its focus remains the balance of bargaining power between the employer and the employee. This power is understood as the power of the management on one hand and the trade union on the other. Management derives its power form the fact that it owns, controls, and directs the establishment. Trade union derives its power form the numerical strength of its membership. This model of industrial relations is seriously challenged by the modern productive practices.
A homogeneous workforce working at a definite industrial workplace is particularly conducive for trade union activity. But, collective action for a heterogeneous and diverse workforce is more difficult. Even the purpose of collective action is different for the diverse informal workers. The objective of their collective action cannot remain confined to just bargaining with the employer; that is, even assuming that they have an employer. The objective of their collective action is multi-pronged. While improvement of condition of workers remains their primary focus, organizations of informal workers generate their power not from numerical strength, but from the multi-dimensional functions and plurality of relations that these organizations undertake and sustain.
In this paper, I argue that in order to reconceptualize industrial relations that conforms with modern realities we need to take cognizance of these emerging models of collective action by informal workers – which I term workers’ aggregations – and the logic of their modus operandi. By looking at the nature of organizing and the ranges of collective initiatives undertaken by informal workers’ organizations, we will not only understand how a more diffused kind of power is generated by workers, but also how the meaning of bargaining and workers’ welfare changes with these newer models of collective action.
Workers aggregations in the global South are often loosely formed entities with a core nucleus. Even though political engagement through collective bargaining and negotiation is within their scope of activities, they primarily aim at enhancing human development of their members, and other workers. These organizations envisage promoting human development of workers by engaging the market, the state, and other non-state entities. In engaging these different institutions of the democratic society these organizations have diversified their functions, which includes devising of welfare schemes, social support, undertaking of business activities on behalf of members, lobbying, and developing innovative range of activities that benefits their worker-members.
Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze identify such an idea of human development through an engagement with the several institutions of a democratic society as a useful manner of conceptualizing development through democratic engagement in complex societies. Sen argues that one should not look at only at the market or the government in furthering human development. In fact, he notes, market and government need not be seen as forces pulling in opposite directions. Instead, Sen and Dreze argue that one needs to formulate a comprehensive understanding of integrated institutions, wherein the state, the market, and the other institutions of the complex democratic society functions in complementary and supplementary manner.
They note that institutions per se cannot be important for human development; institutions become significant for what they characterize and how such characteristics promote human development. If one sees human development being promoted through these integrated institutions of the democratic society, it is possible to readjust these institutions (i.e. rearranging their characteristics) depending on the developmental needs of the time and the community. This readjustability introduces flexibility and reflection in the development process through democratic participation of the stakeholders. The informal workers’ aggregations adopt this approach to human development by mediating through the integrated institutions that Sen and Dreze identify.
In this paper, I will first, enumerate Sen and Dreze’s idea of integrated institutions and analyze how it might promote human development in terms of capabilities of informal workers. I will then document the constitution and functions of some representative informal workers’ aggregations, such as the Self Employed Workers Association (SEWA) and the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) in India, and the Self-Employed Women’s Union in South Africa, in order to identify a general trend in their formation and activities. Once I identify this trend in their activities, I will argue that these emerging forms of workers organizations are, in fact, adopting a capability-centered human development with the involvement of multi-dimensional strategies engaging integrated institutions of the democratic polity. I will also argue that in view of the changing nature of industrial and productive relations and the increasing prominence of non-traditional work and workers, these workers’ aggregations are characterizing a future way of understanding collective action and labor relations. 

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