28 November, 2016
By Oksana Abboud – StreetNet Organizer
StreetNet held a successful Regional Workshop on Organizing Informal Workers, on 21-22 November 2016 in Vientiane City, Laos. The workshop was part of a StreetNet-OXFAM partnership.
40 participants attended the workshop which Oksana Abboud, StreetNet Organiser, facilitated.
The main aims of the workshops were:
- To understand how to organise workers in the informal economy and conduct collective bargaining;
- To learn about international experiences and best practices in other countries;
- To understand the role of trade unions in transitioning from the informal to the formal economy;
- Planning a programme and the way forward;
- Information-sharing on the informal economy.
Participants were welcomed by Mr. Simoon Ounlasy, Vice-President of the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), Mr. Inpeng Meunvieth, Acting Director of its International Relations Department and Mr. Antonino Faibene, Programme Manager of the Oxfam office in Laos.
Mr Ounlasy highlighted the importance of informal sector workers, their contribution to the country’s national economy and the challenges the LFTU faces in organising informal sector workers in Laos. The country’s Trade Union Law doesn’t mention informal workers and their right to be organised. LFTU plans to amend this law to include "informal workers” in its definition. He pointed out that informal workers outnumber formal workers and are an important source of worker power. When street vendors are brought into society, they become formal workers – a development which can be beneficial in financial terms, i.e. they pay taxes. The budget from the government to help street vendors is insufficient; support from other parties is needed.
70 % of Laos’ workforce is active in the informal sector, said Mr Antonino of Oxfam. 90 % of these are women, who often lack skills and knowledge and are vulnerable. The Government has not taken any concrete actions to address their situation.
Mrs. Souphone Voravong presented research – ‘Street vendors in Vientiane City’, Laos" – by UN Women, which underlined the substantial growth Laos had made in its GDP over the last few years. This is needed, she said, to help women get income, make them less vulnerable and let them feel they are protected, appreciated and welcomed by society and government. She also suggested training on credit and negotiations for women street vendors, building their capacity, self-esteem and self-respect to strengthen them.
The workshop comprised seven activities. The first was introductory. The rest was made up of small working groups which discussed and developed different tasks around organizing and negotiations in informal economy sector.
The groups first discussed the need to organise workers in the informal economy . Central to this was understanding the specificities of organising in the context of the informal economy, developing appropriate organising strategies and responses for informal economy workers and developing and understanding key skills and abilities required by good organisers.
The groups next discussed addressing the needs and demands of informal economy workers through collective negotiations aimed at gaining a better understanding of some of their problems and demands. They also examined the importance of direct representation in collective negotiations for informal economy workers.
Next, the working groups identified three issues of their sector workers and had to translate these into demands for negotiations. The facilitator explained how this process is done, through simply re-phrasing the issues. She emphasised the use of specific wording as demands should be realistic and aimed at achieving maximum success. This is especially important for an organisation at the beginning of negotiations.
Lessons from trade unions in other countries on organizing in the informal economy, followed. Participants used cases studies to examine how trade unions around the world organised in this sector. This exercise was to enable them to develop their own thinking and ideas around organizing in the informal economy.
One of the most crucial ILO documents, Recommendation 204, was also discussed and analysed. ILO Recommendation 204 focuses on transitioning from the informal to the formal economy. This activity was important for understanding the meaning and concept of the informal economy, organising within it and the requirements for an effective transition from the informal to formal economy. The groups had to read ILO Recommendation 204, identify the formalisation elements, most progressive clauses and the missing elements in it. Most participants found this task difficult.
To help, the facilitator spoke on the key strategic gains of ILO Recommendation 204, which were very progressive and good for informal workers. She also mentioned those clauses which could harm them, and issues which were missing in the Recommendation, e.g. the lack of inclusion at local level authority level.
The last but very important activity, was developing a union strategy for informal economy workers. Participants revisited earlier discussions in order to develop a clear strategy and practical action plan directed towards achieving the vision of the different union groups, in the future.
The working groups drew up their action plans, defining their target groups and key priorities. They presented the step by step actions needed to organise informal workers and to overcome the obstacles they face in building their strategy.
During the workshop evaluation, participants expressed their happiness at learning about organising informal workers, and about ILO instruments. The workshop had offered them a chance to express their own views; however, learning about other countries’ experiences was a bonus. Vietnamese and Cambodian delegates had added value to the workshop by sharing their experiences in organising informal economy workers.
In his closing speech, Mr. Simoon Ounlasy stated that LFTU would implement the acquired knowledge and skills fruitfully in its trade union activity. He hoped for further support from both OXFAM and StreetNet International.
The Regional Workshop was successful and very useful for the LFTU participants who had just started learning about organising informal economy workers. Their leadership understands the importance of and need for organising informal workers in Laos; they have a great willingness to learn about this to move forward.
Lastly, StreetNet thanks Khamphy Khammvong, Oxfam Programme Officer in Laos. His dedicated preparatory work made this Regional event possible.