Collective Struggle: FIWON (Nigeria)

The Federation of Informal Workers Organisation of Nigeria – FIWON was founded on June 18, 2010. It was the result of several years of efforts by activists to form a national platform pushing for the contributions of informal economy workers to be recognized, respected and appreciated. We talked with FIWON’s General Secretary, Gbenga Komolafe, to learn more about the collective struggle of informal economy workers in Nigeria and discover what we can learn from their experience.

From a research project to launching a national organization

Gbenga has been involved in organizing informal economy workers for almost twenty years. Back in the early 2000s, Gbenga was volunteering with the Nigeria Automobile Technician Association – NATA, when he heard about a research project focusing on the informality and civil society. The organization applied to be a part of the project and was successful. It was a great learning experience about how to do research on the informal economy.

 “We were the only non-academics who were part of the projects” remembers Gbenga “I went around the country talking to workers and it was quite a revolution. In the end, we did a report, and it was very well-received”.

NATA was one of the first organizations of self-organized informal economy workers, but by 2008 other sectors (such as street vendors) were starting to self-organize as well. There was a need for a national federation which could tackle cross-cutting issues affecting informal economy workers, such as access to social protection. “And to create advocacy platform for the informal economy sector that could combat the total marginalization of these workers from decision-making processes”, says Gbenga.

And so FIWON was launched on June 18, 2010 at Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city. The first conference involved about twenty-four organizations from all over the country. “Since then, we have taken on a lot of these issues and challenges.” Says Gbenga “We have led a lot of struggles. For example, we had to combat the usual harassment and extortion many of FIWON’s members suffer on a daily basis. We had to go to court several times to defend the human rights of the members, to organize street protests, representations to parliament, and so on.”

“One thing that is clear” states Gbenga “is that we have won a lot of visibility for the informal economy as a sector that contributes greatly to the Nigeria economy.”

One such example of this increased visibility was the report by theNational Bureau of Statistics (NBS), released in 2014, which categorized the informal economy for the first time and reported that it contributed 57.9% to the Nigerian GDP, as well as employing over 80% of the Nigerian working population. Academic research into the Nigerian informal economy has also increased in recent years.

“Unfortunately, today, this increased recognition has not really translated into specific policies or programs addressing the needs and problems and challenges of the informal economy” explains Gbenga.

The complexity of organizing informal economy workers

Press Conference/Town hall Meeting against eviction and ban of ‘okada’ operators February 12, 2020

One of the main issues that organizations of informal economy workers face is organizing workers themselves and getting them involved in the work of the organization as a united front.

For FIWON, it was clear that they needed to adopt a mix of approaches to ensure this national federation would be successful. As Gbenga explains:

“We had to decentralize. Informal work is highly localized. It happens in communities. And it is highly individualized, people work on their own. People work in their own shops or even in their houses. And so, that means that we have to decentralize the organizing efforts, we have had to have leaders in the communities that support the vision of bringing people together to defend their rights, to work, to help organize in the communities”.

Today, FIWON has over 700 community-based associations of informal economy workers as members, from 27 Nigerian states. Some of them, such as NATA, also try to organize at the national level. FIWON relies on local organizers and leaders to bring all these workers together and promotes trainings focused on human rights, occupational safety and other issues. Because FIWON represents several sectors of the informal economy, it must always take into account the different contexts. Gbenga gives the example of safety and health issues – while garment workers might suffer from spine-related injures due to prolonged seating, street vendors are vulnerable to pollution and police brutality.

Since 2017, FIWON has also tried to work through cooperatives and encourage workers to save and borrow with more accessible terms that those made available to them by financial institutions.

But the most important work that FIWON does is to explain to informal economy workers that they do, indeed, have rights. As Gbenga explains “We try to explain that they have rights as citizens of Nigeria, as human beings, as members of their communities, and also as workers. Because they are doing very important work and are making a very important contribution to their communities, to the national economy, so they should respect the work they are doing, they should respect themselves, and they should be ready to fight to protect their rights. After such training, it is much easier for the organizers to get people to want to be part of the bigger picture, part of FIWON”.

FIWON is also focused in fostering accountability within informal economy organizations. The importance of having a written constitution that is widely read and understood as a reference point for the conduct of the organization, for example, is often the subject of leadership trainings.

However, Gbenga acknowledges that it can be difficult to inspire workers to be actively involved. Informal economy workers usually work for themselves, which means even attending a meeting can result in lost wages. And sometimes it can be difficult to explain the importance of paying dues, for example, and demand accountability of leaders.

“That attitude reflects in how the organizations are governed and sometimes allow the leaders to grow powerful and do what they like” says Gbenga “We encourage members to take a more active interest in how the organizations are run, to pay their dues so they can demand accountability, and so on.”

Another concern is the participation of women. In Nigeria, as in the case in many other countries, the informal economy is dominated by women. Some sectors in particular, such as market vending and domestic work, employ mostly women. But Gbenga admits that such predominance does not always translate to women’s leadership: “I must confess that the traditional patriarchal culture also reflects in this area. So, we discover that in some sectors where you have more women, you see that men tend to dominate the leadership. We try to address this by encouraging associations to become more open and conduct more open democratic meetings that are participatory”.

Facing authorities and demanding recognition

FIWON is an active advocate in the struggle against corruption and human rights abuses in Nigeria. When asked whether it is normal for organizations of workers to stand up to authorities in this way, Gbenga explains the Nigerian context: “Trade unions are becoming more and more conservative in their approach to governments. Broadly speaking, the Nigerian trade union movement has been plagued by extreme rent-seeking behavior. This has created a lot of serious tension in the entire movement”.

The same pattern sometimes occurs in informal economy organizations, when some leaders seek patronage of political parties or ruling governments, but FIWON is strongly against such behavior. According to Gbenga, “For the informal economy workers, because of the extreme marginalization suffered historically, we just cannot afford to be complacent and not be critical”. He adds “We have very fine written policies just gathering dust in the various offices, because nobody actually respects those policies. So, we have to be critical, we have to bring people to account”.

Nigerian informal economy workers also cannot rely on the solidarity of the broader trade union movement in the country. Therefore, they must act on their own behalf and take matters into their own hands.

The result has been mixed. In some Nigerian states, the governments are hostile. In one case, a parallel organization was even created to rival FIWON, in exchange for patronage. “Lots of so-called leaders of informal workers organizations find this attractive, because they enjoy patronage for themselves to the detriment of their members”, explains Gbenga.

In many other States, however, FIWON enjoys a robust relationship with State government and local bodies.

“We have always said that informal economy workers have a right to self-organize and to protect their interests, and there can be no apologies for that” states Gbenga.

FIWON’s key priorities

October 1, 2020 Protest in Osogbo, Southwest Nigeria

Since the launch of FIWON in 2010, the organization has hosted strategic planning sessions to define key priorities for action.

One of the first was to minimize, as much as possible, the harassment and extortion plaguing informal economy workers, especially traders, and demand more respect for informal economy workers as citizens and workers. Through mass demonstrations and other advocacy actions, FIWON has achieved some success in stopping arbitrary arrest of street and market vendors and has also dealt with issues regarding evictions and destruction of informal settlements in Lagos.

Another of FIWON’s key priorities is social protection. In 2018, the Nigerian Federal Government came up with a micro-pension scheme for informal economy workers which showed some promise, and FIWON was consulted. However, when the policy was launched, it did not reflect almost any of FIWON’s input.

“Two, three years after, the participation is extremely low. Because the scheme is designed in such a way that makes the participation difficult and impractical” says Gbenga “We wanted a situation where the government encouraged participation in the micro-pension scheme by contributing directly. When informal economy workers transfer a certain amount of savings to the pension fund, the government should match that. You can’t just tell them – here’s the scheme, start contributing – without any form of contribution from the government. Especially in a situation where the inflation rate is very high, much higher than interest rate on savings. So, the money saved today is worth little in a few years. Matching contributions by the government could minimize this effect”. FIWON has now called for a review of that policy.

“We focus a lot on social protection issues, and our involvement with the federal government on social protection policy is to ensure that these issues are reflected in the national social protection policy. But like I said, it is an ongoing process” explains Gbenga.

Another key priority for FIWON is inclusive urban development, which related to the right to the city. According to Gbenga, this means urban development should “reckon with the need of informal economy workers for public space to work in without fear of harassment, and for informal economy workers to be supported and have some sort of state-supported mechanisms for training on safety and skills enhancement”.

FIWON has managed to persuade some Nigerian States to help train informal economy workers in occupation safety issues and the Central Bank of Nigeria to support training related to financial skills. It is also working on a project to get corporations in the private sector to assist the informal sector to assist in these areas especially training related to entrepreneurship skills development and bookkeeping.

However, when asked what has been FIWON’s major achievement so far, Gbenga states that the increased visibility is crucial:

“The most important achievement of FIWON, as far as I can see, is the attention. We are achieving enormous amounts of visibility that was never there. Informal economy workers are more appreciated now. In many States now, the officials are much more careful about how they deal with our members and conscious that people will resist the infringement of their rights. As well, there is more attention to the issues that affect informal economy workers. Better visibility, better recognition of the contribution of the informal economy, generally. And the needs, challenges and issues that affect informal economy workers are better appreciated now, even the academia is showing increasing interest.”

FIWON and StreetNet International

Leading a discussion on the New Urban Agenda at the 6th Streetnet International Conference Kyrgyzstan, 2019

FIWON joined StreetNet in 2015, five years after it was initially launched. Similarly to other StreetNet affiliates, FIWON’s affiliation to an international organization has contributed to advocacy actions. “Being representatives of StreetNet at national level has been very helpful” explains Gbenga.

He gives the example of a Nigerian lawmaker who wanted to propose a law in 2017, to protect street vendors. The lawmaker reached out to StreetNet, and he was redirected to FIWON. “And so the lawmaker was forced to deal with us, and we got to make important inputs. StreetNet affiliation helps in that respect. It also helps in the course of advocacy and better recognition” summarizes Gbenga.

The bill proposed by the lawmaker was fashioned after the Indian Street Vendor Act of 2014 but adapted to the Nigerian context. Unfortunately, the lawmaker did not win back his seat in the 2019 elections. Now, FIWON is looking for a new sponsor of that bill in the National Assembly.

StreetNet has also promoted FIWON’s work and expertise in other forums, especially those concerning the Right to the City and the New Urban Agenda.

Advice for organizations of informal economy workers

FIWON is now over ten years, and Gbenga has been working on issues related to the informal economy for over twenty years. Therefore, we asked him whether he could share any advices for informal economy workers who are now self-organizing.

Protest against Arbitrary Arrests of Street Vendors and Illegal Evictions, Lagos Nov. 1, 2017

 “My advice is to be patient” states Gbenga. “It is extremely difficult to organize in the informal economy, because these are people who have been historically marginalized, they are looked down upon. Many believe that the situation cannot be helped.”

That is why it is important to meet informal economy workers where they are at and not, as Gbenga says, “where you want them to be. They are trying to survive, and you have to see where you can intervene to make things better. If you have honesty of purpose, they come to appreciate that, that you mean well. Then, they start to come together and build collective power”.

Important lessons from a veteran organizer of informal economy workers, which we must all take into account!