Negotiation dynamics in Côte d’Ivoire: how can workers in the informal economy make the difference

By Irene Doda
May 27, 2024
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In April 2024 StreetNet organized a negotiation skills workshop in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Informal economy workers have the power and the ability to influence policy at every level. 

April in Côte d’Ivoire marks the beginning of the rainy season. The sky in Abidjan often gets dark gray and intense rain starts pouring. During a field visit on April 11th, a delegation of StreetNet members crossed the market of Bingerville, a village in the eastern suburbs of Abidjan, walking across mud and water. The market was completely flooded, people around us were extremely busy cleaning the passages to their stalls and shops, saving what they could from the dirt. The delegation of workers met with the general secretary of the Organisation of Traders of the Bingerville market Ms. Konan Solange. Her office was flooded, too, but Ms. Konan took the time to discuss with us, in the streets of the market covered in water, a rather precarious situation. The conditions in markets around the city and the country is far from ideal: what can workers do to make it decent?

StreetNet delegation and Mme. Konan Solange during the field visit

Empowering workers to negotiate

The meeting in Bingerville was organized in the context of the workshop on negotiation skills, held in Abidjan from the 9th to 14th of April, facilitated by StreetNet and hosted by our affiliate in the country, FETTEI-CI (Féderation des Travailleurs et Travailleuses de l’Économie Informelle de Cote d’Ivoire). Many discussions took place around the question: how can informal economy workers better hold dialogue with public authorities? Which level of government can be influenced? 

FETTEI-CI has significant experience in successfully leading in negotiations. It is a federation of informal economy workers in Cote D’Ivoire, representing several sectors, including street vendors, market traders and hawkers. It was founded in 2018 and at present has over 5000 street vendors members, 70% of which are women.

 Cote d’Ivoire is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, compared to its size. While French is the lingua franca, spoken in most of the country, an estimated 69 other languages are commonly spoken in various regions. To accommodate this diversity, FETTEI-CI has a decentralized organizational structure, with regional focal points responsible for the activities at local level. In each region, different sectors of the informal economy are present: in the workshop, participants came from 4 different sectors – artisanal, market trading, street trading and agriculture, and from 14 regions: DALOA BOUAFLE SEGUELA BONOUA ALEPE ADZOPE GAGNOA DUEKOUE MANKONO  SOUBRE DABAKALA YAMOUSSOKRO TOUMODI DIMOKRO DUEKOUE and the Abidjan district. The negotiation course was conceived to give workers the opportunity to reflect on their experience, write down their demands and engage positively with authorities, especially local ones, in ways that are beneficial to both parties. 

Negotiating at local level: between tradition and modernity

Local authorities are natural counterparts for street vendors: a great part of the policies affecting their livelihoods are adopted by districts, metropolitan cities or villages. Côte d’Ivoire is no exception. The counterparts that members of the FETTEI-CI faced in their negotiations (during the course and in ordinary real life scenarios) are both public and private. At the private level, traders and informal economy workers can negotiate with market associations, like the one the delegation met in Bingerville. Such associations are generally responsible for the well being of the traders in the market, and for the overall supervision of the activities in the vending site. At municipal level, in Côte d’Ivoire, there are essentially two types of authorities: modern municipalities and traditional village chief (chefferie traditionnelle)

After the independence of the country (1960), the effort by the newly formed state went in the direction of strengthening elective and administrative officials. The power of the  chiefs has been strongly reduced. But the importance of these traditional authorities for many Ivorian citizens persists: according to Afrobarometer,  a leading statistical observatory in the continent, “Over half (56%) of Ivorians agree that traditional chiefs always  or often do their best to listen to them. Two-thirds (66%) of citizens partly or very much trust traditional leaders. Seven out of ten Ivorians (69%) believe that traditional leaders seek what is best for the people in their communities”.  Therefore, traditional chefferies are still an important interlocutor for workers in the informal economy, in addition to more structured institutions. 

One of the main points of participating in a negotiation workshop is knowledge sharing. The workers had the opportunity to talk to one another and highlight their struggle, as well as their successes. Espoir Amlan Doglou, focal point of the district of Abobo, in the north of Abidjan, recounts how, thanks to a successful engagement with the municipality, led to a simplified tax regime for street vendors: “We had to negotiate on taxes, which were a little too high. We paid the license, we paid the occupation of public space tax (ODP)  and we also paid the market tickets. This caused anger to rise among the vendors. When everyone got together to really take up the cause, we won. And today, instead of the three taxes, we only pay the patent. We talked to a representative of the mayor’s office. When they saw that we were really mobilized as one voice, they were obliged to listen to us and take into consideration what we were saying”. 

Flooded market at Bingerville

Negotiating at national level: the social protection case

At the national level, one of the most important campaigns of our affiliate has been the one on social protection. FETTEI-CI has led the national campaign for inscription of workers to the CMU (Couverture Maladie Universelle, Universal Health Coverage). Kobena Tamia, president of a vendors cooperative in Abidjan and member of the FETEI-CI says: “We work a lot on the issue of universal health coverage. FETTEI-CI is supporting workers, helping them reach out to more people”.  During the field visit, the delegation of Street Net international met with various stakeholders and national authorities, including the Secretariat of Health Insurance, CNAM. Right now, the focus of the secretariat is to include more workers in the coverage, with a special focus on market vendors: that’s why the role of sensitisation of the FETTEI-CI and other organizations of the informal economy is central. Since 2019, at the CNPS (Caisse National de Protection Sociale) there is a pilot project for insurance coverage for independent workers: it will become compulsory in the upcoming years. Workers’ organizations are requesting more financial means to undertake their work of awareness raising. 

International organizations supporting unions in the country

In the country, 90% of the workforce is in the informal economy. At the same time, being one of the main producers of cacao and coffee in the world, Cote d’Ivoire is also the target of foreign multinational investments. That’s why, according to Kattia Paredes, specialist of the International Labour Organisations in the region, a lot of the organising effort has been focused on the big companies. But international organisations should not forget the informal economy, she warns, and the question of just formalization. “We focused on the issue of freedom of association in multinational companies. But we also tackled the whole question of formalizing the informal economy, starting with target groups of workers. These target groups were market women, domestic workers and agricultural workers. The main issue was the extension of social protection that these workers don’t enjoy” Paredes explains. “We worked hard to ensure that workers could at least benefit from access to health care. Then there’s the area of international labor standards, where we’ve been campaigning, supporting trade union organizations in their campaigns for the ratification of Convention 189 (the Convention on Domestic Work), Convention 190 (Against Violence and Harassment in the workplace)  and, of course, the implementation of Recommendation 204 (on just formalization). One other area of work is social dialogue, structured dialogue with authorities as counterparts. This means integrating issues concerning the informal economy into social dialogue forums. 

Facilitator Evelyn Benjamin-Sampson during a group discussion with the participants

The role of workers’ education

The international level may seem far away from the daily experiences of the workers. But the empowerment of workers starts from the grassroot level, through tools and techniques that allow their voices to be heard.  “This work has given us many opportunities to learn” said Marcelline Adopo, President of FETTEI-CI “I want to thank StreetNet for this initiative and for the quality of the facilitation provided. This training is an opportunity for us. We normally understand negotiation techniques in the context of business relationships and private companies, but rarely within the informal economy. In our constituency there are people who are illiterate, people who struggle with French. This was a quality training accessible to everyone’s level.  After the workshop we are equipped with all the competencies necessary to improve negotiations in our daily activities”.