Research Findings

The Dispossession-Versus-Exploitation Dilemma for Informal Worker


October 14, 2021
informal worker

Defying stereotypes, millions of precarious informal workers have mobilized for labor rights over the past 40 years.  Yet, as my research on Bogotá’s recicladores (informal recyclers) movement demonstrates, organized informal workers may confront structural dilemmas as they seek to improve their working lives. As informal workers gain a measure of power to reshape the structure and conditions of their work, but continue to face constraints due to their subordinated positions in the broader political economy, tensions may emerge between the imperatives of combatting exploitation and dispossession.

Until recently, most scholars in the Marxist tradition viewed neither exploitation nor dispossession as significant threats to informal workers. Rather, such workers were dismissed as marginal outcasts, whose labor and assets were superfluous to the needs of capital. Indeed, Karl Marx categorized many workers who would come to be known as “informal” such as rag pickers, organ grinders, knife grinders, tinkers, and porters as part of the “lumpenproletariat,” an underclass of vagabonds and criminals.

Over the past 40 years, however, a formidable body of literature has challenged such assumptions, asserting that informal workers’ vulnerability stems not from their lack of integration into the mainstream economy, but rather from their subordinated positions within it.

Informal worker exploitation

In a 1993 article, Alejandro Portes and Richard Shauffler contended that informal workers provide “a vast subsidy to formal capitalist enterprises” through two mechanisms. First, formal firms directly profit from informal labor either by hiring workers off-the-books or sourcing informal inputs. Second, informal workers provide cheap goods and services to formal workers, thereby increasing the yield of formal wages.

Bogotá’s recyclers, who salvage recyclable materials from garbage left in streets and buildings, face both types of exploitation. They sell their goods to intermediary buyers for as little as 5% of the rate that the industry pays for them. Also, they provide a vital environmental service, saving the municipal government millions of dollars in waste transportation and disposal costs annually, while extending the lifespan of landfills, reducing pollution, and mitigating climate change. Nevertheless, unlike other waste management workers, recyclers have not historically received state remuneration for their services. ­

Waste picker dispossession

A more recent strain of scholarship analyzes informal worker dispossession—that is, the use of state force to cut off access to the means of production and subsistence.

First, sociologist Melanie Samson argues that state actors may seize control of informal industries and transfer them to formal private enterprises. Since the late-1990s, Colombian waste companies have vied to take usurp the increasingly valuable recycling industry. National and municipal officials have attempted to pass laws that would criminalize the act of informal recycling and turn waste left on the street into the private property of waste corporations.

Second, private developers and municipal officials tend to view informal workers as eyesores and nuisances, sending police and private security to evict such workers during processes of “urban renewal” and “beautification”. Bogota’s recyclers not only routinely face persecution from police, but from the social cleansing death squads who have kidnapped and murdered thousands of recyclers, homeless people, and sex workers to whom they refer as “desechables” (disposibles).

The dispossession v. exploitation dilemma

Informal worker movements may experience a tension between whether to prioritize combatting exploitation or dispossession. The structural foundation of this dilemma is informal work’s complex and contradictory relationship to social inclusion. On the one hand, due to the low barriers to entry and ample availability, informal jobs enable billions of people to survive and sometimes thrive on the bottom rungs of the global economy. On the other, informal workers’ exclusion from legal protections and state services entrenches their vulnerability to meager wages, arduous working conditions, and egregious labor rights violations.

Vexingly, policy schemes that seek to reduce the exclusionary traits of informal work through regulation, mechanization, or social enclosure may also undermine its inclusive traits by reducing the quantity and accessibility of available jobs—an example of what Zachary Levenson terms “dispossession by delivery”. Thus, state-led initiatives for the improvement of informal work, particularly those that involve the enclosure or relocation of informal worksites, entail both opportunities and risks.

Such initiatives may pose a dilemma for worker movements: whether to ally with the state against the market in the hopes of improving their conditions and incomes or resist the state out of the fear of losing access to work altogether. If state officials are perceived as having a financial stake in appropriating informal industries or cleansing streets of informal workers, workers may wonder if apparent concessions are not actually Trojan Horses that will destroy them from within, or Faustian Bargains that will empower a minority at the expense of the majority.

The case of Bogotá’s recyclers

For the first 25 years of its existence, Bogota’s recycler movement experienced little tension between the imperatives of combatting exploitation and dispossession, as it had little capacity to do either. In 2012, however, when organized recyclers became influential agents in local and national politics, conflicts exploded among them about how to navigate the twin threats.

One faction of recycler organizations viewed recyclers’ primary threat as their exploitation at the hands of intermediary buyers and therefore favored Mayor Gustavo Petro’s plan for a state-socialist restructuring of the recycling industry aimed at bringing about state ownership and worker control of the means of production. The city would create an official recycling route and processing plants, to be staffed by recycler cooperatives.

A second faction saw their primary threat as their potential dispossession at the hands of the state. They argued that Petro’s plan would reduce the quantity and accessibility of jobs, and feared that subsequent administrations would expel the recyclers altogether and sell off the industry to private interests. They argued that the state should provide resources and remuneration to recyclers in recognition of their environmental contributions even as they continued to work in the informal market.

In the short term, the second faction won out, pressuring the municipal government to abandon its plans to build a public recycling root and processing plants. Instead, the city provided direct benefits—including bi-monthly payments, trucks, safety equipment, city uniforms, and trainings.  Such benefits elevated the incomes and conditions of over 13,000 informal recyclers, but critics claimed that they effectively subsidized intermediary buyers and entrenched recyclers’ exploitation.

This case thus exposes complications of building robust alliances between informal workers and the state, even when state officials see themselves, and have indeed acted, as sympathetic allies. Similar dilemmas are likely to arise in other instances when state schemes for formalization hold potential to improve informal workers’ incomes and conditions, but also to cut off their access to work altogether. This may occur when state officials offer spaces in off-street malls to street vendors, regulated hiring halls for day laborers, positions in formal transport companies to rickshaw drivers, or alternative jobs to artisanal fisherfolk.  Such informal workers can make significant gains through collective organizing, but will continue to run up against dilemmas as long as they operate within the constraints of a broader system of social relations that is based on exploitation and exclusion.

Read more

Manuel Rosaldo. “The antinomies of successful mobilization: Colombian recyclers manoeuvre between dispossession and exploitation.” Social Problems 2019.

image: Galo Naranjo via Flckr (CC by 2.0)

Crossposted from Marxist sociology blog.

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