Organising experience of informal sector workers – a road less travelled

Publication Date17 March 2020
Date17 March 2020
AuthorGirish Balasubramanian,Santanu Sarkar
SubjectHR & organizational behaviour,Industrial/labour relations,Employment law
Organising experience of informal
sector workers a road
less travelled
Girish Balasubramanian
IIM Lucknow, Lucknow, India, and
Santanu Sarkar
XLRI-Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, India
Purpose This paper uses the Social IdentityModel of Collective Action (SIMCA) framework of Zomeren et al.
(2008) to explain the organising experiences of the informal sector workers engaged in large number in the
worlds largest shipbreaking industry located in the western Indian town of Alang.
Design/methodology/approach A single case study approach was adopted to understand the
participation of shipbreaking workers in their trade union and factors that influence their participation.
Findings Sense of cohesive collective identity and injustice alongside efficacy considerations have shaped
the organising experiences and affected the participation of informal sector workers in their union. The trade
union was able to overcome the scourge of invisibility that has been one of the dominant features of informal
sector employment.
Research limitations/implications This paper treated union participation as unidimensional. Besides,
the subjective conceptualization of strengths of perceptions of injustice, identities and efficacy considerations
could be a limitation. The paper does acknowledge the gendered nature of shipbreaking but have not actively
pursued it as a part of our research.
Practical implications The findings of our study are an exemplar for those who intend to organise
informal sector workers, especiallyprecarious workers. The empiricalfindings allude to the role of trade unions
in combating the invisibility, which is one of the defining features of informal sector workers through a
distinctive, cohesive identity inculcated in those workers.
Originality/value This paper has borrowed the SIMCA framework to explore union participation.
Organising experiences of precarious workers from the developing world provides a contextual and an
empirical novelty to our study.
Keywords Informal sector workers, Unionisation, India, Participation in the union, Perceived injustice,
Shared identity, Efficacy consideration
Paper type Research paper
As the globalisation of markets became the defining feature of neo-capitalism, the growth
trajectories of the economy in the developing world suffered a considerable instability
because of neoliberal transformation. The volatility was caused by the liberalisation of labour
markets as well as the industrial relations systems (see Mezzadri, 2010;Baccaro and Howell,
2017). Informalisation of the employment evolved as one of the offshoots of the liberalisation.
The phenomenal growth of the informal sector[1] over the past decades has caught the
attention of the labour researchers and rights advocates as well as the supranational bodies
such as the ILO and World Bank (International Labor Organization, 1972;Blunch et al., 2001).
However, a somewhat similar form of the economy called the bazaar economycharacterised
by low wage and job insecurity sans legal protection existed in few nations (notably India)
(Breman, 1996) even before the advent of an informal economy. Besides, drifting of capital
from one sector to other has historically generated new working classes (Silver, 2003).
Nevertheless, with the informal sector growing manifold, there are rising concerns over
the abysmal working conditions and the indifference of the employers and state towards
keeping track of the participants in the sector (Hart, 1973;Breman, 1996) that made informal
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 26 March 2019
Revised 3 November 2019
20 January 2020
Accepted 29 January 2020
Employee Relations: The
International Journal
Vol. 42 No. 3, 2020
pp. 798-817
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/ER-03-2019-0162
sector workers mostly unaccounted for and invisible. But, with time, even the government in
developing nations under pressure from supranational bodies and global trade organisations
started keeping account of the informal sector workforce whose contribution to the nations
GDP has simultaneously grown substantially[2].
Contrary to the widespread assumption that informality is a temporary phenomenon, we
believe that it is going to last longer and generate new working classes (see Lubell, 1991;
Bangasser, 2000;Gallin, 2001;Silver, 2003). Reformists also do not consider informal
employment a scourge but a feature of the globalised neoliberal economy that accentuated
local participation of labour in global value chains through employment flexibility, which is
another reason why we repudiate the temporary nature of informality.
Rising income inequality between the workers from the formal and informal sector has
spawned disquiet amongst the informal sector workers who began hankering for equal
treatment (Barua, 2004;Roychowdhury, 2005). Problems of these workers transcend the
issues of labour relations as their working and living conditions were subject to sharp
criticism globally by unions and labour rights advocates. Neoliberal reforms have
accentuated the income and class disparities as the race to the bottompushed the
informal sector workers to the brink (Breman, 2013).
Widely growing informalisation of work transcends the traditional role of the union and
urged scholars and labour rights advocates to see beyond the proposals of ILO for the
problems to be understood more universally within labour rights. Organising informal sector
workers to protect the labour rights and rising with a united voice and expanding
membership and collective bargaining coverage were perceived as realistic means to
counteract the capital. The movement created new generation labour leaders and grassroots
organisers and campaigners amidst heterogeneity of workforce, low literacy rates, and the
dispersed and precarious nature of work that generally outweighs and constrains
Scholars have mostly upheld the use of innovative local organising strategies (see
Bhowmick, 2009;Bhattacharjee 2001) in the informal sector. These include escalating poor
working conditions and living standards of the informal sector workers through local
campaigns followed by cross-border solidarity (e.g. justice for janitors(Waldinger et al.,
2002) and Ravenswood(Juravich and Bronfenbrenner, 2000)). Lobbying to influence the
policymakers and engaging the community to support the workerscause (Agarwala, 2006)
are the other from a wide range of innovative approaches that have been tried out.
Studies that narrated the cases of successful organising experiences have emphasised the
attributes of effective organising (see Chen et al., 2002;Jenkins, 2013;Routh, 2015;Bhowmick,
2005). But the list is far from exhaustive. For instance, little scholarly attention has been paid
so far to the role of membersparticipation in organising success (Kelly and Kelly, 1994).
Likewise, the factors that influence informal sector workers to get unionised have seldom
been in the spotlight of academic inquiry. Moreover, informal sector workers and their
struggles share a resemblance with the class struggle in Marxist theory (Silver, 2003), which
makes it an interesting area of inquiry.
In this study, we not only chose to put an accent on the union formation process but also
tried to identify the factors that are instrumental in organising informal sector workers. By
applying a relatively less explored Social Identity Model of Collective Action (or SIMCA) of
Zomermen et al. (2008), we deconstruct the formation of informal sector workersunion. The
model explained the motivation as well as the participation of informal sector workers while
we unfolded their organising experiences. By drawing on a relatively successful case of a
union of informal sector workers from a developing nation, we explored the specific role of
perceived injustice among these workers and their desire for distinctive collective identity
alongside efficacy considerations secured by their union in determining their participation in
the union. In the next section, we delved into the relevant literature to outline the broad
experience of
informal sector

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