by Rina Agarwala
Since the 1980s, as governments have reduced state welfare rhetoric and policy, the proportion of unprotected, “informal” workers has increased. As a result, we have witnessed an unexpected increase in the proportion of the world’s workers who do not receive secure wages or social benefits either from employers or the state. This is not news. In recent years, many scholars and policy makers have highlighted this growing population of unprotected workers, variously calling them “informal”, “precarious”, “casual”, “non-standard”, “Post-Fordist”, and “flexible.” In some cases, these trends are celebrated; in others, they are critiqued.
What explains the worldwide increase in informal employment? The most common explanation is that the pressures of increased competition in a globalized and liberalized marketplace have forced firms to decrease costs by relying on unprotected workers. While this is true, it is equally important to remember that informal work is not a product of neoliberalism. Long before the rise of neoliberalism, informal labor comprised a large section of the labor force in the Global South, because they subsidized the minority of formally employed, protected workers that emerged during the industrialization era (in the South and North).
Informal workers have long been, and not surprisingly continue to be, a central, structural feature of modern economies. After all, it is informal workers that have and continue to (albeit in increasing numbers) construct our buildings, build our roads, grow and sell fruits and vegetables, clean homes and streets, sew clothes, weld car parts, and make shoes – not to mention the boxes they come in.