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    Organising Workers in the Informal Economy: The Experience of the Self Employed Women’s Union, 1994-2004.

    By Annie Devenish and Caroline Skinner School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal1

    August 2004

    1. Introduction ...............................................................................................................2 2. Research methods...................................................................................................3 3. Context from which SEWU stems; the context to which SEWU responds .....4

    3.1 Labour market trends and South African informal economy statistics4 3.2 Implications of recent policy for those in the informal economy.........6

    4. The Self Employed Women’s Association in India .............................................8 5. Organising in the informal economy in South Africa......................................10

    5.1 Challenges in organising those working in the informal economy.....11 5.2 The formal union movement’s response to informal work....................12 5.3 Other organisations.......................................................................................13

    6. Documentation and critical analysis of the SEWU experience...............14 6.1 Formation and structure of SEWU ..............................................................14 6.2 Trends in SEWU membership .......................................................................15 6.3 Staff strategies and dynamics ....................................................................18 6.4 Financial sustainability and relationship with donors.............................20 6.5 SEWU’s activities and achievements ........................................................21

    6.5.1 Negotiations and collective bargaining..............................................21 6.5.1 Policy influence and interventions ........................................................23 6.5.3 Skills training and education and training ...........................................25 6.5.4 Access to credit and savings facilities..................................................28 6.5.5 Developing leaders ..................................................................................30 6.5.6 Research .....................................................................................................31 6.5.7 International, regional and local alliances..........................................32

    7. Successes and failures......................................................................................34 8. Conclusion ..........................................................................................................35 References ......................................................................................................................36 Appendix 1: Interviews Conducted..........................................................................39

    1 This research was conducted for a joint School of Development Studies and Centre for Civil Society Project on new social movements in the post apartheid period. This is a more detailed research report produced for the project, a shorter and updated version of which will appear in Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in South Africa, which is edited by Ballard, R., Habib, A. and Valodia, I. and will be published by University of KwaZulu-Natal Press to be launch early in 2006.

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    1. Introduction

    Worldwide there is a growth in the numbers of people working in the informal economy, either self employed in unregistered enterprises or as wage workers in unprotected jobs. This is part of a documented international process of the informalisation of work (see for example, Standing 1999). Currently between 25% and 30% of the South African labour force is working in the informal economy (Devey, Skinner and Valodia, 2003a). This is one of the few areas of employment growth since the democratic transition. Individual incomes in the informal economy tend to be extremely low. International experience however demonstrates that collective action can result in significant improvements in working and living conditions. One of the best examples of this is the Self Employed Women’s Association in India. It is this collective action around work based issues for those active in the informal economy in South Africa that this research project seeks to explore. Traditionally, in South Africa trade unions were seen as the primary arena for organising the working poor. Given the process of informalisation of work, the traditional formal economy worker belonging to a trade union is becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the workforce. The trade union movement has had difficulty in dealing with this issue and in organising informal workers into the ambit of the formal trade union system. Some trade unions have become ‘social movement unions’ speaking on behalf of those in formal jobs, but also the unemployed and informal workers. Allied to this, and partly as a result of their dissatisfaction with the formal trade union movement (even so called social movement unions), informal workers have begun to organise themselves. These new informal economy workers unions are an interesting component of new social movements in South Africa. The type of organisation, the issues fought, the means of organisation, the links to other social movements, differ substantially from traditional trade unions. This study offers the broader project an insight into this arena of social action.

    This study focuses on the Self Employed Women’s Union or SEWU. SEWU was launched in 1994, at the time of the political transition. SEWU’s constituency is self employed women working in the survivalist end of the economy – largely street traders and home based workers. As will be argued in the paper, SEWU is somewhat of a model. It focuses on empowerment of members, through leadership training and experience as well as training relevant to members’ businesses. At a local level SEWU has lobbied for its members to secure rights to operate and access to infrastructure. It is active in national and international policy making forums. So far there has not been a comprehensive account or analysis of SEWU and its activities from its inception to date. This project aims to document the 10 years of SEWU’s activities and by so doing to make a contribution to the literature and understanding of the informal economy in South Africa as well as broader discussions about the nature of social movements in post apartheid South Africa.

    The paper starts with a brief reflection on the research methods employed in the study in section 2. In section 3 we analyse the context from which SEWU stems and the context to which SEWU responds. In this we review recent

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    labour market trends and the policy environment that SEWU is operating in. Section 4 outlines the experiences of the organisation on which SEWU is modelled - the Self Employed Women’s Association or SEWA in India. SEWA’s activities and achievements are outlined as a point of comparison for the SEWU case study. Section 5 reflects on organising in the informal economy in South Africa, particularly what progress has been made by the union movement in organising those working in the informal economy. The bulk of the report is constituted by section 6 which documents and critically analyses the organisational structure, membership trends and activities and achievements of SEWU over the last 10 years. Section 7 synthesises the findings by concentrating on the successes and failures of the organisation.

    At the time of writing SEWU was confronting serious funding problems that threatened their long term sustainability. SEWU’s membership numbers are small. Although SEWU does not see itself as a social movement its significance is important given not only the growth of informal employment and its associated problems, but the traditional role that unions have played in times of mobilisation for social changes. SEWU is an organisational response to marginalisation in post apartheid South Africa that has experienced some success in empowering a group that is particularly marginalised. We argue that SEWU holds some lessons for other social movements in South Africa. These are outlined in the conclusion.

    2. Research methods

    The research commenced with a comprehensive literature search and review. This review focused on four broad areas. First, a context analysis – particularly focusing on labour market and policy trends in the post apartheid period – was conducted. Second, previous research on SEWU was assessed with a view to identifying critical gaps (see for example Lund and Skinner, 1999; Motala, 2002 and Bennett, 2002). Third, a scan was conducted on literature detailing the activities of other organisations organising informal economy workers in South Africa. Finally, the substantial literature on the Self Employed Women’s Association in India was reviewed.

    This literature review laid the foundation for the primary data collection process. This process consisted of documentation analysis and key informant interviews. SEWU has a comprehensive set of annual reports, reports to funders, newsletters for members as well as submissions to national commissions and policy processes. Further there have been organisational evaluations. All these documents were collated and assessed.

    Twenty six key informant interviews were conducted from the beginning of February to the end of May 2004 (see Appendix 1 for details). A lengthy interview

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