Unionizing informal workers in Ghana

Laura Puttkamer, Accra Community Manager
Accra, 15 July 2016

The informal sector plays a crucial role in sustaining Accra’s economy. However, informal workers have low wages and are very dependent on their employers. Ghana has a relatively well-developed union landscape. Informal workers have been organizing in Informal Workers Associations for the last few decades in order to create a lasting and sustainable path towards improving their working conditions and quality of life.

In 2013, the Council for Informal Workers Association (CIWA) was established and in 2015 it became its own union – UNIWA (Union of Informal Workers Associations). UNIWA is a member of Ghana’s "mouthpiece" for unionized workers, the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which consists of eighteen national unions with a total worker membership of about 500,000. Although informal workers are still not represented anywhere near well enough considering their numbers, UNIWA is a step in the right direction for informal workers’ rights. Informal workers will now have to be taken more seriously by the Ghanaian government. So far, little of the government-promised measures like minimum wages and improved social protection have been implemented.

UNIWA offers support for demanding fair wages, clarifying legal issues and disputes, and implementing a healthy work environment. Many other TUC unions allow informal workers as affiliates. So far, UNIWA has nine informal workers associations as members (including the Greater Accra Tomato Traders Association, Ga East Traders Association and New Makola Market Traders Union) and it is expected that many more will join in 2016. TUC offers vocational training for workers in the country’s informal economy. This also includes awareness-building of workers’ rights and adequate working conditions, including better account management.

However, there is also some scepticism regarding this unionization of informal labor. The financial burden of paying membership fees to unions or associations is considered high for some informal workers, and although UNIWA is growing in numbers, they are still dependent on political will. Leverage is increasing, though, and UNIWA stated that they are "riding on the leverage of the TUC." Access to UNIWA is being simplified to include as many workers as possible.

Another concern is the monopoly of the union. Informal workers who are not part of it may lose the little bargaining power they have. Their working conditions will continue to be determined by their employer and there is a danger that the government might react to UNIWA’s demands but neglect the other informal workers. A strike is one of TUC’s main strategies and its deputy General Secretary said that TUC will count on the numbers of informal workers when striking. This might prove to be problematic since every day without work is an unpaid day.

Aside from unions and associations, there are other bottom-up initiatives for improving informal workers’ labor conditions. Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) conducted an Informal Economy Budget Analysis in 2013/14 together with workers to examine how government budgets address the informal economy. While their results were shocking (i.e., the local governments show almost no support for informal economy workers), the analysis served to voice this concern of lacking support. Together with the TUC, WIEGO also launched StreetNet in Ghana, an organization of street vendors that supports negotiations between informal vendors, traders, and local governments with a focus on full participation of informal workers.

In conclusion, Accra’s informal workforce is essential to the city’s economic success and needs to be supported much better by the government in order to guarantee inclusiveness and improved livelihoods. The most interesting initiatives, however, come from the bottom up with small associations joining forces with a large union to advocate for the rights of informal workers.

Photo Credit: Francisco Anzola, Accra Market, 2008

Permalink to this discussion: http://urb.im/c1607
Permalink to this post: http://urb.im/ca1607ace