The decision of the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) to make a « Watch report on economic and social rights in the Arab countries » centered on informal labor was a major challenge. However, it was a challenge that had to be faced after the events of the « Arab Spring ». Tarek Mohamed Bouazizi, who ignited it, was not an unemployed. He was a 27-years-old informal worker in a peripheral region of Tunisia. He did not benefit from any form of development that could guaranteed his human dignity. He was not a waged agricultural employee like his father, but worked for his own account. This means that he was a kind of entrepreneur from the private sector; the role of which and of the youth are praised by the current literature on economic growth. His desperation and suicide burning himself resulted precisely from the repression he experienced because he was « informal », and that he should be bound by the legislations in force, what ended with the confiscation of his means of subsistence. It is thus clear that addressing this challenge is at the heart of tackling development issues in the Arab countries.
From the outset, it has also been clear that addressing the challenge will encounter difficulties at different levels. There is first a knowledge and conceptual issue, related to the proper meaning of “informal employment”. How is it defined? And whom does it exactly include in the labor force? These questions being asked while “informal employment” is absent as a fundamental conceptual, statistical, political and struggle issue in the Arab countries, despite the fact that this type of labor represents today a large share of total employment and continues to increase.
Official statistics do not comply with International Labor Organization (ILO) standards to monitor it, neither in labor force surveys (LFS) nor in household income surveys (HIS). The efforts of social and economic researchers rarely address the characteristics and diversity of its types, or the dependencies and power relations it implicates. Moreover, most of the trade union struggles are not based on securing “dignity” and basic rights of those involved in informal employment, but are more focused on formal workers, especially in the government sector, as they are easier to organize in trade unions. In addition, Arab governments do not consider it as a main subject of their policies, as it is an embarrassing subject illustrating the gap between the existing reality and the role of the State set forth in regulations on labor, on social protection of citizens and on redistribution.It also points out the inability of Arab governments for decades to implement a sustainable development that can provide decent living and prosperity. Therefore, informal employment is only a generic title in social struggles and in some government policies, with no specific content, adapted from ILO literature on « decent work ». In front of every attempt to study it in depth, and while informal employment is an essential part of the division of labor in the postmodern and globalization era, especially in developing countries, emerges its confusion with smuggling, law evasion and « informal » criminality; what increases the inferior perception of this type of work.
Civic and economic rights are the core issues of informal labor, i.e. the rights to a health insurance, medical services and medicines; the rights to a pension when workers are aged and unable to work; the rights to an income that provides a decent life, whether it is a wage or a profit on a simple trade; the rights to housing, clean drinking water, sanitation, social services and infrastructure, and the rights to education and vocational training to adapt to economic and technical developments. All these rights are guaranteed in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that is inherent and complementary to the International Bill of Human Rights, and are guaranteed by the Constitutions of the majority of the Arab countries. However, only decreasing few workers enjoy these rights.
Securing these rights for all citizens through workers is the primary role in redistribution and social justice of the State. The other main role is the organization of social relations, especially labor relations, between employers and employees, regardless of the nature of these relations and their changes with the technological developments. This organization role comprises ensuring the freedom of association, including the right to strike, in addition to the right to collective bargaining in which the State has no role other than mediation. The role of the legislature is to enact legislations protecting these rights, and that of the judiciary to enforce the International Law, Constitutions and laws.Of course, these roles cannot be truly fulfilled without the State promoting economic and social development, protecting the countries against the effects of internal and global crises. Such challenges have become more acute since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” which turned in some Arab countries into civil wars with catastrophic consequences for the country itself and its neighbors, including consequences on informal labor.
This Arab watch report addresses the issue of informal labor primarily in terms of rights, what creates another challenge in monitoring the status of these generally absent rights, the prospects of struggles for their attainment, and the State’s key role in securing them.