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The Work of Informal Transport Workers: Essential yet exploited - a conversation with Alana Dave

news 02 Mar 2022

 The following interview is taken from Global Labour Rights Reporter, from International Lawyers Assisting Workers. You can read the full journal, or this piece in French and Spanish, by clicking here.


Ruwan Subasinghe: Most of the world’s transport workers are informal. They provide essential services for millions of people across the world, yet they are often denied fundamental rights and subject to poor working conditions. Can you briefly explain how informal urban transport systems are structured and how this results in decent work deficits for transport workers? Can you also please elaborate on the types of decent work deficits in the sector?

Alana Dave: The informal transport economy is dominated in the Global South by the target system. In the target system, most informal drivers have to pay a vehicle owner a daily financial target, in effect it is a rental fee. This can be very substantial. Every day the driver has to collect sufficient fares to pay the target alongside covering other outgoing costs like fuel, paying conductors and mechanics, and police bribes. The leftover cash is the wage that drivers can take home for themselves. It is meagre! For example, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, more than 90% of drivers sell their labour to vehicle owners using this target system without a contract of employment. They have no guaranteed daily income. They carry all the risk while the profits for the vehicle owners are guaranteed. The target system entrenches very low and insecure incomes for workers. It forces drivers and other workers in informal transport to work exceptionally long hours. For example, in Nairobi, Kenya, they work for more than 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. This leads to fatigue, accidents and generates fierce competition between drivers. It results in over-crowding and often violence. Health and safety conditions are absolutely appalling for these drivers. In addition to the problems which I have already mentioned, they can’t access basic facilities like toilets, fresh water, or shelter from the sun. These workers have no rights or access to any social or labour protections, so are extremely vulnerable.

Although they perform incredibly valuable work, these workers exist outside of the legal framework. It is particularly the target system and the structure of the informal system which leads to these decent work deficits. Informal transport workers should not be blamed or stigmatised, they are finding ways of surviving in an extremely exploitative system. It is a systemic problem. And of course, some groups of workers, like women, young workers, migrant workers, are particularly vulnerable.


RS: You mentioned that women, young people, migrants, older people and other vulnerable groups often disproportionately face the most serious decent work deficits in the informal economy. Can you elaborate?

AD: Yes, I will pick up on the issue of women in particular. They face major discrimination in the informal transport sector. Some occupations are mostly dominated by men. Women are often found in the most precarious, low-paid jobs in informal transport, such as cleaning, vending at the transport hubs, and catering. They totally depend on servicing informal transport for their livelihoods. This is very interesting for the ITF and transport unions because it challenges us to think about what actually constitutes ‘a transport worker.’ So for example, in the main bus terminal in Bogota, Colombia, women work as vendors, cleaners, toilet attendants, petrol pump attendants, security guards, couriers, and ticket sellers. But, there are many obstacles for women, to gain access to training, licensing, and the experience necessary to progress to other most stable jobs. They face major decent work deficits, for example, access to sanitation. There are very particular impacts for women workers which potentially can result in serious health problems by lack of access to sanitation. They also face many different forms of gender-based violence and harassment from both passengers and other workers in the system. The ratification and application of ILO Convention 190 is particularly important in this context. 

We often find high numbers of migrant workers amongst informal transport workers. They face extreme vulnerability because often they are working in countries where they do not have the legal right to work. They are even more exposed and face the additional burden of police harassment and xenophobia. 


RS: COVID-19 has had a terrible impact on transport workers worldwide. I imagine that informal transport workers continue to face significant challenges. Is this true? Can you elaborate on this?

AD: There has been catastrophic impacts on informal transport workers. COVID-19 has highlighted and further entrenched the extreme vulnerability of informal transport workers. The failure to protect informal transport workers by governments and employers means they were faced with the almost impossible choice of either working and risking infection and falling sick or falling even deeper into poverty because they were removed from their sources of livelihoods.

At work, informal transport workers mostly had to take their own health and safety precautions including providing their own personal protective equipment (PPE). And if they were infected, they had no access to sick pay or paid leave. But COVID-19 also highlighted the vital role of this industry in providing a mobility service for other critical workers and generally keeping cities moving during the pandemic. The very big challenge now is the financial sustainability of informal services. Many workers cannot pay back the loans that they have got on their vehicles. And of course, there is widespread unemployment. For example, at the moment, the South African government has set up COVID-19 taxi relief fund,4 and minibus drivers (informal drivers) can apply to this fund for financial assistance. However, most countries have absolutely no emergency financial assistance for informal operators. Even when they do, it is not sufficient and will not benefit most informal workers, such as conductors, mechanics, and vendors.

We should also remember that informal public transport does not receive state subsidies. So, this sector is at a critical juncture with millions of workers relying on it for their livelihoods. 


RS: ILO Recommendation 204 of 2015 (R204) concerning the transition from the informal to the formal economy has been hailed as a landmark instrument giving guidance to States on the transition to the formal economy as means for realising decent work and for achieving inclusive development. Has the Recommendation been put to good use in the informal transport sector? Can you cite some examples?

AD: In informal transport, it is disappointing that the majority of States have not moved towards an inclusive transition. R204 provides a very strong set of recommendations, but we have not yet seen the benefits of implementation in the transport sector. Even when new models of formal public transport are introduced, like Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), the impacts on and involvement of informal transport workers in the transition is mostly disregarded. ITF and its affiliates are campaigning for labour impact assessments and worker-led formalisation.

There is a huge opportunity to bring about this type of transition as part of the ‘recovery from COVID-19.’ There is an inspiring example led by one of the ITF affiliates in Cebu City in the Philippines. Jeepneys are the cheapest and most widely used form of public transport in the Philippines, but workers face serious decent work deficits. In 2016, the Philippines government announced a modernisation program that would have risked thousands of jobs. ITF affiliates resisted this, and partly as a result of this resistance and now COVID-19, our affiliate NCTU has negotiated with the government to form cooperatives, which could bid for the routes. The cooperatives are made up of NCTU members who are jeepney drivers. They have negotiated service contracts with the ‘land transportation franchising board’ which works in very close coordination with municipalities. This system is more collective, and workers do not have to compete with each other. They drive cleaner units, which is improving health and safety conditions for workers. For the first time, these workers have access to social security, agreed wages, overtime pay and established working hours. This is a really good example of a worker-led and inclusive transition to formalisation.

Another good example is in Dakar, Senegal. The national government recently launched a strategy to promote a gradual transition towards formalisation. The ITF is working together with unions in Dakar, where they are introducing a new bus rapid transit system. This should be an opportunity to create new formal jobs for transport workers and also improve conditions for informal workers through integrating informal transport services with the formal public transport system. As a result of trade union campaigning, we have had a commitment from the transport authority to negotiate this transition with unions. 

RS: Recommendation 204 calls on States to ensure that those in the informal economy enjoy freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. However, in practice, informal workers’ unions and associations sometimes struggle to identify a willing bargaining partner. Is this a problem in the informal transport sector? Can you provide examples of successful organising drives resulting in the adoption of collective bargaining or other agreements?

AD: These are very pertinent issues in informal transport. When there is no clear employment relationship, it is really hard to identify who the collective bargaining partner is and decide which level of authority to engage with to resolve specific issues. This can be confusing for informal workers as well as for their union representatives. On the whole, informal workers and unions see municipalities as their natural counterparts because so many municipal policies directly affect them. I also want to emphasise that many unions want to move away from engaging municipalities only when dealing with problems such as police harassment or access to parking spaces. They also want to fully participate in the design and implementation of the policies that define their workspace, including when new formal public transport services are introduced.

In Nepal, ITF affiliated unions organised the e-rickshaws, which are the electric powered tricycles. In 2016, a new union was formed of the rickshaw drivers, and within a year 8,000 workers had joined the union, including a significant number of women. They formed committees which negotiate directly with government agencies at a district level over the issue of licenses. There has been a great increase in the collective bargaining power with other decision makers such as police officers, transport officers, municipal officers and other government organisations.

Another positive example from Nepal, as a result of union organising, is that the Kathmandu administration officer, recently agreed to 42 new toilet facilities including toilet facilities for women. The confidence of the union to negotiate on behalf of informal workers and identify counterparts is growing.

In Uganda, the ITF affiliate ATGWU has focused on electing and training the leaders of informal transport workers. Firstly they ensured that leaders were democratically elected, and then focused on training and building their capacity to identify and negotiate with their counterparts. Government and local authorities now consult the workers directly, something that never used to happen because of the weak and fragmented organisation of workers. The authorities used to say that they did not know who to consult or engage with. The union has managed to turn this around. It is a powerful example of what is possible when you link strong organisation to building collective bargaining power and capacity.  

RS: What role can legislation play in ensuring a transition in the informal transport sector while also protecting and improving existing livelihoods during the transition?

AD: Legislation has an absolutely vital role to play. ILO Convention 190 has to be widely ratified, so that it is transposed into national law. It will directly benefit informal transport workers. The policies, principles, and recommendations of R204 provide excellent guidance and we have to ensure that they guide national law. The ITF would like to collaborate with the social partners to develop ILO guidelines on implementing R204 in urban transport. Governments and employers would also benefit from opportunities to regulate large parts of the economy that are unregulated. For example, the target system can provide a new revenue base for tax collection. It also gives governments the framework to improve working conditions and widen the access to social security.

Informal workers themselves have a very clear idea of what their rights should be. ITF affiliated unions have developed an informal workers’ charter,9 that reflects the ideas and rights based struggles of workers. Thus, they need to play a direct role in shaping legislation so that it reflects their needs and interests.

Legislation should provide the framework in which different stakeholders such as governments, unions, and employers have a voice in the transition. There could be a statutory process for dialogue, that becomes institutionalised in cities and countries so that there is genuine inclusion in the transition to formalisation.


RS: There is a clarion call for governments to take action. Do you think litigation [against public authorities] can be part of the broader strategy for protecting informal transport workers?

AD: I have really mixed feelings about that question. I think litigation is really important but not in isolation of a wider strategy to strengthen the power of informal worker organisations. So I think that litigation can be really effective where legislation is not being implemented. We need to hold public authorities accountable.

But overall, if you look at legislation around the world, informal workers are not covered. They are completely excluded. They exist outside the legal framework. Our focus has to be on getting the rights and interests of informal workers recognised in the law. There are too many vested interests for us to be able to win this only through litigation. It is going to require building the representation and organisation of workers themselves, so they can campaign on their own behalf for improved rights.


RS: Finally, how can the ILAW Network, made up worker-side lawyers from across the world, support ITF affiliates and contacts organise and represent workers in the informal transport sector? Do you see a role that this Network can play?

AD: You have a really excellent network, and it has a really important role to play. Supporting the capacity building of unions to negotiate with their bargaining counterparts, on both very specific issues and also on the bigger transition to formalisation, is very important. This was a very important outcome of the ILO technical meeting on the future of work in urban transport last year. This must include capacity building for governments and employers to effectively engage in an inclusive transition.

We also need information sharing and education on ILO R204 and ideas on how the recommendation should be implemented in the context of urban transport. From a union perspective, that would really help us develop strong proposals when there is an opportunity to negotiate such guidelines with governments and employers.

Occupational safety and health (OSH) is likely to be recognised as a fundamental right this year by the ILO. What will that mean for informal transport workers? Will this improve their healthy and safety? So we need support to understand the specific issues related to OSH as a fundamental right for informal transport workers.

Lastly, as I mentioned before, we need to build the campaigning capacity of transport unions to lobby for laws that protect their rights and interests. 


RS: Thank you so much. It is a long list, but that is what we are here for, and we are more than happy to assist. Thank you for taking this time to be interviewed for the ILAW Network’s Global Labour Rights Reporter Journal. 



Alana Dave

Alana Dave, Urban Transport Director, International Transport Workers

Alana Dave leads the ITF’s global programme on public transport. The programme includes a number of strategic projects on labour impacts and issues in public transport. She is responsible for developing and promoting a trade union public transport policy to further decent work, social justice and gender equality. Alana represents the ITF in external relationships with transport stakeholders including UITP, C40 and Sustainable Mobility for All.


Ruwan Subasinghe

Ruwan Subasinghe, Legal Director, International Transport Workers and Advisory Board Member of the ILAW Network

Ruwan Subasinghe is Legal Director at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global trade union body representing over 18.5 million workers in 147 countries. He specialises in labour, human rights, and international law. Ruwan represents the ITF at external bodies, including the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). He is frequently called up as an expert on international labour standards and, among other things, guest lectures at the International Training Centre of the ILO. Ruwan sits on the Advisory Boards of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network and Cornell University’s New Conversations Project. He is also a Board member of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI). Prior to joining the ITF, Ruwan practised at an international law firm based in London. He holds a Bachelor of Laws Degree from the University of Durham and a Master’s Degree in Industrial Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science