Chapter 11: Informal work
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Most adults in the world work, but most of their work does not ‘count’. Dominant approaches to the study of economics tend to focus on formal (official, recorded, taxed, regulated) activities that generate forms of monetary and presumably market-based compensation. This focused attention excludes the socially necessary but unpaid domestic labor that ensures household survival and has traditionally been assigned to women. Indeed, ‘women’s work’ is the enduring stereotype of the most familiar of these domestic reproductive activities: cooking, cleaning and caretaking. At the same time, a narrow focus on formal, market-based production marginalizes myriad forms of ‘work’ that constitute the primary source of income in the global South, shape the resource-pooling strategies of households worldwide, and are an increasingly significant aspect of economic life in the global North. Informal activities, informality and informalization share a reference to laboring activity – that is, work – that falls outside of formal (regulated, taxed) economic arrangements. Manuel Castells and Alejandro Portes offered an early and widely cited definition that characterized as informal ‘all income-earning activities that are not regulated by the state in social environments where similar activities are regulated’ (1989, p. 12). Barbara Harriss-White’s recent, succinct definition states that ‘informal activity is work outside the regulative ambit of the state’ (2010, p. 170). For most of the twentieth century, this activity did not appear to count for much; economists viewed informality as marginal to formal market transactions and expected it to wane as states underwent modernizing processes and industrialized economic production.

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