Long dismissed as too weak and fragmented to collectively organize, millions of informal workers have begun mobilizing for labour rights over the past 40 years. As informal workers gain a measure of power to reshape the structure and conditions of their work, but continue to face constraints due to their subordinated positions in the broader political economy, tensions may emerge between the imperatives of combatting exploitation and dispossession. Recent conflicts over recycler rights policy in Bogotá, Colombia are illustrative of this dilemma. For the first 25 years of its existence, the recycler rights movement experienced little tension between these two imperatives, as it had little capacity to do either. In recent years, however, recyclers have become powerful political agents, and since 2012 conflicts have erupted among recyclers and state officials over how to navigate the twin threat. Drawing on 12 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this article exposes both potentials and constraints of state-led interventions to improve informal livelihoods. Such interventions are likely to entail thorny tradeoffs as long as they occur within a broader system of social relations that is based on exploitation and exclusion.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes