Top-Down and Bottom-Up Formalization: Waste Pickers’ Struggles for Labor Rights in São Paulo and Bogotá

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Many labor scholars and practitioners see the regulation of informal work as necessary to protect the world’s most vulnerable workers from market predation. This article advances an alternative perspective: State regulation is a versatile tool that can be wielded either by workers or by elites, often toward contradictory ends. Accordingly, the key question for those seeking to promote decent work is not whether to formalize informal jobs, but rather, formalization by and for whom? The author uses this approach to analyze differential outcomes between efforts to formalize the work of waste pickers in São Paulo, Brazil, and Bogotá, Colombia. Drawing on 24 months of field research, the author documents how São Paulo’s formalization policies benefited few street waste pickers, whereas those of Bogotá elevated the incomes, conditions, and voices of thousands of comparable workers. The analysis suggests that formalization is likely to yield pro-worker outcomes only when workers possess sufficient power over policy design and implementation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)32-61
Number of pages30
JournalILR Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Strategy and Management
  • Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation

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