Informal sector

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The informal sector, informal economy, or gray economy[1][2] is that part of an economy that is not taxed, monitored by any form of government or included in any gross national product (GNP), unlike the formal economy.[3]

Other terms used to refer to the informal sector can include the black market, the shadow economy, the underground economy, the agora, and System D. Associated idioms include "under the table", "off the books" and "working for cash".


Black market speculant on graffiti, Kharkiv

The original use of the term ‘informal sector’ is attributed to the economic development model put forward by W. Arthur Lewis, used to describe employment or livelihood generation primarily within the developing world. It was used to describe a type of employment that was viewed as falling outside of the modern industrial sector.[4] An alternative definition uses job security as the measure of formality, defining participants in the informal economy as those 'who do not have employment security, work security and social security.”[5] While both of these definitions imply a lack of choice or agency in involvement with the informal economy, participation may also be driven by a wish to avoid regulation or taxation. This may manifest as unreported employment, hidden from the state for tax, social security or labour law purposes, but legal in all other aspects.[6]

The term is also useful in describing and accounting for forms of shelter or living arrangements that are similarly unlawful, unregulated, or not afforded protection of the state. ‘Informal economy’ is increasingly replacing ‘informal sector’[3] as the preferred descriptor for this activity.

Informality, both in housing and livelihood generation has often been seen as a social ill, and described either in terms of what participant’s lack, or wish to avoid. A countervailing view, put forward by prominent Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen is that the modern or new ‘informal’ sector is the product and driver of advanced capitalism and the site of the most entrepreneurial aspects of the urban economy, led by creative professionals such as artists, architects, designers and soft-ware developers.[7] While this manifestation of the informal sector remains largely a feature of developed countries, increasingly systems are emerging to facilitate similarly qualified people in developing countries to participate[8]


The informal sector is largely characterized by two qualities: easy entry, meaning anyone who wishes to join the sector can find some sort of work which will result in cash earnings, and a lack of stable employer-employee relationships.[9] Workers who participate in the informal economy are typically classified as employed. The type of work that makes up the informal economy is diverse. It can range from self-employment or unpaid family labor to upper-tier informal activities, which have more limited entry. The upper-tier informal activities have higher set-up costs, which might include complicated licensing regulations, and irregular hours of operation.However, most workers in the informal sector, even those are self-employed or wage workers, do not have access to secure work, benefits, welfare protection, or representation.[10] These features differ from businesses and employees in the formal sector which have regular hours of operation, a regular location and other structured benefits.[9]

The most prevalent types of work in the informal economy are home-based workers and street vendors. Home-based workers are more numerous while street vendors are more visible. Combined, the two fields make up about 10-15% of the non-agricultural workforce in developing countries and over 5% of the workforce in developed countries.[10]

While participation in the informal sector can be stigmatized, many workers engage in informal ventures by choice, for either economic or non-economic reasons. Some of the economic motivations include the ability to evade taxes, the freedom to circumvent regulations and licensing requirements, and the capacity to maintain certain government benefits.[11] A study of informal workers in Costa Rica illustrated other economic reasons for staying in the informal sector, as well as non-economic factors. First, they felt they would earn more money through their informal sector work than at a job in the formal economy. Second, even if workers made less money, working in the informal sector offered them more independence, the chance to select their own hours, the opportunity to work outside and near friends, etc. While jobs in the formal economy might bring more security and regularity, or even pay better, the combination of monetary and psychic rewards from working in the informal sector proves appealing for many workers.[12]

The informal sector was historically recognized as an opposition to formal economy, meaning it included all income earning activities beyond legally regulated enterprises. However, this understanding is too inclusive and vague, and certain activities that could be included by that definition are not considered part of the informal economy. As the International Labor Organization defined the informal sector in 2002, the informal sector does not include the criminal economy. While production or employment arrangements in the informal economy may not be strictly legal, the sector produces and distributes legal goods and services. The criminal economy produces illegal goods and services.[10] The informal economy also does not include the reproductive or care economy, which is made up of unpaid domestic work and care activities. The informal economy is part of the market economy, meaning it produces goods and services for sale and profit. Unpaid domestic work and care activities do not contribute to that, and as a result, are not a part of the informal economy.[10]


Black market in Shinbashi, Japan, 1946

Governments have tried to regulate (formalize) aspects of their economies for as long as surplus wealth has existed which is at least as early as Sumer. Yet no such regulation has ever been wholly enforceable. Archaeological and anthropological evidence strongly suggests that people of all societies regularly adjust their activity within economic systems in attempt to evade regulations. Therefore, if informal economic activity is that which goes unregulated in an otherwise regulated system then informal economies are as old as their formal counterparts, if not older. The term itself, however, is much more recent. The optimism of the modernization theory school of development had led most people in the 1950s and 1960s to believe that traditional forms of work and production would disappear as a result of economic progress in developing countries. As this optimism proved to be unfounded, scholars turned to study more closely what was then called the traditional sector. They found that the sector had not only persisted, but in fact expanded to encompass new developments. In accepting that these forms of productions were there to stay, scholars began using the term informal sector, which is credited to the British anthropologist Keith Hart in a study on Ghana in 1973 but also alluded to by the International Labour Organization in a widely read study on Kenya in 1972.

Since then the informal sector has become an increasingly popular subject of investigation, not just in economics, but also in sociology, anthropology and urban planning. With the turn towards so called post-fordist modes of production in the advanced developing countries, many workers were forced out of their formal sector work and into informal employment. In a seminal collection of articles, The Informal Economy. Studies in Advanced and Less Developed Countries, Alejandro Portes and collaborators emphasized the existence of an informal economy in all countries by including case studies ranging from New York City and Madrid to Uruguay and Colombia.[13]

Arguably the most influential book on informal economy is Hernando de Soto's El otro sendero (1986),[14] which was published in English in 1989 as The Other Path with a preface by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa.[15] De Soto and his team argue that excessive regulation in the Peruvian (and other Latin American) economies force a large part of the economy into informality and thus prevent economic development. While accusing the ruling class of 20th century mercantilism, de Soto admires the entrepreneurial spirit of the informal economy. In a widely cited experiment, his team tried to legally register a small garment factory in Lima. This took more than 100 administrative steps and almost a year of full-time work. Whereas de Soto's work is popular with policymakers and champions of free market policies like The Economist, many scholars of the informal economy have criticized it both for methodological flaws and normative bias.[16]

In the second half of the 1990s many scholars have started to consciously use the term "informal economy" instead of "informal sector" to refer to a broader concept that includes enterprises as well as employment in developing, transition, and advanced industrialized economies.


The Narantuul Market in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, colloquially also called Khar Zakh (Black Market)

The informal economy under any governing system is diverse and includes small-scaled, occasional members (often street vendors and garbage recyclers) as well as larger, regular enterprises (including transit systems such as that of Lima, Peru). Informal economies include garment workers working from their homes, as well as informally employed personnel of formal enterprises. Employees working in the informal sector can be classified as wage workers, non-wage workers, or a combination of both.[17]

Statistics on the informal economy are unreliable by virtue of the subject, yet they can provide a tentative picture of its relevance: For example, informal employment makes up 48% of non-agricultural employment in North Africa, 51% in Latin America, 65% in Asia, and 72% in sub-Saharan Africa. If agricultural employment is included, the percentages rise, in some countries like India and many sub-Saharan African countries beyond 90%. Estimates for developed countries are around 15%.[10]

In developing countries, the largest part of informal work, around 70%, is self-employed. Wage employment predominates. The majority of informal economy workers are women. Policies and developments affecting the informal economy have thus a distinctly gendered effect.

Estimated size of countries' informal economy[edit]

The table below shows the estimated values of the size of the informal economy in 110 developing, transition and OECD countries.

The average size of the informal economy, as a percent of official GNI in the year 2000, in developing countries is 41%, in transition countries 38% and in OECD countries 18%.[18][19]

Social and Political Implications and Issues[edit]

The overall conclusion of research in development and transition theories seems to conclude that workers in the informal sector typically earn less income, have unstable income, and do not have access to basic protections and services.[20][21] The informal economy is also much larger than most people realize, with women playing a huge role. The working poor, particularly women, are concentrated in the informal economy, and most low-income households rely on the sector to provide for them.[10] However, informal businesses can also lack the potential for growth, trapping employees in menial jobs indefinitely. On the other hand the informal sector can allow a large proportion of the population to escape extreme poverty and earn an income that is satisfactory for survival.[22] Also, in developed countries, some people who are formally employed may choose to perform part of their work outside of the formal economy, exactly because it delivers them more advantages. This is called 'moonlighting'. They derive social protection, pension and child benefits and the like, from their formal employment, and at the same time have tax and other advantages from working on the side.

From the viewpoint of governments, the informal sector can create a vicious cycle. Being unable to collect taxes from the informal sector, the government may be hindered in financing public services, which in turn makes the sector more attractive. Conversely, some governments view informality as a benefit, enabling excess labor to be absorbed, and mitigating unemployment issues.[22] Recognizing that the informal economy can produce significant goods and services, create necessary jobs, and contribute to imports and exports is critical for governments.[10]


Women tend to make up the greatest portion of the informal sector, often ending up in the most erratic and corrupt segments of the sector.[20] Sixty percent of female workers in developing countries are employed by the informal sector.[21] The reasoning behind why women make up majority of the informal sector is two-fold. Firstly, it could be attributed to the fact that employment in the informal sector is the source of employment that is most readily available to women. Secondly, a vast majority of women are employed from their homes (most likely due to the large number of women who are involved in care work) or are street vendors, which both are classified in the informal sector[23] Furthermore, men tend to be overrepresented in the top segment of the sector and women overpopulate the bottom segment.[20] For example, very few women are employers who hire others and more women are likely to be involved in smaller scale operations.[24] Labor markets, household decisions, and states all propagate this gender inequality.[20] The gender gap in terms of wage is even higher in the informal sector than the formal sector[25]

Political Power of Agents[edit]

Workers in the informal economy lack a significant voice in government policy.[11] Not only is the political power of informal workers limited, but the existence of the informal economy creates challenges for other politically influential actors. For example, the informal workforce is not a part of any trade union, nor does there seem a push or inclination to change that status. Yet the informal economy negatively affects membership and investment in the trade unions, particularly as it continues to expand. Laborers who might be formally employed and join a union for protection may choose to branch out on their own instead. As a result, trade unions are inclined to oppose the informal sector, highlighting the costs and disadvantages of the system. Producers in the formal sector can similarly feel threatened by the informal economy. The flexibility of production, low labor and production costs, and bureaucratic freedom of the informal economy can be seen as consequential competition for formal producers, leading them to challenge and object to that sector. Last, the nature of the informal economy is largely anti-regulation and free of standard taxes, which diminishes the material and political power of government agents. Whatever the significance of these concerns are, the informal sector can shift political power and energies.


The relationship between the informal sectors and poverty certainly isn’t simple nor does a clear, causal relationship exist. An inverse relationship between an increased informal sector and slower economic growth has been observed though.[20] Average incomes are substantially lower in the informal economy and there is a higher preponderance of impoverished employees working in the informal sector.[26] In addition, workers in the informal economy are less likely to benefit from employment benefits and social protection programs.[10]

Policy Considerations[edit]

As it has been historically stigmatized, policy perspectives viewed the informal sector as disruptive to the national economy and a hindrance to development.[27] The justifications for such criticisms include viewing the informal economy as a fraudulent activity that results in a loss of revenue from taxes, weakens unions, creates unfair competition, leads to a loss of regulatory control on the government's part, reduces observance of health and safety standards, and reduces the availability of employment benefits and rights. These characteristics have led to many nations pursuing a policy of deterrence with strict regulation and punitive procedures.

Expansion and Growth[edit]

The informal sector has been expanding as more economies have started to liberalize.[20] This pattern of expansion began in the 1960s when a lot of developing countries didn’t create enough formal jobs in their economic development plans, which led to the formation of an informal sector that didn’t solely include marginal work and actually contained profitable opportunities.[28] In the 1980s, the sector grew alongside formal industrial sectors. In the 1990s, an increase in global communication and competition led to a restructuring of production and distribution, often relying more heavily on the informal sector.[29] Over the past decade, the informal economy is said to account for more than half of the newly created jobs in Latin America. In Africa it accounts for around eighty percent.[30] Many explanations exist as to why the informal sector has been expanding in the developing world throughout the past few decades. It is possible that the kind of development that has been occurring has failed to support the increased labor force in a formal manner. Expansion can also be explained by the increased subcontracting due to globalization and economic liberalization. Finally, employers could be turning toward the informal sector to lower costs and cope with increased competition.

According to SIDA, the key drivers for the growth of the informal economy in the twenty-first century include:[3]

  • limited absorption of labour, particularly in countries with high rates of population or urbanisation;
  • excessive cost and regulatory barriers of entry into the formal economy, often motivated by corruption;
  • weak institutions, limiting education and training opportunities as well as infrastructure development;
  • increasing demand for low-cost goods and services;
  • migration motivated by economic hardship and poverty; and
  • difficulties faced by women in gaining formal employment

Historically, development theories have asserted that as economies mature and develop, economic activity will shift from the informal to the formal sphere. In fact, much of the economic development discourse is centered around the notion that formalization indicates how developed a country's economy is. However, evidence suggests that the progression from informal to formal sectors is not universally applicable. While the characteristics of a formalized economy - full employment and an extensive welfare system - have served as effective methods of organizing work and welfare for some nations, such a structure is not necessarily inevitable or ideal. Indeed, development appears to be heterogeneous in different localities, regions, and nations.[31]

Possible improvements[edit]

Ways to improve the informal sector include formalizing informal jobs through regulation by the state. The issue with this policy is that so many different types of informality exist. It would be extremely difficult to create solutions to meet so many diverse circumstances. Another possible improvement would be to provide better protections and benefits in the informal sector, but creating protection programs could lead to a disconnect between the labor market and protections, which may not actually improve informal employment. It might also be possible to create other methods of generating income through microloans or land rights when access to the formal sector is limited. This is not a satisfactory solution to effectively combat the issues underlying the informal sector though.[20]

There is an ongoing debate surrounding the value of government tax breaks for household services such cleaning, babysitting and home maintenance, with an aim to reduce the shadow economy's impact. There are currently systems in place in Sweden[32] and France[33] which offer 50 percent tax breaks for home cleaning services. There has also been debate in the UK about introducing a similar scheme, with potentially large savings for middle-class families and greater incentive for women to return to work after having children.[34] The European Union has used political measures to try and curb the shadow economy. Although no definitive solution has been established to date, the EU council has led dialogue on a platform that would combat undeclared work.[35] There has also been media coverage surrounding new e-commerce models. The debate has also discussed whether new on-demand home service businesses like Instacart and Helpling could attract workers who had previously earned ‘cash-in-hand’ within the shadow economy.

Informal housing[edit]

The term informal housing can include any form of shelter or settlement (or lack thereof) which is illegal, falls outside of government control or regulation, or is not afforded protection by the state. To have informal housing status is to exist in ‘a state of deregulation, one where the ownership, use, and purpose of land cannot be fixed and mapped according to any prescribed set of regulations or the law.’[36] While there is no global unified law of property ownership[37] typically, the informal occupant or community will lack security of tenure and, with this, ready or reliable access to civic amenities (potable water, electricity and gas supply, sanitation and waste collection). Due to the informal nature of occupancy, the state will typically be unable to extract rent or land taxes.

The term informal housing is useful in capturing informal populations other than those living slum settlements or shanty towns, which are defined more narrowly by the UN Habitat as ‘contiguous settlement where the inhabitants are characterizes as having inadequate housing and basic services...often not recognised or addressed by the public authorities an integral or equal part of the city.'[38]

Common categories or terms for informal housing include slums, slum settlements, shanty towns, squats, homelessness and pavement dwellers.

Informal housing in developing countries[edit]

Homelessness and insecurity of tenure are issues faced by populations around the world. However, there are particularly pernicious circumstances in developing countries that lead to a large proportion of the population resorting to informal housing. According to Saskia Sassen, in the race to become a ‘global city’ (wiki ref) with the requisite state-of-the-art economic and regulatory platforms for handling the operations of international firms and markets,’ radical physical interventions in the fabric of the city are often called for, displacing ‘modest, low-profit firms and households’.[39]

If these households lack the economic resilience to repurchase in the same area or relocate to a place that offers similar economic opportunity, they are prime candidates for informal housing. For example, in Mumbai, India, this fast-paced economic growth, coupled with inadequate infrastructure, endemic corruption and the legacy of the restrictive tenancy laws[40] have left the city unable to house the estimated 54% who now live informally.[41]

Many cities in the developing world are experiencing a rapid increase in informal housing, driven by mass migration to cities in search of employment or fleeing from war or environmental disaster. According to Robert Neuwirth, there are over 1 billion (one in six) squatters worldwide. If current trends continue, this will increase to 2 billion by 2030 (one in four), and 3 billion by 2050 (one in three).[42] Informal housing, and the often informal livelihoods that accompany them, are set to be defining features of the cities of the future.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c "The Informal Economy: Fact Finding Study". Department for Infrastructure and Economic Cooperation. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  4. ^ Lewis, William (1955). The Theory of Economic Growth. London: Allen and Unwin. 
  5. ^ Report on conditions of work and promotion of livelihoods in the unorganised sector. New Delhi: National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector. 2007. 
  6. ^ Williams, Colin C. (2005). A Commodified World?: Mapping the limits of capitalism. London: Zed Books. pp. 73, 74. 
  7. ^ Jonatan Habib Engqvist and Maria Lantz, ed. (2009). Dharavi: documenting informalities. Delhi: Academic Foundation. 
  8. ^ Wilson, David (9 February 2012). "Jobs Giant: How Matt Barrie Build a Global Empire". The Age. Retrieved 20 March 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Meier, Gerald M.; Rauch, James E. (2005). Leading Issues in Economic Development (8 ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 371–375. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h Women and Men in the Informal Economy (PDF). International Labour Organisation. 2002. ISBN 92-2-113103-3. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  11. ^ a b Gërxhani, Klarita. "The Informal Sector in Developed and Less Developed Countries: A Literature Review". Public Choice 120 (3/4): 267–300. 
  12. ^ Meier, Gerald M.; Rauch, James E. (2005). Leading Issues in Economic Development (8 ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. 373. 
  13. ^ Alejandro Portes and William Haller (2005). "The Informal Economy". In N. Smelser and R. Swedberg (eds.). "Handbook of Economic Sociology, 2nd edition". Russell Sage Foundation. 
  14. ^ Hernando de Soto (1986). El Otro Sendero. Sudamericana. ISBN 950-07-0441-2. Retrieved 2006-12-18. 
  15. ^ Hernando de Soto (1989). The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism. Harper Collins. ISBN 0-06-016020-9. 
  16. ^ Davis, Mike (2006). Planet of Slums. London: Verso. pp. 79–82. 
  17. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  19. ^
  20. ^ a b c d e f g UNRISD. 2010. “Gender Inequalities at Home and in the Market.” Assignment: Chapter 4, pp. 5-33.
  21. ^ a b Beneria, Lourdes and Maria S. Floro. 2006. “Labor Market Informalization, Gender and Social Protection: Reflections on Poor Urban Households in Bolivia, Ecuador and Thailand,” in Shahra Razavi and Shireen Hassim, eds. Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context: Uncovering the Gendered Structure of “the Social,” pp. 193-216. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  22. ^ a b Garcia-Bolivar, Omar E. 2006. “Informal economy: is it a problem, a solution, or both? The perspective of the informal business.’ Northwestern University School of : Law and Economics Papers. The Berkeley Electronic Press.
  23. ^ Chen, M (2001) “Women in the informal sector: a global picture, the global movementí.” SAIS Review 21(1).
  24. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  25. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  26. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  27. ^ Williams, Colin C. (2005). "The Undeclared Sector, Self-Employment and Public Policy". International Journal of Entrepreneurial Behavior & Research 11 (4): 244–257. 
  28. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  29. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  30. ^ Carr, Marilyn and Martha A. Chen. 2001. “Globalization and the Informal Economy: How Global Trade and Investment Impact on the Working Poor”. Background paper commissioned by the ILO Task Force on the Informal Economy. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office.
  31. ^ Williams, Colin C.; Windebank, Jan (1998). Informal Employment in Advanced Economies: Implications for Work and Welfare. London: Routledge. p. 113. 
  32. ^
  33. ^
  34. ^ Ross, Tim (9 February 2012). "Tax breaks for hiring a cleaner could save middle class thousands". The Telegraph. Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  35. ^ "Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs" (Press release). 19 June 2014. Retrieved 17 July 2014. 
  36. ^ Roy, Ananya (2009). "Why India Cannot Plan Its Cities". Planning Theory 8 (1): 80. 
  37. ^ Fernandes, Edesio; Varley, Ann (1998). Illegal Cities: Law and Urban Change in Developing Countries. London: Zed Books. p. 4. 
  38. ^ Cities Alliance: Cities without Slums (2002). [http:// group_ meeting.asp Expert Group Meeting on Urban Indicators, Secure Tenure, Slums and Global Sample of Cities, Monday 28 to Wednesday 30 October 2002]. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT). 
  39. ^ Sassen, Saskia (2009). "The Global City – Strategic Site/New Frontier" in Dharavi: Documenting Informalities. Delhi: Academic Foundation. p. 20. 
  40. ^ "Pro-tenant laws in India often inhibit rental market". Global Property Law Guide. 20 June 2006. Retrieved 15 March 2012. 
  41. ^ National Building Organisation (2011). Slums in India: A Statistical Compendium. Minstry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (Government of India). 
  42. ^ Neuwirth, Robert. "Our Shadow Cities". TEDTalks. Retrieved 30 November 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]