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GS Paper III

Informal economy

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An informal economy (informal sector or grey economy) is the part of any economy that is neither taxed nor monitored by any form of government.

The informal economy: Haircut on a sidewalk in Vietnam.
Although the informal sector makes up a significant portion of the economies in developing countries, it is sometimes stigmatized as troublesome and unmanageable. However, the informal sector provides critical economic opportunities for the poor and has been expanding rapidly since the 1960s. Integrating the informal economy into the formal sector is an important policy challenge.

In most cases, unlike the formal economy, activities of the informal economy are not included in a country’s gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP). However, Italy has included estimates of informal activity in their GDP calculations since 1987, which swells their GDP by an estimated 18% and in 2014, a number of European countries formally changed their GDP calculations to include prostitution and narcotics sales in their official GDP statistics, in line with international accounting standards, prompting an increase between 3-7%. The informal sector can be described as a grey market in labour.

Other concepts that can be characterized as the informal sector can include the black market (shadow economy, underground economy), agorism, and System D. Associated idioms include “under the table”, “off the books”, and “working for cash”.

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. 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”. 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. Edgar L. Feige has proposed a taxonomy for describing unobserved economies including the informal economy as being characterized by some form of noncompliant behaviour with an institutional set of rules. Feige argues that circumvention of labour market regulations specifying minimum wages, working conditions, social security, unemployment and disability benefits gives rise to an informal economy that deprives some workers of deserved benefits while conveying undeserved benefits to others.

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 software developers. 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.

Characteristics of Informal Economic sector

The informal sector is largely characterized by several qualities: skills gained outside of formal education, easy entry (meaning anyone who wishes to join the sector can find some sort of work which will result in cash earnings), a lack of stable employer-employee relationships, and a small scale of operations. Workers who participate in the informal economy are typically classified as employed. The type of work that makes up the informal economy is diverse, particularly in terms of capital invested, the technology used, and income generated.

The spectrum ranges from self-employment or unpaid family labour to street vendors, shoe shiners, and junk collectors. On the higher end of the spectrum are upper-tier informal activities such as small-scale service or manufacturing businesses, 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. These features differ from businesses and employees in the formal sector which have regular hours of operation, a regular location and other structured benefits.

In Ulyssea (2018) we learn that there are three views that try to explain the causes of informality. The first view argues that the informal sector is a reservoir of potentially productive entrepreneurs who are kept out of formality by high regulatory costs, most notably entry regulation. The second sees informal forms as “parasite forms” that are productive enough to survive in the formal sector but choose to remain informal to earn higher profits from the cost advantages of not complying with taxes and regulations.6 The third argues that informality is a survival strategy for low-skill individuals, who are too unproductive to ever become formal. A study on informality in Brazil shows that the first view corresponds to 9.3 per cent of all informal forms, while the second (the “parasite view”) corresponds to 41.9 per cent. The remaining forms correspond to low-skill entrepreneurs who are too unproductive to ever become formal and use informality as a survival strategy. These results, therefore, suggest that informal forms are to a large extent “parasite forms” and therefore eradicating them (e.g., through tighter enforcement) could in principle produce positive effects on the economy.

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.

While participation in the informal sector can be stigmatized, many workers engage in informal ventures by choice, for either economic or non-economic reasons. Economic motivations include the ability to evade taxes, the freedom to circumvent regulations and licensing requirements, and the capacity to maintain certain government benefits. 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 psychological rewards from working in the informal sector proves appealing for many workers.

The informal sector was historically recognized as opposition to the 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 Labour 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. 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.

Estimated size of countries’ informal economy

To estimate the size and development of any underground or shadow economy is quite a challenging task since participants in such economies attempt to hide their behaviours. One must also be very careful to distinguish whether one is attempting to measure the unreported economy, normally associated with tax evasion, or the unrecorded or non-observed economy,[32] associated with the amount of income that is readily excluded from national income and product accounts due to the difficulty of measurement. There are numerous estimates of tax noncompliance as measured by tax gaps produced by audit methods or by “top-down” methods[33] Friedrich Schneider and several co-authors[34] claim to have estimated the size and trend of what they call the “shadow economy” worldwide by a currency demand /MIMIC model approach that treats the “shadow economy” as a latent variable. Trevor S. Breusch has critiqued the work and warned the profession that the literature applying this model to the underground economy abounds with alarming Procrustean tendencies. Various kinds of sliding and scaling of the results are carried out in the name of “benchmarking”, although these operations are not always clearly documented. The data are typically transformed in ways that are not only undeclared but have the unfortunate effect of making the results of the study sensitive to the units in which the variables are measured.

The complexity of the estimation procedure, together with its deficient documentation, leave the reader unaware of how these results have been shorted to fit the bed of prior belief. There are many other results in circulation for various countries, for which the data cannot be identified and which are given no more documentation than “own calculations by the MIMIC method”. Readers are advised to adjust their valuation of these estimates accordingly.

Edgar L. Feige finds that Schneider’s shadow economy “estimates suffer from conceptual flaws, apparent manipulation of results and insufficient documentation for replication, questioning their place in the academic, policy and popular literature”.

Social and political implications and issues

According to development and transition theories, workers in the informal sector typically earn less income, have unstable income, and do not have access to basic protections and services. 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.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. 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 labour to be absorbed, and mitigating unemployment issues. Recognizing that the informal economy can produce significant goods and services, create necessary jobs, and contribute to imports and exports is critical for governments.

As the work in the informal sector is not monitored or registered with the state, its workers are not entitled to social security, nor can they form trade unions.


In developing countries, most of the female non-agricultural labour force is in the informal sector. Female representation in the informal sector is attributed to a variety of factors. One such factor is that employment in the informal sector is the source of employment that is most readily available to women. A 2011 study of poverty in Bangladesh noted that cultural norms, religious seclusion, and illiteracy among women in many developing countries, along with a greater commitment to family responsibilities, prevent women from entering the formal sector.

Major occupations in the informal sector include home-based workers (such as dependent subcontract workers, independent own account producers, and unpaid workers in family businesses) and street vendors, which both are classified in the informal sector. 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. In India, women working in the informal sector often work as ragpickers, domestic workers, coolies, vendors, beauticians, construction labourers, and garment workers.

According to a 2002 study commissioned by the ILO, the connection between employment in the informal economy and being poor is stronger for women than men.[5] While men tend to be over-represented in the top segment of the informal sector, women overpopulate the bottom segment. Men are more likely to have larger-scale operations and deal in non-perishable items while few women are employers who hire others. Instead, women are more likely to be involved in smaller-scale operations and trade food items. Women are under-represented in higher-income employment positions in the informal economy and over-represented in lower-income statuses. As a result, the gender gap in terms of wage is higher in the informal sector than the formal sector. Labour markets, household decisions, and states all propagate this gender inequality.

Political power of agents

Workers in the informal economy lack a significant voice in government policy. 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. Labourers 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 is not simple nor does a clear, causal relationship exist. An inverse relationship between an increased informal sector and slower economic growth has been observed though. Average incomes are substantially lower in the informal economy and there is a higher preponderance of impoverished employees working in the informal sector. In addition, workers in the informal economy are less likely to benefit from employment benefits and social protection programs.[4] For instance, a survey in Europe shows that the respondents who have difficulties to pay their household bills have worked informally more often in the past year than those that do not (10% versus 3% of the respondents).

Children and child labour

Children work in the informal economy in many parts of the world. They often work as scavengers (collecting recyclables from the streets and dump sites), day labourers, cleaners, construction workers, vendors, in seasonal activities, domestic workers, and in small workshops; and often work under hazardous and exploitative conditions. It is common for children to work as domestic servants in parts of Latin America and parts of Asia. Such children are very vulnerable to exploitation: often they are not allowed to take breaks or are required to work long hours; many suffer from a lack of access to education, which can contribute to social isolation and a lack of future opportunity. UNICEF considers domestic work to be among the lowest status and reports that most child domestic workers are live-in workers and are under the round-the-clock control of their employers. Some estimates suggest that among girls, domestic work is the most common form of employment.

During times of economic crisis many families experience unemployment and job loss, thus compelling adolescents to supplement their parents’ income by selling goods or services to contribute to the family economy. At the core, youth must compromise their social activities with other youth, and instead prioritize their participation in the informal economy, thus manufacturing a labor class of adolescents who must take on an adult role within the family. Although it revolves around a negative stigma of deviance, for a majority of individuals, mostly people of color, the informal economy is not an ideal choice but a necessity for survival. Participating in the informal economy is becoming normalized due to the lack of resources available in low-income and marginalized communities, and no matter how hard they have to work, will not advance in the economic hierarchy. When a parent is either unemployed or their job is on low demand, they are compelled to find other methods to provide for themselves but most importantly their children. Yet, due to all the limitations and the lack of jobs, children eventually cooperate with their parent/s and also work for their family’s economic well-being. By having to assist in providing for the family, children miss out on their childhood because instead of engaging in activities other youth their age participate in, they are obligated to take on an adult role, put the family first and contribute to the family’s well-being.

The participation of adolescents in the informal economy, is a contentious issue due to the restrictions and laws in place for youth have to work. One of the main dilemmas that arise when children engage in this type of work, is that privileged adults denounce children participation as forced labour. Due to the participant being young, the adults are viewed as “bad” parents because first, they cannot provide for their children, second, they are stripping the child from a “normal” childhood, and third, child labour is frowned upon. Furthermore, certain people believe that children should not be working because children do not know the risks and the pressure of working and having so much responsibility, but the reality is that for most families, the children are not being forced to work, rather they choose to help sustain their family’s income. The youth become forced by their circumstances, meaning that because of their conditions, they do not have much of a choice. Youth have the capability to acknowledge their family’s financial limitations and many feel that it is their moral obligation to contribute to the family income. Thus, they end up working without asking for an allowance or wage, because kids recognize that their parents cannot bring home enough income alone, thus their contribution is necessary and their involvement becomes instrumental for their family’s economic survival.

Emir Estrada and Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo have gone to predominantly Latinx communities of Los Angeles, CA. to observe the daily actions of street vendors. They analyze why adults participate in the informal economy. Although it revolves around a negative stigma of deviance, for a majority of individuals, the informal economy is not an ideal choice but an action necessary for survival. While witnessing the constant struggle of Latinx individuals to make ends meet and trying to earn money to put food on the table, they witnessed how the participation of children either benefits the family or even hurt it. Through field notes derived from their participation, Estrada states, “children are not the ‘baggage’ that adult immigrants simply bring along. In the case of street vendors, we see that they are also contributors to family processes”.[57] Estrada’s findings demonstrate that children are working in order to help contribute to their household income, but most importantly, they play a vital role when it comes to language barriers. The kids are not simply workers, they achieve an understanding of how to manage a business and commerce.


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