A brown skinned woman with her back to the camera stretches her arms out wide over looking a cliff above a crowded cityscape.
Image credit: Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

Civic space has long been harnessed by groups to organize, share ideas, and hold power to account. The bedrock of any free society, civic space catalyzed the end of apartheid, the winning of reproductive freedoms for Latin American feminists, and global calls to address climate change. Yet civic space is elastic: it can expand and burst wide open—or it can be forced to snap and shrink.

Presently, state actions in many countries are seeking to reduce civic space and curtail people’s rights. Between March 2020 and October 2022, 155 countries across the Global South placed new restrictions on the right to public assembly. In its latest report, CIVICUS Monitor noted that more than 200 protests were disrupted by authorities in 85 countries. In at least 69 of those countries, excessive force was used to disrupt the right to peaceful assembly.

Labor, the world’s largest organized movement, spans every region of the globe. Writing in this context in 2023, United Nations Special Rapporteur Clément Nyaletsossi Voule confirmed the mutuality of civic space and workers’ movements, noting, “First, that workers’ rights are human rights. Second, that workers’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are essential to the achievement of other work-related rights, including economic and social rights. Third, that full enjoyment of workers’ rights is essential to the enjoyment of human rights generally, as unions and strikes play a key role in the achievement of rights-based societies.”

Between March 2020 and October 2022, 155 countries across the Global South placed new restrictions on the right to public assembly.

The good news is that workers understand all of this intuitively. Indeed, workers in both the formal labor sector and the informal economy are boldly using civic space to counteract authoritarian abuse. But they need support.

A Case Study from the Global South: The Resilience of Waste Pickers 

Take, for example, the world’s 20 million waste pickers. These workers scour streets and landfills for reusable and recyclable materials. Sometimes called “invisible environmentalists,” waste pickers play a critical role in urban environmental sustainability. They are responsible for 60 percent of the plastic that is collected for recycling globally, diverting plastic that would otherwise enter the world’s waterways and oceans, and contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. They also generate their own income in economic systems where jobs are sorely lacking.

Despite their contributions, these workers are largely viewed as disposable. They work without protective gear in unsheltered environments and die from preventable accidents and illnesses. They inhale fumes from burning plastic, breathe air and drink water polluted with all manner of contaminants, and are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They are at constant risk of dispossession by others who catch on to their insight that waste is valuable. They are marginalized and socially excluded by their communities all over the world. In response, waste pickers are forming unions, building movements and alliances, and fighting to achieve the “just and favorable conditions of work” they deserve, as described in foundational documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations (UN).

Supported by WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), Latin American waste pickers spent six years building their collective voice to secure a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). There, the president of the National Recyclers Movement of Panama (Movimiento de Recicladores de Panamá) implored the commission to protect recyclers’ livelihoods and “prevent irreparable damage to our right to a dignified life.” It was a milestone moment and the first time violations of waste pickers’ rights were made visible and officially acknowledged by the continent’s most important human rights body.

The world’s 20 million waste pickers…sometimes called “invisible environmentalists”…play a critical role in urban environmental sustainability.

Concrete and historic victories in international bodies such as the IACHR serve to protect and expand civic space. Perhaps more importantly, these victories help to claim it in the first place. They also motivate and mobilize workers across sectors and geographies to get involved in advancing the broader cause of organizing for better working conditions.

The global waste pickers’ movement has influenced UN Plastics Treaty negotiations, resulted in the publication of a position paper on extended producer responsibility—that is, policy that requires producers to take responsibility for the full life cycle of their products (including disposal or reuse of materials)—as a tool for inclusion, and inspired a documentary showing how local and national movements can come together as a global force fighting for workers’ rights. Aligned with other labor movements’ need for a just transition vision, a position paper from the International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAWP) for a just transition was published last November during a public event at the Brazilian embassy in Nairobi.

In May 2024, the IAWP held its first Elective Congress to democratically elect its leadership and agree on its direction for building waste pickers’ international recognition and unity for the next five years. The Congress was a vibrant civic space where waste pickers from across the world had the opportunity to learn what they have in common and what it means to join hands to defend their rights with dignity. Hosted by the waste picker affiliate of Argentina’s Union of Popular Economy Workers (Unión de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Economía Popular), the Congress was a milestone decades in the making—not least because, for the first time, elected leaders of the waste picker movement were presented at the Congress Hall of the country’s central trade union federation. Sustained funding over the years enabled the democratic process of developing a constitution and nominating office bearers to take place ahead of the historic Congress.

Overcoming Obstacles in the Civic Arena

While workers’ movements are cutting a critical path for civic space, they also face major challenges. The International Trade Union Confederation’s 2022 Global Rights Index notes that “87% of countries violated the right to strike,” “79% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining,” and “74% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.” Recent attacks on workers organizing for a living wage in Bangladesh are a case in point; just last October, a garment worker was shot dead by police for the “crime” of marching for a higher minimum wage.

What role can philanthropy play in supporting workers’ movements organizing in the Global South? Here are a few recommendations:

Support workers in developing a narrative that valorizes their vital role to a broader public. Waste pickers, delivery workers, domestic laborers, caretakers, home-based workers, and street vendors drive entire economies, yet they are often criminalized and excluded from protections, benefits, and pay guarantees. These and other frontline workers, such as nurses and bus drivers, are the worst impacted when a crisis hits, as was obvious during the COVID-19 pandemic. Foundations can emphasize the critical value played by informal sector workers, highlighting their economic contributions and the importance of protections for all types of workers, including freedom of assembly. Workers’ rights are human rights, irrespective of their work status. Foundations, by virtue of their access to resources, can help workers amplify their voices and thereby build their political power.

Invest in fresh forms of organizing and movement building. The rise of gig and platform work and the exclusion of informally employed workers from traditional unions mandate new forms of organizing. Funders are well positioned to support tools and innovative models for organizing, cross-sectoral movement building, and networks, especially within the Global South, that respond to new realities across the world of work. The recently launched $2 million Democracy at Work Fund, a multi-funder initiative of Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE), may be modest, but the grants of $10,000 to $100,000 per organization from the fund can help strengthen the capacity of democratic workers’ organizations in the Global South to promote labor rights; address physical, digital, and legal threats; protect the freedom to assembly, and improve workers’ wages and working conditions.

It’s time to recognize that the economy is political—and that workers’ voices must be elevated.

Take a gender lens to civic space work. Women’s leadership in workers’ organizations is essential to ensuring more just outcomes. In 2019, women workers from across the globe spearheaded the adoption of the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190 to prevent and address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Core to this critical covenant, which has become the fastest-ratified convention in ILO history, is the role of civic engagement, to identify and prevent violence and harassment in workplace contexts.

With 2024 marking the five-year anniversary of the convention, the importance of freedom of assembly rights to protect women, girls, and gender nonconforming people from gender-based violence and harassment at work cannot be overstated. The right to assembly counteracts the power imbalance between employers and workers, ensuring women have a collective voice in demanding protection and remediation. Investing in women-worker organizing, in both the formal and informal economy is integral to expanding the civic space for gender justice and women’s rights.

Commit to the long term. As the example of the international waste picker network shows, organizing and movement building take time. When funders switch their priorities and shift investments from one issue to another, workers’ movements become more vulnerable to repression. Additionally, building democratic structures within movements can be a long process, especially where the groups who are mobilizing—like waste pickers—endure marginalization daily. Both funders and movement leaders would benefit from exercising patience, resolve, and a long view when building democratic structures and effective movements. Unrestricted, multiyear general operating support is critical.

Putting It Together: Connecting the Economic and the Political

Although the philanthropic field tends to depoliticize the world of work by focusing on activities like skills development, employment creation, entrepreneurship, and women’s economic empowerment, it’s time to recognize that the economy is political—and that workers’ voices must be elevated.

Civic space offers an opportunity to address the reality that the state, the market, and labor are intertwined and cannot be siloed. A political economy lens is critical for our work in philanthropy.

In a world beset by crises, philanthropy must step up. We know that by deepening and indeed expanding the footprint of workers’ movements, civic space can flourish—and this is beneficial both for working people and, more broadly, for building democracy. When working people act and claim their rights, we all move closer to a more just and dignified future.