9 Facts About the Informal Economy in Latin America
The informal economy is a fluid area of work that people may drift in and out of. Certain companies may live in both the formal and informal job sector as well. The International Labor Organization (ILO) distinguishes between the informal sector and informal employment, stating that the former is an “enterprise-based concept and is defined by the characteristics of the enterprise in which workers are engaged” while the latter occurs on a case-by-case basis regarding the employee’s relationship to the enterprise. For example, some companies operate within the formal sector but hire certain employees “informally.”  In other words, one can define the informal economy as “firms and workers that stand outside a country’s tax and regulatory systems.

It is important to note that the informal economy is not synonymous with the black market or the underground economy. Additionally, the informal market is not necessarily illegal. However, many countries do not mandate the social benefits and protections included in the formal economy. Informal work can include a variety of jobs including street vendors, subsistence farmers, seasonal workers, industrial workers and others. Given this characterization, below are nine facts about the informal economy in Latin America.

9 Facts About the Informal Economy in Latin America

  1. A total of 140 million people work in occupations involving social vulnerability, limited rights and precarious conditions. According to the ILO, this number translates to roughly 50 percent of total employment in the region. It is a little less than the global average but more than double for the developed region.
  2. The percent of informally employed workers varies greatly across the region. Costa Rica had the lowest rate of informally employed workers as of 2013 at 30.7 percent. In addition, Guatemala had the highest at 73.6 percent.
  3. An International Monetary Fund study found four main contributing factors to the expansive informal economy in Latin America. Some of these factors include the heavy tax burden on corporations and individuals as well as minimum wage constraints. Another factor is the importance of agriculture because informal employment is much higher in the agricultural sector.
  4. Although there are poor and non-poor alike across the informal and formal sectors, empirical research has displayed that those working in the informal economy may be at a higher risk of poverty than those employed in the formal economy. The exact relationship between the informal economy and poverty is difficult to determine. This is due to a variety of circumstances that can affect poor households. For instance, the income an individual brings home may not technically be below the poverty line, however, it may not be sufficient to support five people. Regardless, informal employment is often unstable due to inconsistent wage earnings and a lack of social protection.
  5. The informal economy affects youth in Latin America. According to the International Labor Organization, there are an estimated 56 million Latin Americans in the age range of 15 to 24 in the workforce. A little over 7 million are jobless and 27 million are working informal jobs. Many quit without much of a choice as six out of the 10 jobs available to them are in the informal economy.
  6. In 2013, 44.5 percent of the non-agricultural informal employment in Latin America was male while 49.7 percent was female. However, globally males make up a higher percentage because they make up a larger portion of the workforce. In contrast, when looking across developing countries, 92 percent of all women have informal employment compared to 87 percent of all men.
  7. The informal economy in Latin America represented 34 percent of its average gross domestic product (GDP) from 2010-2017, which is higher than any other region in the world. This is true despite Latin America being in possession of one of the lower percentages of informal work, 40 percent compared to the 85.8 percent of employment in Africa.
  8. The informal economy has been reducing in Latin America and the rest of the world for the past 30 years. This could partly be due to a reduction in the challenges to register a business.
  9. Improving transit infrastructure and access to education can reduce the size of a country’s informal economy. A case study of Mexico City found that high transit costs can lead to an increase in the percentage of workers on the outskirts of cities choosing informal work. Furthermore, by improving access to cheaper and more efficient transit services, informal employment can decrease. Meanwhile, a case study in Peru showed that it is easier to obtain formal employment if one has higher education. This was true even for indigenous groups in the country who often face discrimination when entering the formal sector.

Informal work remains an ambiguous topic requiring more research. Nonetheless, it is important to keep in mind that the informal economy is not inherently bad. While many struggle because of their informal work, they often cannot afford the costs of transitioning to the formal sector. For instance, one may deem small businesses that have under 10 workers as informal, and therefore, they would not have to pay social benefits, thus saving them money. In other words, in some circumstances, informal workers may require additional support, but would not necessarily benefit from transitioning into the formal sector.

Scott Boyce
Photo: Wikimedia Commons