Informal work is here to stay.
What works in theory may not succeed in practice, and vice versa. Jos van der Sterren, dean of Academic Affairs at NHTV Breda University of Applied Sciences, explains how the industry can capitalize on informal labor instead of extinguishing it, and why community-based tourism isn’t always the right solution.
You’ve written in the past about “informal labor” opportunities in tourism. Can you first explain what is informal labor?
In Western society, informal labor is not officially recognized and not declared to tax authorities. In developing countries, it also includes work that is not stable. In hospitality, that could include waiters, bartenders, housecleaners, porters, waste and recycling collectors. The informal sector in developing countries is anywhere between 60 percent to 90 percent of the employment that is generated.
What are the drawbacks of this type of work?
They’re working in situations that are not necessarily hygienic or healthy. They get paid per day or per hour. It’s seen as an option to escape from poverty, but people hardly ever go from informal to formal work.
Are there any positives to informal labor?
I’ve seen examples in Bali where people move from rural, agricultural areas to an urban area. In an urban area, even with unstable income, they are making so much more than their parents. Selling cigarettes or massages on the beach, that income is much higher than if they stay at home. However, the price of that massage should be much higher than what they’re getting.
So why is there an argument for capitalizing on informal labor?
In European Union countries, for example, they tend to think that informal work is something that should be abolished and replaced with formal work. However, informal work is here to stay. So one is inclined to change the policy and see how we can benefit from it. That’s why you see vocational training programs, microcredit programs, and all kinds of activities to capitalize on informal labor.
Is technology making this more of a reality?
A company like Uber is, to a certain extent, also informal. There are tax issues that need to be solved, the price of the package is not really clear because it is negotiated or bargained. But it is very sophisticated, very high-tech, and business models are built on this. There is also a movement to develop rural tourism, so moving to urban areas isn’t always a requirement.
Watch Dr. van der Sterren’s report on the missing links in community-based tourism
Is community-based tourism (CBT) development part of the solution?
Even in community-based tourism, there are haves and have-nots. As a tourist, you are staying in a house with a family that’s part of the community. Who selects the house where you stay? Who gets the money that you pay for it? If people do not benefit equally, then community-based development does nothing. It is a utopia if you don’t combine it with democracy and education.
Are there some CBT success stories in Asia you can point to?
In Asia, I haven’t seen too many. Nearly all of the community-based tourism projects I have seen are structurally dependent on support from governments, donors or NGOs.
I have seen successful examples of homestays in Nepal. They are privately based and have a self-organizing system in which trekkers stay with locals and the income is divided amongst the groups. The reason why this is successful is because mountain trekking in Nepal is entirely dependent on the local guides and homestays. There is no alternative. If there is a dependency on the services then it works.
Is tourism the end goal for these communities, or a stepping stone toward something else?
For me, tourism is one means. It is unstable, it is season bound, and it has the tendency of dividing communities. I would say use it as one source and diversify your income streams. It will never be good to depend fully on tourism, but rather it should be part of a more complete package. The benefit is that it can speed up other developments. It brings people with money. If you bring people to an area that spend at least $200-$300 dollars per day, then this has a huge indirect economic impact. I think that’s the importance of tourism.
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