Trade Union Transformation and Informal Sector Organising in Uganda: The Prospects and Challenges for Promoting Labour-led Development


  • Tobias Gerhard Schminke Saint Mary's University
  • Gavin Fridell Saint Mary's University



Despite celebrations from governments, corporations and international financial institutions around increasing economic growth, the majority of the world’s urban labour force continues to work under informal conditions, lacking enforceable contracts, adequate earnings, democratic representation, secure employment and social protection. The pervasiveness of informal labour globally has given rise to numerous calls to adopt a wider and more diverse understanding of what constitutes labouring classes and what is required to organise them. Our case study assesses the outcomes and effectiveness of informal sector organising in Uganda, focusing on the transportation, market and textile sectors. Drawing on Guy Standing’s distinction between “business” and “community” unions and Benjamin Selwyn’s contrasting of “capital-centred development theory” (CCDT) and “labour-led development” (LLD), we argue that community unionist approaches are most effective in addressing the decent work deficit in the informal economy. Simultaneously, the trade unions face constant barriers to successful community organising in the informal economy that cannot be easily overcome without wider changes to the structural conditions under which union organisers must operate.

KEYWORDS: Trade unionism; informal labour organising; labour-centred development; Uganda; decent work

Author Biographies

Tobias Gerhard Schminke, Saint Mary's University

Tobias Gerhard Schminke holds a Master of Arts in International Development Studies from Saint Mary's University. In 2020, he received the Governor General’s Gold Medal for his thesis work on trade unionism in the informal economy in Uganda.

Gavin Fridell, Saint Mary's University

Gavin Fridell is Canada Research Chair in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, and the author of numerous books and articles on fair trade and free trade, including his latest book Coffee (Polity Press). He is a member of the College of New Scholars of the Royal Society of Canada and is on the Advisory Board of the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN). His latest research explores the political economy and the ideological politics of global trade, with a focus on North America and the Caribbean.