You may be an expert on law, but they are an expert on their reality”

In the Fall of 2021, Joan Josiah (J.D. ‘23) began her second year at Harvard law School as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread around the world. During her first year, Josiah had read court opinions and learned about legal theory. She was eager to finally apply those legal skills to real-world problems in the International Human Rights Clinic.

Over her five semesters in the Clinic Josiah collaborated on two projects with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global network of organizations which empowers workers in the informal economy to secure their livelihoods. 

Aminta leads her right to work clinical team meeting.
Pictured from left to right: Ossom, Tara Boghosian ’20, Johanna Lee ’21, and Alicia Alvero Koski ’20. The clinic team first met with the WIEGO Law Programme in the fall of 2019.

Over the past four years, WIEGO has become an important partner for the Clinic. “Partnering with WIEGO has given my students and myself a concrete example of what effective community lawyering looks like,” clinical instructor Aminta Ossom said.

Ossom grew up admiring movement leaders like Nelson Mandela, who served as the archetype of a lawyer catalyzing positive social change. However, Mandela was more of a political leader than a legal representative, Ossom came to realize. Mandela also led a community that he himself emerged from, and thus had a different positionality than the typical community lawyer.

“I noticed that, like me, students struggled to understand what a lawyer’s role should be if that lawyer deliberately ceded leadership to communities,” Ossom said. “Outside of a model where lawyers lead social movements themselves, what does it look like to lend your legal skills to a collective? What does it mean to push for change when you are not a member of the community being represented? WIEGO lawyers have a unique approach to advocacy that helps answer these questions.”

Supporting Workers in the Informal Economy

WIEGO’s advocacy spans four continents, including key cities in Ghana, Senegal, India, Peru, and Mexico. While the organization marshals research, statistics, and policy analyses to inform governments and international organizations, its focus centers on the concrete experiences of working women whose earnings are low and insecure. Many of those women are domestic workers, home-based workers (including garment workers), street vendors, and waste pickers.

Laws that regulate employment, public health, taxes, property, and other areas can ignore, prohibit, and even criminalize, the work of these women. WIEGO’s Law Programme aims to promote the adoption of global, national, and local labor laws that recognize and protect workers in informal employment. Pamhidzai Bamu, the Programme’s Coordinator for Africa, explained that the Law Programme uses a three-pronged approach to advocate for labor rights: increasing capacity building so that workers can “know the law, use the law, and shape the law;” training lawyers who can then support workers through direct legal services or by conducting research and pushing boundaries in fields such as labor law to ensure that workers in informal employment are recognized and protected.

That three-pronged approach begins by asking questions and understanding what a particular community wants, and how WIEGO can best support them. Bamu stressed it is essential for lawyers who partner with a worker organization to pause and take the time to learn from those with expertise: “Strive to understand who is this organization? What are their priorities? What would they want to get out of this? What’s the best case scenario for them? What strategies are they already employing? How do they go about resolving these kinds of issues?” To do this, the Law Programme collaborates with WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme, which works to build and strengthen worker organizations.

WIEGO’s worker-centered mindset has led to major advocacy successes. In 2011, WIEGO funded and supported worker organizations to attend the International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland. WIEGO and its partners had organized for years before that moment, building out their networks and seeking consensus to establish the demands of domestic workers from across the world. Even before the formal establishment of the Law Programme, WIEGO assisted other labor leaders to understand how the Conference agenda worked and helped them to analyze various legal issues and the potential impact of those issues back home. The advocacy paid off when the International Labour Organization adopted a new Convention to protect domestic workers, now called Convention No.189.

Ossom has seen the Law Programme’s three objectives coalesce in the Clinic partnership. Under WIEGO’s direction, the Clinic has conducted research to understand whether international human rights law might be an additional tool that informal economy workers could use to promote better working conditions – a tool that would complement, but not supersede, national labor laws. That research has taken on a life of its own. It has provided legal arguments for specific cases, educational information for peer-to-peer webinars, and background information for bigger strategic questions.

To push the boundaries of exclusionary legal frameworks, WIEGO lawyers regularly advocate for the inclusion of informally employed workers in areas such as labor law. They champion conceptions of the law that would protect informal economy workers. Meanwhile, the Clinic has supported WIEGO and other partners, like the Solidarity Center, as they persuade the human rights community to take on labor issues.

“Decision-makers in the human rights field can mistake workers’ rights as outside of their purview, or as ‘secondary’ to so-called ‘first-generation rights,’” Ossom explained. First-generation rights are civil or political in nature, and include such rights as the right to life, the right to public participation, and the right to free expression. “But dignified work is essential to each of our lives and our sense of humanity,” Ossom said.  

WIEGO’s collaboration with the Clinic has also had an educational component. “We have benefitted immensely from the fact that WIEGO lawyers are teachers themselves, and from their ethos of self-reflection,” Ossom said. Students in the Clinic’s Human Rights Advocacy seminar have reviewed case studies of WIEGO’s work; Clinic teams have read WIEGO attorneys’ personal reflections on how navigate their roles with worker communities; and WIEGO lawyers have attended class sessions and team meetings to speak directly with students and answer their questions.  

“In all of my three years at HLS, the most practical learning that I experienced came from working in the clinic and from the regularly scheduled partner calls with WIEGO,” Josiah said. “Listening to the attorneys and activists share their experiences on community organizing provided a glimpse of what work as a human rights attorney could look like for me.”

Mapping Workers’ Rights in Africa

Josiah found WIEGO’s approach important and refreshing. Her first clinical project sought to expand the impact of an advisory opinion of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court had concluded that vagrancy laws violate rights – including the rights to nondiscrimination, liberty, and a fair trial – that are protected by the region’s main human rights treaty. WIEGO had already assessed that the opinion vindicated the rights of street vendors and other workers conducting their business in public spaces. The three-student team built on that research by examining whether the opinion could be used to challenge vagrancy and nuisance laws that remain present in dozens of African countries.

These laws criminalize informal work, a trend which stems from the history of European colonization. The team sought to identify the countries where those laws were still in effect. “We thought that if we could crack the code then we could possibly figure out how to knock these laws out to give people more liberty to work,” Josiah said.

The project required the team to think outside the box. Many local court decisions and laws were not reported in popular legal research databases like LexisNexis or WestLaw, so Josiah and her teammates spoke with workers and activists, culled through local press reports, and worked with Senior Research and Data Librarian Michelle Pearse to find other sources.

“It was a true collaboration and an example of the kind of solidarity that the Clinic promotes,” Ossom said. “On our side, we could marshal Harvard’s immense foreign and comparative law resources. WIEGO would direct us and connect us to advocates on the ground who advised us on how authorities were enforcing the laws. Knowing whether the laws on the books affected workers in real life and understanding whether a regional human rights opinion could defeat those laws were essential considerations for WIEGO’s advocacy efforts.”

Josiah’s second project documented the impact of “Operation Clean Your Frontage,” an initiative purportedly designed to reduce trash on the streets of Accra, Ghana. WIEGO and other groups found the plan has caused arbitrary, and sometimes violent, evictions of vendors and other informal economy workers.

Josiah again had to play the role of both lawyer and detective. “We had to try to gather as much data as possible,” she said. There were “a lot of different stories running together, a lot of different experiences [and] not many news outlets had sat down to try to get a coherent story of what had happened in the campaign from the beginning to the end.”

For Josiah, who grew up in Ghana, the research hit close to home and changed her perspective. As a child, she had absorbed the dominant narrative about informal economy workers making the city dirtier or obstructing water flow. “Up until I moved, that’s all I heard through the media,” Josiah said.

But collaborating with WIEGO reframed her mindset: “Once I got onto the project, I just realized how important it was for me to actually understand the voice of the people I was representing and not be disconnected from them.”

For WIEGO, mapping the power dynamics and social attitudes in a community are key steps when advocating alongside informally employed workers. “It’s not enough to just tell somebody that ‘you’ve got rights to this and that,’ because telling them that may actually lead to the loss of their job,” Bamu said. “We need to be able to actually do the kind of deep work that identifies power issues, identifies what the countervailing sources of power could be for that individual worker, or … [workers] collectively.”

Josiah’s time with WEIGO, and the Clinic more broadly, taught her to research deeply and advocate strategically, but she also found a bigger takeaway: “Ultimately, there’s no point in putting in energy and time if it doesn’t serve the needs of the people you actually want to represent or advocate for,” she said.

Clinic alumni have taken WIEGO’s lessons with them into careers in diplomacy, labor rights advocacy, and other areas of public interest and corporate law. Bamu’s advice to them is simple: “To have a law degree, to be an attorney, it comes with a lot of prestige. It comes with a lot of assumptions,” she said. “Understand what [your clients] want, put their interests above your own. Remember that you may be an expert on law, but they are an expert on their reality.”

Paras Shah (@pshah518) is a Legal Editor at Just Security and an Adjunct Professor of Law at NYU. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School where he spent two years in the International Human Rights Clinic and served as an Executive Article Editor for the Harvard Human Rights Journal.