key topic

The informal economy

The informal economy (or shadow economy) includes illicit economic activity that exists alongside a country's official economy. Examples include black market transactions and undeclared work. Estimates of its size vary widely across countries, but they suggest that informality is fairly large and important.

  • Self-employment and poverty in developing countries Updated

    The right policies can help the self-employed to boost their earnings above the poverty level and earn more for the work they do

    Gary S. Fields, March 2019
    A key way for the world’s poor to escape poverty is to earn more for their labor. Most of the world’s poor people are self-employed, but because there are few opportunities in most developing countries for them to earn enough to escape poverty, they are working hard but working poor. Two key policy planks in the fight against poverty should be: raising the returns to self-employment and creating more opportunities to move from self-employment into higher paying wage employment.
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  • Enforcement of labor regulations in developing countries

    Enforcement improves legal compliance, but its impact on welfare is country specific and unclear

    Lucas Ronconi, March 2019
    More than half of private sector employees in the developing world do not receive legally mandated labor benefits. These regulations have typically been enacted by democratically elected governments, and are valued by both formal and informal workers. Increasing public enforcement (e.g. inspections, fines, and workers’ access to the judiciary) can be a powerful tool to reduce violations (e.g. increase the number of employees earning above the minimum wage). Which factors determine enforcement, and whether enforcement produces more social benefits than costs, are, however, unanswered questions.
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  • Does increasing the minimum wage reduce poverty in developing countries? Updated

    Whether raising minimum wages reduces—or increases—poverty depends on the characteristics of the labor market

    T. H. Gindling, November 2018
    Raising the minimum wage in developing countries could increase or decrease poverty, depending on labor market characteristics. Minimum wages target formal sector workers—a minority in most developing countries—many of whom do not live in poor households. Whether raising minimum wages reduces poverty depends not only on whether formal sector workers lose jobs as a result, but also on whether low-wage workers live in poor households, how widely minimum wages are enforced, how minimum wages affect informal workers, and whether social safety nets are in place.
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  • The shadow economy in industrial countries Updated

    Reducing the size of the shadow economy requires reducing its attractiveness while improving official institutions

    Dominik H. Enste, November 2018
    The shadow (underground) economy plays a major role in many countries. People evade taxes and regulations by working in the shadow economy or by employing people illegally. On the one hand, this unregulated economic activity can result in reduced tax revenue and public goods and services, lower tax morale and less tax compliance, higher control costs, and lower economic growth rates. But on the other hand, the shadow economy can be a powerful force for advancing institutional change and can boost the overall production of goods and services in the economy. The shadow economy has implications that extend beyond the economy to the political order.
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  • Defining informality vs mitigating its negative effects

    More important than defining and measuring informality is focusing on reducing its detrimental consequences

    There are more informal workers than formal workers across the globe, and yet there remains confusion as to what makes workers or firms informal and how to measure the extent of it. Informal work and informal economic activities imply large efficiency and welfare losses, in terms of low productivity, low earnings, sub-standard working conditions, and lack of social insurance coverage. Rather than quibbling over definitions and measures of informality, it is crucial for policymakers to address these correlates of informality in order to mitigate the negative efficiency and welfare effects.
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  • Fighting employment informality with schooling

    Labor force composition is critical for understanding employment informality in developing countries

    Developing countries have long been struggling to fight informality, focusing on instruments such as labor legislation enforcement, temporary contracts, and changes in taxes imposed on small firms. However, improvements in the labor force’s schooling and skill level may be more effective in reducing informality in the long term. Higher-skilled workers are typically employed by larger firms that use more capital, and that are more likely to be formal. Additionally, when skilled and unskilled workers are complementary in production, unskilled workers’ wages tend to increase, adding yet another force toward reducing informality.
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