Photo: Cristhian Parra, AccLab PY


In order to design a social intervention that is not only successful but also socially responsible, a crucial step is listening to and learning from the experiences and perspectives of those stakeholders whom the intervention aims to benefit. 

In this case, the stakeholders in question are the construction workers who form the base of the construction value chain in Paraguay, who, for various reasons, face barriers to accessing official social security schemes.

Previously, we summarized the structural barriers to labor formalization in the sector, as described by various actors in the value chain (real estate developers, construction firms and construction workers). We also observed that informality in the sector is heavily linked to the prevalence of short-term work contracts that are nested in multi-tiered subcontracting arrangements, obfuscating who is responsible for paying social security.

In this blog, we delve deeper into the barriers to formalization identified from workers’ perspectives and release a new working paper titled, “The Meaning of Social Security Among Workers in the Construction Industry,” which is based on the contributions of workers to the qualitative component of this research project. In the paper, we ask:

  • What does informal employment mean for informal construction workers?

  • Given the lack of formal regulation, what social norms regulate the sector?

  • And, what strategies do informal workers adopt as alternatives to social security?


Experiences and perspectives from the informal sector: a participatory research method

A guiding principle from the development of research projects, interventions, and experiments at LabMTESS is the use of participatory research methods that include informal workers, especially the most vulnerable workers. 

For the learning loop on the construction sector, we used two strategies: a workshop meant to explore work relations during construction and a cultural probe that kept us in daily contact with each participant.

For the second strategy, we maintained a conversation with the workers over a period of two weeks through text and voice messages. 

We used a house as a symbolic space to explore and facilitate the narration of their work stories: the door of the house represented the entrance into their work world; the pillars symbolized workers’ support network in adverse situations; the walls represented barriers to formalization; and, the window, symbolized their vision of their future in terms of mobility. 

During the second week, workers sent us photographs representing what they understood by the “meaning of security”.

Through this strategy, we created a safe space for workers to share their opinions, stories, anecdotes, and questions in an open conversation that, in the end, was the most valued element of our learning loop with the workers. At the end of the workshop and the cultural probe, the workers stated that they felt proud of their work, and expressed the value of finding a space where they could safely share their questions and their thoughts on what work, safety, and social security mean to them through comments such as, “Thank you for your interest and for listening to our stories.” 

Image 2. Cultural probe, workbook ”Experiences and trajectories in construction”, september 2020


What does informal employment mean for informal construction workers?

At a personal level, construction workers perceive social security and other benefits deriving from formal employment as very foreign to their experiences and work life. They associate formality and its benefits with “large enterprises” and with permanent work.

“This is where a permanent contract would come in. They can’t pay IPS for a job that lasts one month and then ‘ciao’”, (Participant, Workshop with Construction Workers, Exploration Phase, September 24, 2020).

However, the persistence of informal labor relations does not mean that no regulations exist or that workers do not have strategies for improving their security. On the contrary, in the face of weak institutional oversight of labor relations in the sector, informal norms take root, influencing the strategies and practices workers adopt in order to safeguard their economic and social security. These norms are fostered by social relations and beliefs deriving from practices traditional to workers’ social contexts and household economies. 

From this perspective, we might reason that neither employee nor employer are inherently “informal,” rather, it is the rules and norms that govern their interactions that are informal. More than a simple breach of law, what we observe is compliance with rules developed outside of state institutions.

Image 3. Picture submitted by a participant of the cultural probe representing his workday at a construction work site. 


In the absence of formal regulation, what social norms regulate the sector?

By interacting with workers and listening to their responses, we were able to observe how norms of “derecho a piso”, or “paying ones dues”, and working-class masculinity regulate industry workers' actions, their interactions with their employers, and, especially, the way they choose security strategies over the course of their careers.

First of all, “derecho de piso” is the norm that establishes the series of experiences and steps workers must follow from the beginning of their career onward in order to gain more job and economic security over time. This norm forces workers to start work as assistants at a very young age:

“I started to work almost as a child. I’d carry bricks”, (Participant S-5. Cultural Probe, September 2020).

Secondly, as part of “paying their dues”, construction workers must “prove their masculinity” through a constant display of physical resistance that causes them to carry out high risk work activities as part of the a discourse that, as a workshop participant described, holds that:“it's [construction work] not for just anyone because it takes a lot of effort. For me, the experience of entering into the world of construction is like: the strongest survives.” (Construction worker workshop participant. Exploration Phase. September 24, 2020).

Image 4. A participant of the exploration workshop for construction workers. September 2020


What security strategies do informal workers deploy in lieu of social security?

The lack of access to social security reveals alternative strategies for responding to accidents, illness, and other unexpected events. We noted two strategies in particular:

The first strategy is to appeal to the paternalism of the “good boss,” who becomes a kind of protector figure. A participant in the cultural probe said, “for the most part, when there is an accident during construction, and if we don’t have IPS, the boss takes care of everything.” 

The second strategy involves turning to one’s family, a social unit that functions as a pillar of constant support when it comes to work-related problems. When a calamity occurs, family members, especially women, take on the role of caretakes, in counterpoint to the worker’s role of protector. However, within families, the risks of construction work are further normalized.

“My grandparents have been my rocks. Thanks to them, I am still here working. Within a year of starting as a carpenter, I had an accident. I cut three of my fingers and was unable to work for 22 days. Wages were low, and I told my grandfather I did not want to keep working because it was not very much money, and on top of that the accident. They kept me going by telling me that these things happen, and that one day I would be able to use my experience and set up my own shop with my own machines and work on my own.” (Participant S-7. Cultural Probe, September 2020).

Image 5. Workshop with construction workers. September 2020


What does this mean for a strategy formalizing employment in the construction sector?

These informal security strategies make sense in a work environment that is poorly regulated, and where enforcement of labor rights and information on social security schemes is lacking. At the same time, the practices and expectations around informal workplace security strategies set by the enduring norms of workplace paternalism, strict gender roles, “derecho de piso”, and familial support networks effectively weaken workers’ awareness, appreciation, and use of social security as the formal, legally established strategy for safeguarding dependent workers’ security over the course of their lifecycle. 

Keeping in mind that this dynamic plays out in a context of low information and awareness of labor rights in general, and of social security in particular, we ask: 

What effect would providing precise information on the policies and procedures for accessing social security have on the undervaluation of social security? 

To what extent does workers’ perceived value of social security improve, if at all, after participating in spaces for awareness-raising and interactive reflection on social security?

These questions serve as the framework for the experimental phase of the LabMTESS learning loop, in which we evaluate the potential of informational and reflexive interventions to diminish the barriers to labor formalization in the construction sector. In the following blogpost, we will discuss the development of the intervention and its ultimate findings, along with the impact evaluation report.


By Georgina Hernández, Claudia Montanía, Fernando Ovando, Gustavo Setrini, Monica Recalde, Cristhian Parra y Monica Rios.


Download the full working paper here

Para la versión en español, click aquí.


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