There has been increasing recognition of the growth of informal employment in the global South and North. Most informal work is precarious and low paid, with workers having little or no access to social protection. It is sometimes suggested that an approach that moves away from productivism – the idea of work as a pathway to access social protection – and towards a universal human rights-based approach is important. However, this article argues that a large and growing informal economy does not provide justification for abandoning certain key productivist ideas. Key ideas that should not be abandoned include the focus that this approach has on establishing a link between workers and capital and the importance of social services within a social protection discourse that is presently dominated by cash grants. Also important, productivist ideas emphasize the economic contributions of informal workers as a means by which to complement a human rights-based argument for the extension of workplace protection to all workers, regardless of employment status. Overall, the hard binary that is sometimes drawn between human rights-based approaches and productivist (or “instrumentalist”) arguments may not always be as definitively delineated as some might suggest.