Informal work during the pandemic: when essential activities are the most precarious

Pictured, a self-employed seamstress in southern Thailand at work. (Laura Villadiego)

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), two billion people – more than 61 per cent of the world’s employed population – work in the informal economy. Though their work, which ranges from collecting refuse to selling affordable food and commodities on the street to domestic and care work, is largely essential, they do not have access to benefits like unemployment insurance or paid holidays. Informal workers throughout the world now find themselves in a critical situation due to the impact of the current pandemic.

In March, the president of the South African Informal Traders Alliance (SAITA) sent an open letter to the government warning that any lockdown measures or disruption of economic activity would be “catastrophic to the livelihoods of thousands upon thousands of informal workers” who have no safety net. At the same time, the ILO echoed the growing concerns of the region’s governments, noting that recent economic growth in Africa “has been due to growth in sales in commodities, services, and manufacturing, and including mining and agriculture, the sectors that operate largely in the informal economy.” 85.8 per cent of employment in the region is informal, though there are significant differences between the countries of North Africa and the rest of the continent.

In Latin America, 53.1 per cent of employment is informal, according to the ILO. “In many sectors, we work day-to-day. Earnings can be ten dollars one day, five another day, or one. We cannot think about savings,” explains Gloria Solorzano, a street trader in Lima and representative of the Red de Mujeres Auto-empleadas del Perú (Network of Self-Employed Women of Peru, RENATTA).

The quarantine has left them without income and they have no support or savings to wait for better times. They have also been hit hard by lockdown measures; as Solorzano explains, they often live “in slums with no running water or electricity. How can a family prevent COVID-19 when they don’t have water to wash their hands?”

The situation is no better in Asia, where, also according to ILO data, 1.3 billion people, the equivalent of 68.2 per cent of the working population, are employed in the informal economy. According to Poonsap Tulaphan, director of the Foundation for Labour and Employment Promotion in Thailand, the poorest among them cannot survive more than a week without new income. As a result, many of them, from street vendors to taxi drivers, continue to work despite the risk of contagion.

The hardest hit are the poorest countries of south and south-east Asia, where social programmes are either very limited or non-existent. Ninety-four per cent of workers in Nepal are informal, in Laos it is 93 per cent, in India 88 and in Bangladesh 89. Some of these economies are heavily dependent on the textile industry, a sector that can continue to operate with people working from home but which has been largely held up by lacking supplies of raw materials.

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Women are doubly affected

According to a recent report by UN Women, women are particularly vulnerable during this crisis as lockdown measures have hit hard the sectors in which they work, such as textiles, tourism and care. In Asia, women who work in the informal sector are often migrants from poorer neighbouring countries who have been forced by the pandemic to return to their home countries where “they face stigma and discrimination.”

Most home-based garment workers are women. The organisation HomeNet South Asia warned that home-based women workers, who produce for global textile chains, had stopped receiving orders in early March. The major textile brands that their work supplies are able to evade responsibility by outsourcing production. With no factories to close, companies like Inditex and H&M have simply stopped placing orders and abandoned these workers to their fate.

Women also do jobs that are essential during lockdown, such as care and cleaning work. “In this patriarchal society, the most essential jobs are the lowest paid and the most likely to be worked by women,” says Colombian economist Natalia Quiroga, academic coordinator of the Master’s in Social Economy at the National University of General Sarmiento in Buenos Aires.

The case of domestic workers is a perfect example of this phenomenon. According to data from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), 11.4 per cent of women in paid employment are domestic workers who work in informal conditions in Latin America. In the region, “colonial structures have meant that the non-white population is overrepresented in these jobs, and these women face normalised racism that exposes them to the pandemic,” says Quiroga.

“Essential jobs are the lowest paid,” says Carmen Rosa Almeida, a domestic worker and general secretary of the Lima-based trade union Sindicato de Trabajadoras y Trabajadores de la Región de Lima (SINTTRAHOL). According to Almeida, the organisation is “hearing from women who are being forced to live with their employers who won’t let them return home for fear of being infected.” This means extended working hours that eat into leisure time. As Almeida explains, the union has also received complaints about the poor quality of food that these workers receive. The alternative is dismissal and with it a loss of income.

Revaluing the essentials

In Peru, “the state says it is giving out vouchers and baskets of food, but they have yet to arrive,” says Gloria Solorzano. Carmen Almeida believes that “the government’s measures are adequate but far from enough. The same could probably be said for most of the region’s governments: almost all of them have implemented some type of aid in the form of direct transfers or have expanded existing programmes but this aid is very far from reaching all those who need it.

“Governments must assume responsibility because they put into place the neoliberal policies that privatised essential public services such as healthcare and thus weakened society,” says Quiroga. Autonomously run neighbourhood networks are trying, to some extent, to make up for the absence of the state, but they are faced with the obvious limitations imposed by the lockdown.

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Meanwhile, organisations like RENATTA continue to demand the formalisation of their work and recognition of their labour rights. Targeted campaigns have also been initiated, such as the one launched by the Mexico City branch of the global organisation Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) to make visible the work of thousands of people who collect rubbish in the region’s most populous city. The campaign aims to shed light on jobs like these which are precarious, poorly paid and high-risk due to exposure to the waste that we generate.

On 1 May, on the occasion of International Workers’ Day, WIEGO warned that the global economy would not be able to recover without these workers and called on the governments of the world to include informal workers and their representatives in economic recovery measures. “Societies need informal workers’ organisations to help design more effective public policies in response to the crisis and with a view toward longer-term recovery and structural reform.”

The Africa regional organisation of the International Trade Union Confederation also used the occasion to call for “better opportunities for inclusion and social dialogue” for workers’ representatives in post-COVID management.

In Asia, the current crisis brings to mind the crisis of 1997, which practically paralysed the economy of south-east Asia, as well as that of its northern neighbour, South Korea. The crisis originated in Thailand, where millions of informal workers returned to their places of origin, where they could still work on their families’ land. Twenty years later, things have changed dramatically: “People no longer have any land to return to, nor do they know how to farm,” says Poonsap.

According to the Thai activist, if there is one lesson that societies must learn from this crisis, it is not to lose sight of the essential: our food systems. “We are going to have to be very creative and innovative and think in the medium term. Even though we live in cities, we have to create urban gardens so that people know how to grow and food is assured.” Ecologists and eco-feminists have long warned that the sustainability of our societies can only be ensured by bringing production and consumption closer together, breaking down the barriers between countryside and city.

The current pandemic has accelerated the need for such solutions. As Quiroga argues: “This could be an opportunity to place new value on the tasks which are vital to sustaining life. The pandemic has forced us to return to the most important things in life and has called into question the irrationality of consumer society.”

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