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

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), two billion people – more than 61 percent of the world’s working population – work in the informal economy. Although much of their work, which ranges from collecting rubbish to selling affordable food and produce on the streets, to domestic work and care, is essential, they do not have access to benefits. such as unemployment insurance or paid holidays. Informal workers around the world are now in dire straits due to the impact of the current pandemic.

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

In Latin America, 53.1 percent of employment is informal, according to the ILO. “In many sectors, we work day by day. The payouts can be ten dollars one day, five another day, or one. You can’t think about savings,” explains Gloria Solorzano, a street vendor in Lima and representative of the Red de Mujeres Auto-empladas del Perú (Network of Independent Working Women of Peru, RENATTA).

The quarantine has left them with no income and they have no support or savings to wait for better times. They have also been hit hard by the lockdown measures; as Solorzano explains, they often live “in slums without running water or electricity. How can a family prevent COVID-19 when they have no water to wash their hands? »

The situation is no better in Asia where, again according to ILO data, 1.3 billion people, or 68.2 per cent of the labor force, are employed in the informal economy. According to Poonsap Tulaphan, director of the Foundation for the Promotion of Labor and Employment 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.

Hardest hit are the poorest countries in South and Southeast Asia, where social programs are either very limited or non-existent. Ninety-four percent of workers in Nepal are informal, in Laos it is 93 percent, in India 88 and in Bangladesh 89. Some of these economies rely heavily on the textile industry, a sector that can continue to function with people working from home but which was largely hampered by the lack of raw material supplies.

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 working in the informal sector are often migrants from poorer neighboring countries who have been forced by the pandemic to return to their countries of origin where “they face stigma and discrimination”.

Most home garment workers are women. HomeNet South Asia has warned that home-based workers, who produce for global textile chains, stopped receiving orders in early March. The big textile brands that their work provides can shirk their responsibilities by outsourcing production. With no factories to close, companies like Inditex and H&M simply stopped placing orders and left these workers to their fate.

Women are also doing essential jobs during the lockdown, such as caring and cleaning work. “In this patriarchal society, the most essential jobs are the lowest paid and the most likely to be held 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% of women in paid employment are domestic workers working in informal conditions in Latin America. In the region, “colonial structures have resulted in the non-white population being overrepresented in these jobs, and these women face normalized 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 union Syndicate of Trabajadoras and Trabajadores of the Region of Lima (SINTTRAHOL). According to Almeida, the organization “hears from women who are forced to live with their employers who won’t let them go home for fear of getting infected.” This means extended work hours that eat away at free time. As Almeida explains, the union has also received complaints about the poor quality of food these workers receive. The alternative is dismissal and with it a loss of income.

Revalue the essential

In Peru, “the state says it is distributing vouchers and food baskets, but they haven’t arrived yet,” says Gloria Solorzano. Carmen Almeida believes that “the government’s measures are adequate but far from sufficient. The same could probably be said for most governments in the region: almost all have introduced some type of aid in the form of direct transfers or have expanded existing programs, but this aid falls far short of reaching all those in need.

“Governments must take responsibility because they have implemented the neoliberal policies that have privatized essential public services such as health care and thus weakened society,” says Quiroga. Autonomously managed neighborhood networks try, to some extent, to compensate for the absence of the state, but they face the obvious limits imposed by confinement.

Meanwhile, organizations like RENATTA continue to demand the formalization of their work and the recognition of their labor rights. Targeted campaigns have also been launched, such as the one launched by the Mexico branch of the global organization Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) to make visible the work of thousands of people who collect garbage in the most populated in the region. . The campaign aims to shed light on those jobs that are precarious, low paid and high risk due to exposure to the waste we generate.

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

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

In Asia, the current crisis recalls the crisis of 1997, which practically paralyzed the economy of Southeast Asia, as well as that of its northern neighbor, South Korea. The crisis originated in Thailand, where millions of informal workers returned to their places of origin, where they could still work on the land of their families. Twenty years later, things have changed drastically: “People have no more land to return to and they no longer know how to farm,” explains Poonsap.

According to the Thai activist, if there is a lesson that societies must learn from this crisis, it is to not 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 need to create urban gardens so that people know how to cultivate and food is assured. Environmentalists and eco-feminists have long warned that the sustainability of our societies can only be ensured by bringing production and consumption closer together, by breaking down the barriers between the countryside and the city.

The current pandemic has accelerated the need for such solutions. As Quiroga puts it, “This could be an opportunity to place a new value on essential life-sustaining tasks. The pandemic has forced us to return to the more important things in life and has challenged the irrationality of the consumer society.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

Michelle J. Kelley