• Opinion
  • October 28, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 0

6 out of 10 workers have informal jobs, and pay with their safety

Opinion: Making the world of work a safe place can be cheaper than you think

This article was written by Sally Roever, International Coordinator, WIEGO, a global research and policy network focused on improving conditions for workers in the informal economy.


Just down the road from the main bus station in Nakuru, Kenya, Daisy Chebet sells socks to customers as they walk through the town’s busy commercial district.

Like thousands of female street traders in Sub-Saharan Africa, Daisy relies on street vending to generate income on a day-to-day basis. She and many others do so without knowing exactly what rules govern when and where she is allowed to trade.

This means that when the local police approach her asking for a payment — whether for a license, or a daily permit, or another type of fee or fine — she feels that she has no choice but to pay. And when female vendors don’t have enough money, Daisy says, some are made to exchange sex for permission to trade.

The norms of work

Access to public spaces is a crucial economic asset for the urban working poor, especially those who are informally employed. Yet it is also the setting of many forms of violence against workers who use public space to make a living. So what can governments do to help remove the conditions under which violence is perpetrated against people — especially women — who are trying to work their way out of poverty?

A first step is to recognise the relationship between the need to regulate public space and the need to create livelihood opportunities for the urban poor. Local authorities can draw on toolkits with examples of inclusive legislation that clearly define how trading opportunities are to be allocated and that define the roles and responsibilities of both street traders and enforcement agents. Having clear rules removes the conditions under which those in positions of authority can abuse their power for personal gain.

Many workers, especially women, work in locations or at times where violence is hidden from view

Another important step for governments is to begin implementing new global norms and agreements that address the relationship between violence and the world of work. The International Labour Organisation’s Recommendation 204 concerning the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, for example, outlines appropriate measures to ensure safer, healthier working environments.

ILO Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, adopted in June 2019, recognises the important role of public authorities in preventing violence and harassment in the case of informal workers. And the New Urban Agenda, adopted in 2016, commits governments to recognise the contribution of the working poor in the informal economy, especially women, to urban economies (paragraph 59), as well as the need to make public spaces free from crime and violence (paragraph 100). These norms represent a significant shift in national governments’ understanding of the world of work as it exists today, and highlight the need to design appropriate interventions accordingly.

Co-designing safety

As useful as these norms are, however, governments need partners to co-design policies and programmes that are sustainable, practical, and appropriate to local circumstances. Membership-based organisations of informal workers have accumulated experience and knowledge that can help governments find entry points to begin implementation processes.

Informal workers account for 61% of all workers in the world

The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), for example, recently drafted policy briefs to help national government ministers digest key provisions of R204, and then signed Memorandums of Understanding with 15 local governments to work together on implementing provisions that would help regularise trading spaces and remove the conditions under which traders were experiencing violence.

They have also worked with other stakeholders on a simplified trade regime for small-scale cross-border traders that is designed to make border crossings safer for female traders. These projects are examples of practical, innovative ways to address violence against specific groups of workers.

Small interventions with a huge impact

These examples speak largely to street traders who work in visible public spaces, but it is also important to recognise that many workers, especially women, work in locations or at times where violence is more hidden from view.

Waste pickers, for example, fill critical gaps in solid waste management all over the world, but are frequent victims of violent attacks because of the social stigma attached to their livelihood — even more so when they work at dump sites or during early morning hours before the sun rises.

A simple, low-cost solution is for governments to work with local waste picker cooperatives to issue ID cards and vests that waste pickers can wear to identify themselves as authorised workers. This simple solution leads to a profound shift in mindset, as the workers are increasingly seen as legitimate service providers, and are treated accordingly.

Violence is also pervasive among domestic workers, who work in the homes of their employers. The International Domestic Workers’ Federation provides resources to governments and national affiliates to find solutions. Networks of home-based workers, who work from their own homes and are disproportionately women, have also looked for ways to address violence by linking with the global union movement.

Making work violence-free

Informal workers account for 61% of all workers in the world.

They work mostly in public space and private homes, sites that are not covered by standard employment laws. But they fill critical gaps in urban service provisions: street vendors clean the streets and sidewalks and provide “eyes and ears” that help improve safety; waste pickers recycle discarded materials to divert them from landfills; domestic workers enable others to work outside the home; and home-based workers produce goods for domestic and global markets.

The strong presence of these workers in Geneva during the negotiation of C190 signalled that eliminating violence in the world of work is at the top of their agenda. As governments work to address the relationship between poverty and violence, they can count on strong interest from informal workers’ organisations. — Sally Roever

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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