The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour

Urban informal workers saw major gains in 2015, but these need to be consolidated at Habitat III.

A Uighur man checks a mirror after getting his beard shaved by a barber, right, on a street in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, 2013. Informal workers comprise around half of the urban workforce in most developing countries. (William Hong/Reuters/Landov)

Urban informal workers represent the broad base of the urban economy in most developing countries. On average, these account for well over half of the urban workforce and, where estimates are available, over a quarter of gross domestic product in these countries. And yet the activities — the livelihoods — of these workers remain almost entirely unrecognized, valued or taken into account in urban planning or local economic development.

If urban poverty, inequality and unemployment are to be reduced, urban informal workers, especially the working poor, needs to be recognized, valued and supported as economic agents who contribute to the economy and to society. No amount of social or financial inclusion can make up for their exclusion from city plans and economic policies.

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Consider three groups of urban working poor who, together with domestic, construction and transport workers, constitute the majority of the urban informal workforce. First, home-based workers produce a wide variety of goods and services, including garments and textiles, craft items and prepared food, as well as electronic goods and automobile parts. Yet most do not have secure tenure or basic infrastructure services to make their homes into productive workplaces. Further, many face the threat of eviction and relocation.

Second, street vendors provide easy access to a wide range of goods and services. These include anything from fresh fruits and vegetables to building materials, garments and crafts to consumer electronics, prepared food to auto parts and repairs. They buy goods from both formal and informal suppliers and pay for services provided by porters, security guards, transport operators and others.

[See: Informal economy offers opportunity, not just survival, Indian Habitat III sessions urge]

Many street vendors also pay fees for licenses, permits for the use of public space, creating revenue for local governments. Yet most lack a fixed and secure vending site. Most also face harassment from local authorities on a regular, even daily, basis — including demands for bribes, arbitrary confiscations of merchandise and physical abuse. And again, many face the risk of eviction.

Third, waste pickers collect, sort and recycle waste. In so doing, they help to clean city streets and reduce carbon emissions. Yet they typically go unrecognized for their services, are often denied access to waste — the basis of their livelihood — and are not allowed to bid for solid-waste-management contracts.

Empowering tools

Despite this history of neglect and oversight, there are important changes afoot for the urban informal workforce. Over the past year, the global community took significant steps to advance the cause of social and economic justice for the urban working poor.

In September, the global community renewed its commitment to “a more peaceful, prosperous and just world” by committing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Building upon but also expanding the Millennium Development Goals that preceded it, the Sustainable Development Agenda includes two new stand-alone goals that are of critical importance to the working poor. Goal 8 deals with inclusive sustainable economic growth and decent and productive employment, while Goal 11 focuses on inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities.

“Despite a history of neglect and oversight, there are important changes afoot for the urban informal workforce. Over the past year, the global community took significant steps to advance the cause of social and economic justice for the urban working poor.”

And in June, at an annual meeting of the International Labour Organization, the international community adopted a new global labour standard. Formally known as Recommendation 204, on transitioning from the informal to the formal economy, the measure contains several key provisions for the working poor, both urban and rural.

First, Recommendation 204 recognizes that most informal workers are from poor households trying to earn a living against great odds and, therefore, need protection and promotion in return for regulation and taxation. Further, it recognizes that most informal economic units are single-person or family operations that do not hire other workers.

The recommendation also acknowledges that the regulated use of public space is essential to the livelihoods of informal workers, especially in cities. Likewise, regulated access to natural resources is essential to the livelihoods of informal workers.

[See: Toward a global action plan for public space]

Perhaps most fundamentally, Recommendation 204 notes that informal livelihoods should not be destroyed in the process of formalization. For instance, street vendors should not be evicted and waste pickers should not be denied access to waste as cities modernize.

With the new SDGs and Recommendation 204, the urban working poor are more empowered than ever before to fight the injustices and indignities they face on a daily basis. Now, these strategic gains need to be reflected in the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will be adopted at the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016.

As they did for the SDGs and the ILO recommendation, local, national, regional and international organizations of home-based workers, street vendors and waste pickers are preparing for Habitat III with support from the global network WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing).

Leaders of these organizations participated in the second meeting of the Habitat III Preparatory Committee (PrepCom 2) in Nairobi in April, speaking in plenary sessions and meeting with the executive director of UN-Habitat, Joan Clos, who recognizes the importance of the urban informal economy. They also participated in events linked to the SDGs summit in New York in late September and early October.

In addition, the WIEGO network and Slum/Shack Dwellers International (SDI) are co-chairs of the grass-roots constituency group of the Global Assembly of Partners of UN-Habitat’s World Urban Campaign. Together, WIEGO and SDI are working to increase the voice and visibility of organized groups of the urban poor, both those who live in informal settlements and those who earn their living in the informal economy — groups that are usually one and the same.

World-class cities for all

So, what do urban informal workers want to see included in the New Urban Agenda? First, following on the ILO recommendation, they want to see formal recognition that most urban informal workers are from poor households trying to earn a living against great odds and, therefore, need protection and promotion in return for regulation and taxation.

They also want to see the integration of the working poor in the urban informal economy into urban planning and local economic development. The New Urban Agenda will need to recognize that organizations of urban informal workers should be represented in both urban planning and policy-making processes.

[See: In informal settlements of Nairobi, women look to Habitat III on inclusive planning]

In turn, this will require recognition that most of the working poor in the informal economy work in private homes (as domestic workers in the homes of others or as home-based producers in their own houses) or in public spaces (as construction workers, street vendors, transport workers or waste pickers) — not in factories, shops or offices.

As such, home-based workers who produce goods for the market in their own homes require secure housing tenure and basic infrastructure services to make their homes-cum-workplaces more productive. Likewise, street vendors who operate in public spaces need regulated use of public space in central areas, close to pedestrian flows, in order to generate a decent living. And waste pickers need regulated access to waste and the right to bid for solid-waste-management contracts. Each of these groups will be looking to the New Urban Agenda for these provisions.

Finally and most fundamentally, as mandated in Recommendation 204, city officials, urban planners and designers, and local economic planners need to ensure that informal livelihoods are not destroyed in the process of urban renewal, urban planning or local economic development — all in the name of becoming “world-class cities”. Rather, the organizations of informal workers want inclusive urban processes, policies and practices — they want “world-class cities for all”.

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Marty Chen

Marty Chen is international coordinator for the WIEGO Network, a lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and an affiliated professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.