Can Habitat III mark a watershed for women informal workers?

The informal sector is here to stay. It is expanding. And increasingly, in many cities across the world, its face is feminine.

Mohamed Abdulraheem/Shutterstock

QUITO, Ecuador — It was British anthropologist Keith Hart who coined the term “informal sector” during his 1971 study of economic activities among rural migrants in Accra, Ghana. Hart’s research led him to conclude that despite external constraints, most migrants in the city were engaged in informal activities that had “autonomous capacity for generating incomes”.

Since then, the informal economy and its role in economic development have been among the most keenly debated issues in policy circles. Some see the informal economy as a pool of entrepreneurial talent or a cushion during an economic downturn. Others see it as a problem, arguing that the informal economy is about dodging regulations and taxes. Still others view the informal economy as a source of sustenance for the working poor.

Each of these perspectives is partially correct; the debate goes on.

But whatever one’s view on the subject, a few issues are beyond debate. The informal sector is here to stay. It is expanding. And increasingly, in many cities across the world, its face is feminine.

Here are some telling statistics.

Informal employment makes up more than half of non-agricultural employment in most developing regions, according to Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). In three major regions (South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean) plus urban China, informal employment is a greater source of non-agricultural employment for women than for men. Elsewhere in East and Southeast Asia, these shares are roughly the same.

WEIGO advocates are making this case here this week as world leaders and thousands of others meet for the four-day Habitat III summit on urban development, which wraps up Thursday In particular, they are urging national and local governments to support the urban informal economy. The group released a paper here this week listing the sector-specific needs of urban informal workers from local and national governments.

“With their work, urban informal workers make important economic, social and environmental contributions to their cities and countries,” the paper states. By providing goods and services at affordable prices and at conventional locations, for instance, informal street vendors allow the poorest segments of a population to have access to important commodities that they otherwise would not be able to afford, the paper notes.

Further, the argument that informal workers don’t add to the economy is mistaken, the paper says. “To work in public spaces, street vendors pay local authorities taxes, levies and other fees, making fiscal contributions to municipal revenues,” it states.

[See: The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour]

Despite their contributions, informal workers’ lives and livelihoods continue to be vulnerable in many cities. Many myths persist about the informal economy in the minds of policymakers and the general public, such as the conflation of the informal economy with illegal activities.

This week in Quito, WIEGO and others have been working to break down this stereotype. After all, the sector encompasses not only the unorganized sector but also pockets within the formal sector where work has been increasingly outsourced to informal workers.


So are there specific ways that city officials and civil society groups can help to strengthen the productivity of their local informal economy? Sally Roever, urban policies programme director for WIEGO, points to the need for stronger negotiation skills, training, financial assistance and conducive regulatory regimes to help informal workers.

“Then there are ‘micro-innovations’, which can make a huge difference,” she said. “Like a municipality issuing identity cards to waste pickers. Residents view a waste picker with an ID card as legitimate entity and are more likely to be cooperative. This enhances the productivity of waste pickers.”

[See: Habitat III is a critical opportunity for grass-roots women]

One worker offered a compelling example from India. “Wherever industries close down, the number of home-based workers goes up,” said Namrata Bali of the Ahmedabad-headquartered Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), noting that her organization has undertaken many initiatives to help such people.

“The savings programmes for women living in slums have helped build community corpus of funds,” she said. “These are women who have to stand for hours in a long queue to collect one bucket of water. They don’t often have electricity connections, and sometimes no pavement or street or a proper roof over their heads.”

So, they went to the local municipal corporation to discuss ways to undertake cost-sharing infrastructure projects. Once the women had basic services, streetlights, good flooring and other necessities, their incomes went up by as much as 1,000 Indian rupees a month, Bali said.

[See: Can the New Urban Agenda fundamentally transform gender relations?]

This relatively small sum “helped support girls’ education, reduce water-borne diseases and dilute social stigma,” she reported. “Training programmes also helped women switch to clean cooking stoves, introduce better air-light ventilation systems where they lived.”

The women also were able to negotiate with the local electricity corporation and get connected to the local grid.

Mainstreaming informal labour

A similar story of organization was offered by Nohra Padilla, who brought together Colombia’s marginalized waste pickers to make recycling a legitimate part of waste management. For her work she won the 2013 Goldman Prize for South and Central America.

One of Padilla’s most notable successes came in late 2011, when she won a court ruling that prohibits waste-management contracts that don’t provide work opportunities for informal recyclers.

The decision helped significantly in putting informal workers at the policymaking table, Padilla said. It also affirmed their fundamental right to work and elicited official acknowledgment of the necessity and benefits of recycling.

[See: From waste picker to recycling manager]

Today, recyclers are formally recognized stakeholders in Bogotá’s waste-management system. Padilla’s efforts also have prompted the creation of two labour groups — the Association of Recyclers of Bogotá organization that represents the city’s 3,000 informal recyclers, while the National Association of Recyclers in Colombia represents 12,000 members.

Now, those groups will be able to safeguard their newfound place in the formal economy but also can serve as precedent and inspiration for other informal workers in Colombia and beyond.

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Patralekha Chatterjee

Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities.