Health of Precarious Workers


Warwick Junction
Warwick Junction, Durban, South Africa

In April 2013, WIEGO Social Protection Programme Researcher Laura Alfers participated in the Networking Event “Health of Precarious Workers of Selected Sectors in Metropolitan Central Areas” at the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

The event focused on the health of precarious/vulnerable workers of the urban economy, particularly the poorest strata, who bear the brunt of health problems in metropolitan areas. In developing countries, securing proper health conditions for workers is an important aspect of urban poverty alleviation as well as one of the key ingredients to construct equity and social justice.

In this event, WIEGO focused on the occupational health and safety risk management issues for the 6,000-8,000 informal traders who make their living vending at the Warwick Junction complex in Durban, South Africa. These workers are part of South Africa’s large informal economy where 33% of all working people are informal workers. Informal trade represents one of the biggest sectors of this economy – in fact, the Quarterly Labour Force Survey identified more than 500,000 street vendors.

The income traders earn in Warwick Junction supports 70,000-100,000 people. Still, despite their important role in the urban economy, the traders have little protection against the health and safety risks they face in their workplace. These range from the risk of injury to floods and fire. Labour regulations in South Africa do not protect informal workers who work in public spaces – urban health and safety regulations are more often focused on protecting the public than they are on protecting workers. Further, getting injured or sick at work is a big problem for informal workers, because they have no employer who can give them sick leave. If they are unable to work they lose the income that is used to support so many other family members.

As Alfers outlined in her presentation, these issues are exacerbated for two primary reasons. First, there is a disconnect between national level occupational health and safety institutions and those at the municipal level that control the working conditions in urban informal workplaces. In fact, urban regulations often threaten the livelihoods and health and safety of informal workers rather than improve them. Second, informal workers often have a poor relationship with the municipality, and reforming institutions and regulations is a long and difficult process.

However, a new project proposed by WIEGO, in partnership with Asiye eTafuleni (AeT), a non-profit organization located in Warwick offering urban design solutions to informal workers and various trader organizations within Warwick Junction, proposes to mitigate the occupational health and safety risks faced by traders in Warwick Junction. The Phephanathi Project (isiZulu for “be safe with us”) will take the first steps to build and sustain more positive relationships between those who govern and those who are governed by creating opportunities where these relationships can be built in an even-handed manner.

The project will consist of two phases. Phase One will form elected risk management sub-committees in each of Warwick’s nine markets. Committee members will be trained in basic first aid, fire safety and emergency procedures. It will be the responsibility of the risk-management sub-committee to raise awareness about health and safety, to assist with the training of traders in fire safety procedures, and to monitor health and safety problems in the market. The aim of this committee is to create a forum for dialogue between traders and the municipality, so that when health and safety issues arise, traders are able to talk to the people who can help them solve the problems. This phase will also focus on creating “hazard maps” for each market, which will help traders to participate in an urban design process where, together with urban planners, they will mark emergency exits and assembly points, the places where first aid kits and basic fire fighting equipment will be kept, as well as setting up a basic alarm system.

The project’s second phase will explore further ways to develop occupational health and safety in the markets. For example, ergonomics specialists from universities can help to develop work tools and equipment that both increase trader’s productivity and protect their health at that the same time. Engineers and designers can also help to develop work methods and processes that can better protect the traders’ health. Mentorship systems around health and hygiene would also be beneficial, so that the food sold in the area continues to be safe for consumers. Finally, the project also proposes to run “health diagnostic camps” in the Warwick Junction area. These camps bring health professionals into the market to run basic medical tests so that traders do not have to leave their places of work in order to visit a clinic.

Alfers concluded her presentation by emphasizing that informal workers must play a central role in making their work environments safer and healthy, but self-regulation alone is the answer – it remains necessary to engage with existing institutions that control informal workplaces and with cross-disciplinary experts.