Pillars of Social Protection

Millions of workers across the globe cannot access social benefits such as retirement funds, maternity benefits, health services, compensation for work-related accidents and diseases, occupational health and safety, and child care.

In the industrialized North, many governments and employers have been withdrawing from welfare provision, pushing responsibility for social coverage onto individual workers, often by “outsourcing” work or “externalizing” workers. In developing countries, conditions of work are hazardous and precarious, with inadequate regulation of the working environment and little social protection. This is especially true for informal work.

Social protection should be a right for all workers. Informal workers contribute to the overall economy. They should have the same rights as formal workers to social protection, and healthy, safe working conditions.

Most informal workers are poor. Consistently, they themselves list access to health services, child care, and pensions when they get older as high priorities in social protection. These three areas have become the three pillars of WIEGO’s Social Protection Programme.

See a short summary about Social Protection for Informal Workers.

Workers' Health

Waste pickers Liberia Mapesmoawe (left) and Justina Mokoena (right) are both waste pickers on the Boitshepi landfill in South Africa and members of the growing Majakathatha Cooperative.

Photo: Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images Reportage

Health is important to informal workers, whose income relies on the ability to work. However, informal workers are often excluded from accessing the services that they need to maintain good health. While poorer informal workers suffer the same problems in accessing health services faced by all poor citizens who often have to rely on poorly resourced and/or dysfunctional public health services, they also face exclusions and barriers to access due to their status as informal workers. In this way informal workers often “fall through the gaps” in health provision, for example:

Public health service provision: Whether preventive, promotive, or curative, public health service provision is generally oriented towards access for poor citizens, not poor citizens who are also workers. As a result services are not designed to take into account the needs of workers. Long waiting times at health facilities, cumbersome registration procedures, and difficulties in accessing accurate information all play a role in diminishing the access of informal workers, who will prioritise their time towards income-earning, rather than their health.  The fact that preventive and promotive health services have been side lined within public health services has also had a particularly deleterious impact on informal workers who are unable to earn an income when sick or injured.

Municipal health systems: Municipal health systems play a central role in regulating the working lives and determining the working conditions of informal workers who work in urban public spaces. However, municipal health regulations are designed in such a way that informal workers are often classed as “nuisances” from whom the public is meant to be protected. They are not designed with a livelihood perspective in mind. This means that the health regulations often do little to protect informal workers from health and safety problems in their workplaces, and can actively work against livelihoods (for example when environmental health regulations are invoked to evict traders from their workplaces).

Occupational health systems: Occupational health systems, which often fall under the mandate of labour ministries rather than health ministries, do not cover many informal workplaces (road sides, markets, private homes, landfill sites and so on), and rely on the presence of an employer-employee relationship for enforcement purposes.

The aim of WIEGO’s Informal Workers Health Project is to provide a central point for information, research, activities & network building relating to the promotion of better health and better access to health services for informal workers.To explore our current publications, past activities and existing resources follow the links:

  • Watch our video on the innovative work being done by WIEGO’s partners to improve the health of informal workers.
  • Hear five women informal workers talk about the challenges they face in accessing health services.
  • Read and listen to the resources developed through our Occupational Health & Safety for Informal Workers Project which ran between 2009 and 2014, including newsletters, videos, research reports and journal articles.
  • Share our blog post on the Durban informal traders who are working with the municipality to improve their occupational health and safety.
  • Find out why occupational health should be a concern for local governments.
  • Read our working papers and policy briefs on informal workers and health systems in India, Thailand and Ghana.
  • Read individual stories about health access for informal workers. 
  • See WIEGO’s Publication Series for working papers on workers’ health.

Child Care

Ponanan Keawlek, six months old, naps while her mother works.

Photo: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images Reportage

Informal women workers' low earnings mean they work long hours to meet their most basic needs, leaving little time for them to care for children living in their households.  As one South African trader says, “…there is actually no time for children. Our children do not get the attention that they deserve from us.”  Without access to quality child care services, women informal workers are forced to make difficult choices between earning an income and caring for their children.  A waste picker in Brazil says, “Without day care, I can’t work. When there is no day care, I don’t work.”

Women informal workers may look after their children while they work, which can expose children to unsafe environments and can lead to a loss of income and productivity for women workers. They may leave children in informal child care arrangements that can be expensive and of low quality. Family members are not always available to provide child care if workers have migrated, and grandparents may also work.  In households, where both women and men informal workers are working long hours to earn low incomes, sharing care responsibilities more equitably between women and men cannot be the main solution to the growing care crisis facing informal workers.

Family benefits are one of nine core work-related contingencies covered under the ILO Convention on Social Security (C102) and the global social protection floors (R202). Alongside maternity entitlements and cash transfers for children, public provision of quality child care services can guarantee informal women workers’ access to paid work and enable them to save for the future. Informal women workers must earn an income when children in their care are young.  Their earnings are an important contribution to the household. For children of informal workers, access to quality child care services and more time spent with their caregivers can lead to better care and positive education and health outcomes.

Through WIEGO’s Child Care Initiative (launched in 2014 in response to demand from informal workers’ organizations), members and partners are starting to explore how child care can be integrated into their organizing efforts. Women informal workers want a quality child care services that is free or subsidized by the state and employers and open during their working hours. Child care workers should come from their communities so that they know and trust them enough to care for their children.  Child care workers and domestic workers, many of whom have child care responsibilities, are most likely to be women informal workers themselves. Their demands for a living wage, training and decent working conditions are central to the provision of quality child care services.

WIEGO’s Child Care Initiative has produced several background papers, including a comprehensive literature review on the links between child care provision and women’s incomes. The findings show that across different occupations from street and market vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers and home-based workers, the lack of access to child care means caregivers have limited and unsatisfactory child care options.

Income Security for Older Workers

Ana Cecilia Martínez is a waste picker in Bogotá and a member of the Asociación de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB), an organization of waste pickers associations and cooperatives that advocates for waste pickers' rights.

Photo: Juan Arredondo/Getty Images Reportage

Income Security for Older Workers is a new pillar of work for the Social Protection Programme. WIEGO’s starting point is to put informal work at the centre. This shifts the framing to see older people as workers, contributing to household incomes and to care work, rather than as the unproductive elderly, who need to be cared for. We are interested in learning more about the cross-generational patterns of social protection – finding out what older people are doing know and what they did in the past to best ensure their income security.  During 2017 we aim to develop this pillar of work with an initial institutional mapping and policy scoping.