Social Protection

TOC Image: Social Protection

WIEGO Social Protection Programme


WIEGO Specialists

Gisèle Yasmeen
Social Protection

Laura Alfers
Deputy Director,
Social Protection

Informal workers should have access to social protection and healthy and safe working conditions. WIEGO’s Social Protection Programme is committed to helping workers access these rights.

All Workers Have a Right to 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.

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.
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.

See a short summary about Social Protection for Informal Workers.

A System-Wide Approach

WIEGO sees the lack of access to social protection as a long term, structural problem – one with especially harsh consequences for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.

There has been an encouraging acceptance, across the world, that social protection provision should be seen as an investment in the economy, rather than as “wasteful” welfare spending. What is needed is a system-wide approach to social protection for all strata of the population and workforce. Short-term social assistance schemes are not enough.

A strong social protection system must be:

  • able to adapt to a wide range of contingencies or shocks (such as economic crises, the collapse of particular industries, changing climates and disasters)
  • designed to reach as many workers as possible
  • supported by a range of financing mechanisms that include both public and private funds

Learn about the original Conceptual Framework for the Social Protection Programme that is still valid today.

Goals & Activities

Social protection

To better understand the ways informal workers can or cannot access social protection, the Social Protection Programme examines innovative approaches around the globe.

Focusing on Informal Workplace Health & Safety

Regulation of safe and healthy conditions of work is limited to formal workplaces such as shops, offices and factories. However, the majority of the world’s workers work informally – in streets and informal markets (street and market vendors), on waste dumps (waste pickers), in their own homes (home-based workers), or in the private homes of others (domestic workers).

These places of work are associated with specific risks. Through our Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) project, the Social Protection Programme undertakes research and advocacy aimed at developing inclusive OHS practices that address informal workers and their workplaces.

Related Reading

Lund, Frances and Anna Marriott. 2011. Occupational Health and Safety and the Poorest.

Alfers, Laura and Ruth Abban. 2011. Occupational Health & Safety for Indigenous Caterers in Accra, Ghana.

Samarth, Ujwala. 2014. The Occupational Health of Waste Pickers in Pune: KKPKP and SWaCH Members Push for Health Rights.

Understanding Barriers to Accessing Universal Health Coverage

Informal workers face specific barriers to accessing universal health coverage (UHC) which are related to both the place and nature of their work.

Ghana, India, and Thailand recently introduced inclusive health/health insurance schemes. In each country, membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers were involved in the design and implementation of these schemes.

To understand how these schemes include or exclude poorer informal workers, WIEGO commissioned case studies (see links below), then convened a policy dialogue in Bangkok in 2012, at which MBOs, government officials, and health system experts discussed lessons for the design and implementation of universal health schemes. Read about Policy Dialogues.

In 2014/2015 WIEGO worked with the Rockefeller Foundation to develop ideas about how health services can better be extended to informal workers working in informal workplaces.

In Ghana, WIEGO has worked with the National Health Insurance Scheme, to make it more inclusive of some of the poorest informal workers.

Related Reading

Alfers, Laura. 2013. The Ghana National Health Insurance Scheme: Barriers to Access for Informal Workers. WIEGO Working Paper (Social Protection) No. 30.

Jain, Kalpana. 2013. Health Financing and Delivery in India: An Overview of Selected Schemes. WIEGO Working Paper (Social Protection) No. 29.

Alfers, Laura and Francie Lund. 2012. Participatory Policy Making: Lessons from Thailand's Universal Coverage Scheme. WIEGO Policy Brief No. 11.

Ghana Health Policy Dialogue – Impact: Marginalized Workers Gain Healthcare Access (2012)

Viewing Child Care through an Informal Worker Lens

In groundbreaking work, WIEGO is examining the link between child care for informal workers and women’s economic empowerment. Child care for working parents is not included as a core component of the ILO’s social security contingencies.

Since its launch in 2014, 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.  Focus group discussions conducted by membership-based organizations (MBOs) of informal workers in Brazil, Ghana, India, South Africa and Thailand reveal that women informal workers are faced with limited options when affordable child care services are not available. The experiences of informal workers vary across sectors - street vendors may have to take their children with them to sell in crowded urban areas, while home-based workers struggle to care for their children and work at the same time.  Without quality child care services, women informal workers are less productive, which results in lower earnings.

In June 2015, a strategic workshop was convened in Durban, South Africa with MBOs of informal workers and WIEGO partners to determine the future of the initiative. The participants decided develop an international advocacy strategy alongside national advocacy and coalition building with trade unions, MBOs of informal workers, women's rights and child rights organizations. International and national advocacy strategies will frame child care as a core component of social protection for all workers. 

Read more about WIEGO's Child Care Initiative and access related publications.

Increasing the Voice of Informal Workers in Social Policy Development

The programme strives to influence both policy and practice that promotes social inclusion for informal workers. In recent years, a focused approach to this work was taken in Peru and Mexico.

Under the leadership of Carmen Roca, WIEGO’s Latin America Regional Advisor, the first “Increasing Voice” project ran from 2009-13. It made social policy more responsive to the needs of the working poor, fostering dialogue between policymakers, government officials and informal workers.

In Mexico City, a capacity building programme allowed domestic workers, market vendors, newspaper vendors, shoe shiners, and street vendors to access training through the Institute for Economic Research of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Modules focused on the contributions of informal workers to the economy, social protection, and advocacy and surveillance on social policy.


Discussions led to opportunities to pilot daycare and old-age support programmes in prioritized districts of Lima. Enduring forums were created through which informal workers continue to participate in policy development and negotiation. The project, a partnership with CIES (a social and economic research consortium in Peru), also provided training for workers – from

computer skills to advocacy techniques.

In 2012, WIEGO implemented an Exposure Dialogue Programme in Lima. Participants, including government officials and Social Protection Director Francie Lund, spent two days living and working with market porters, street/market vendors, newspaper vendors and waste pickers to gain insight into the day-to-day realities that affect these workers.


Expanding the Work in Peru

WIEGO and partners have expanded the scope of the project to new regions of Peru, aiming to give about 6,000 informal workers improved social protection, as reflected in new access to child care, health coverage, and/or old age benefits. Key to achieving this will be stronger organizations engaged in more dialogue with the state, and increased voice for about 200 women worker leaders.

In addition to focusing on districts of Lima prioritized by workers – Independencia, La Victoria, Lima Cercado, and San Martín de Porres – the project expanded into three new cities: Arequipa, Chiclayo and Tarapot.

Read more about the Women's Voice & Leadership Project in Peru.

Building Access to Health Services through Mobile Phones

Building capacity for informal workers can help them gain social protection. As a participant in the mHealth Alliance/Vital Wave project, Francie Lund and Laura Alfers explored how mobile phones could be used to improve informal workers’ access to health services, and for health education. They wrote a report on mobile phone usage after interviewing MBO leaders and WIEGO members. They also helped organize a 2014 workshop in Johannesburg where mobile phone solutions were presented for feedback to informal workers. Read Informal Workers and the Use of Mobile Technology and Communications: Findings from Key Informant Interviews.

Notable Gains

Social protection

Health and Safety for Informal Workers

In 2014, WIEGO played a major role at the Institute of Medicine’s workshop on “Approaches to UHC & OHS for the Informal Workforce in Developing Countries” in Washington, DC. The aim of the workshop was to examine approaches, successes and challenges to extending universal health coverage and occupational health and safety to informal workers in five countries: Brazil, Ghana. India, South Africa and Thailand. Marty Chen was on the Planning Committee for the workshop, and the WIEGO network was represented by Marty, Mirai Chatterjee from SEWA, Poonsap Tulaphan from HomeNet Thailand, Vilma Santana from Brazil, and Laura Alfers and Francie Lund from WIEGO Social Protection Programme.

In South Africa, WIEGO and Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) developed a proposal to help make Durban's Warwick Junction safer for informal workers, customers, and others in the area. In 2014, The Phephanathi Project - phephanathi means "be safe with us" in isiZulu – was awarded a Rockefeller Foundation Centennial Innovation Challenge Award. Through the project, informal traders are forming risk-management sub-committees to raise awareness and monitor health and safety issues in their workplace. Read more about the project on AeT’s website.

A Health Policy Dialogue facilitated by WIEGO and held in Accra, Ghana in 2012 resulted in over 1,000 head porters, known as kayayei in Ghana, gaining access to health care services through the Ghanaian National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS). Read Marginalized Workers Gain Healthcare Access.

In India, WIEGO supported SEWA in its work on the design of ergonomically appropriate equipment for informal workers, which have been shown to improve both the health of workers and their productivity. Read more.

Social Protection Floor

The International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted a global social protection floor calling for extending social protection to all. Francie Lund worked with StreetNet International to develop an advocacy booklet on the Social Protection Floor for the Working Poor. While essentially supportive of the idea of the floor, the booklet also identifies informal workers’ specific needs and demands.

Involvement in International Networks, Alliances and Campaigns

The Social Protection Programme participates in networks, alliances and campaigns as a way of influencing policy. Current and recent participation includes:

  • Francie Lund gave the keynote presentation and served as adviser to the European Commission’s evaluation of the response to its first round of funding for Social Protection and the Informal Economy.
  • Francie Lund was appointed to the External Expert Panel for assessing UNICEF research on social protection.
  • In April 2013, Francie presented at the 9th Ordinary Session of the African Union’s Labour and Social Affairs Commission (AU LSAC) in Addis Ababa in support of the SPIREWORK Programme (Extending Social Protection to Informal and Rural Workers). She was invited to participate in the AU LSAC press conference. Significantly, the Social Protection team were successful in having a key paragraph on informal workers inserted into the final recommendations of the AU LSAC’s report on SPIREWORK.
  • Relationships continue to develop with the emerging southern African social policy network, SASPEN, and through the African Union. With the support of Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung, WIEGO has been a key influence in getting social protection for informal workers on this regional map. For example, Francie Lund presented at the African Union 9th Ordinary session of the Economic Affairs in Addis Ababa, April 2013, on “Labour market and legal regulatory framework of the informal economy.” In September 2013, she spoke about social protection for informal workers at a conference convened by Southern African Social Policy and Economic Network in Johannesburg. At the same conference, she presented “Occupational Health and Safety for Informal Workers: a WIEGO project in Ghana, Tanzania, Brazil, Peru and India.”