The rhetoric of an easing COVID-19 pandemic obscures the array of occupational health and safety risks that the world’s informal workers still face. The intersecting global health and economic crisis, combined with continued local and national COVID-19 restrictions, deficiencies in public health responses and a lack of meaningful economic and infrastructural support, continues to have a significant impact on workers’ physical and mental health and wellbeing.
According to the second round of findings from WIEGO’s COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy Study – which surveyed thousands of workers in cities across Asia, Africa and the Americas mid 2021 – occupational health and safety risks associated with informal work have accumulated throughout the pandemic.
COVID-19 is increasingly being recognized as an occupational disease, which is shaped by precarious working conditions. In our study, waste pickers, street vendors, market traders, and domestic workers reported being exposed to COVID-19 in their workplace, with high infection rates. For example, in Lima, Peru, which has seen the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate, almost 50% of surveyed workers reported testing positive for the coronavirus.
Many workers also reported not having access to water in their workplace – a key tool for preventing disease transmission through hand-washing and decontamination. This finding was particularly dramatic for workers operating within public spaces. Over 90% of surveyed street and market vendors in Delhi, India, and 82% of their counterparts in Durban, South Africa said they have no access to water while at work. This shows little to no improvement of working conditions since the onset of – and in the early stages of – the pandemic.
Heightened financial insecurity and significant reductions in income due to the economic impact of the pandemic has left workers with no choice but to continue working in precarious environments to earn a living. Over 40% of waste pickers reported increases in exposure to medical waste, including more than 60% of all surveyed waste pickers working in West African cities. Elsewhere, economic conditions have pushed waste pickers to adopt unsafe practices when sorting contaminated – yet potentially profitable – materials. A waste picker from Delhi describes the situation:
Some waste is coming separately in another bag...then they [waste pickers] got to know that it’s from a person who has COVID...so they were told that this is how we’re disposing a COVID patient’s waste. But when the waste pickers saw this bag - or when the bag opened on its own - they realized that the packing material is very costly, so they took out all that materials...even after knowing it’s from a COVID patient. And with that they tried to earn a livelihood — Male waste picker, Delhi
Economic disruption has also generated further occupational risks for workers when compared to earlier stages of the pandemic – including longer working hours, increasingly heavy physical labor and an accumulation of mental stressors. This has been especially true for live-in domestic workers – a highly feminized form of labor – and for workers living in places which experienced severe waves of COVID-19, such as Mexico City and Lima. At the same time, health concerns were the most common reason for missed days of work – and less opportunity to bring home an income – among survey respondents.
The burden of poor occupational health and safety provision in informal workplaces is exacerbated even further by poor access to healthcare – with many surveyed workers detailing their difficulties with paying out-of-pocket for routine and emergency care, being unable to access COVID-19 testing, and experiencing stigma and discrimination in health facilities on account of their occupation and socioeconomic status.
Despite these injustices, workers have continued to mobilize to fight for their health and safety in the workplace. They have maintained high rates of personal protective equipment (PPE) use – including masks, gloves, hand sanitiser, soap and disinfectant (Figure 1). This has largely been due to the work of grassroots movements of local and national informal worker organizations, who have continued undeterred to offer vital mutual aid to workers, in spite of the high costs and periodic low availability of PPE and little or no support from governments and private companies in procuring PPE.
As a waste picker in Accra, Ghana noted, worker mobilization has helped to shift workers’ health and safety practices and re-emphasized the importance of prevention, as “our education continues to increase on how to protect ourselves and we now see that…none of our members contract the virus, that means our education to them is also helping”.
Figure 1. Use of personal protective equipment (PPE), by percentage of surveyed workers across a range of cities, as of mid-2021.
Worker organizations also play an active role in addressing low rates of COVID-19 vaccination by sharing accessible and accurate information about the importance of getting vaccinated with their members.
Yet, workers in informal employment shouldn’t need to be self-reliant to ensure healthy and safe workplaces, and they shouldn’t be required to shoulder the entire burden and risks associated with delivering their essential goods and services.
The theme of this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work is social dialogue and participation, with the International Labor Organization (ILO) outlining that a supportive culture of occupational health and safety “is built on inclusion, through the meaningful involvement of all parties in the ongoing improvement of safety and health at work.” WIEGO has long promoted the importance of worker participation in occupational health and safety provision – the theme of this year’s World Day for Safety and Health at Work – and has helped to facilitate negotiations between worker organizations and local and municipal authorities on health and safety matters.
Workers surveyed as part of our study have voiced their demands for local governments to implement safer workplaces for workers, including rearranging and regulating market spaces to minimize COVID-19 transmission and protect the health of street and market vendors and the wider public. Beyond this, worker organizations have seen success in advocating for increased access to COVID-19 vaccination at local and national levels. For example, a waste picker cooperative in Brazil achieved legal recognition of their essential work which enabled their inclusion in priority groups for vaccination, and a union of domestic workers in Argentina negotiated with provincial authorities to facilitate vaccine registrations for their members.
Workers, however, do still remain over-exposed to – and under-protected from – occupational health and safety risks. Persistent structural barriers in comprehensive public health responses – which include the provision of PPE, access to clean water and sanitation and COVID-19 vaccination – continue to marginalize many workers in informal employment.
We must amplify their demands for their right to health and economic justice to be respected. We must ensure that workers can gain proximity to those in power, in order to lead on generating solutions which sufficiently and urgently meet their needs. And, we must continue to stand in solidarity with them across borders.