Pandemic Policies: What Governments Did to Reach the Most Vulnerable Workers

Hero Image
Vendors and customers at the Saturday weekly market in Vasant Kunj, Delhi
Published Date
Laura Alfers, Nicole Pryor

“Our waste-picking hands have made the world a better place." – Jaquelina Flores, from the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers.

“This is work. This is not just giving you a hand at home." – Carmen Britez, Vice-President of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

There was no mistaking the message as representatives of informal economy workers spoke at the global webinar Extending Social Protection to Workers in the Informal Economy’ organized by WIEGO in partnership with the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, HomeNet International, IDWF, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and StreetNet International. Workers in the informal economy want acknowledgement, visibility and to see their rights to social protection as workers, not just as the poor, to be realized.

The event was held as part of WIEGO’s advocacy activities during the 109th Session of the International Labour Conference, where the organization and its network partners represented workers in the informal economy. COVID-19 shaped the conference substantially, not only that it was held virtually for the first time, but that the subject matter was cast under the shadow of one of the most devastating years in recent history for informal workers around the world.

COVID-19 has exposed government inaction in extending dignity and fairness to informal economy workers in the most brutal way, Yvonne Bartmann from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation said in her opening address. But governments have shown how social protections can be extended to informal workers in times of crisis – through new policies or the upscaling of old ones. Let’s take a look inside the policy toolbox governments have used to get workers through the COVID-19 crisis:


What it did: Argentina showed the world how workers in the informal economy can be included in social dialogue spaces for social protection, and how crises can open up more opportunities for such dialogue.

How it did it: In March and April 2020, the government put in place a number of social protection measures aimed at supporting vulnerable workers. Through unions UTEP and Barrios de Pié, informal workers were incorporated into a social dialogue space through the Emergency Social Committee (ESC), set up in response to the pandemic. The goal of the ESC was to tackle issues of food security, income security and job security. It included representation from different levels of the state, churches, workers and civil society organizations.

Impact on workers’ lives: The ESC identified food security as a top priority and changed the top-up frequency of the Tarjeta Alimentar (food card) to weekly instead of monthly. This allowed households to better manage their household budgets.

Challenges: Although local level dialogues and action continued throughout the crisis, a lack of institutionalization or fomalization at a federal level has meant the ESC stalled.


What it did: Brazil rolled out a high-value cash transfer, which was relatively successful in reaching workers in the informal economy. The country also has an innovative example of how additional social protection benefits may be financed through industry-level agreements supported by government policy.

How it did it: The state rapidly extended the Auxilio Emergencial grant, which paid over four times the poverty line and reached 66 million Brazilians, many of them informal economy workers. Some waste picker cooperatives were also able to draw on the country’s Extended Producer Responsibility policy to get additional benefits from the perfume, cosmetics and hygiene products industry.

Impact on workers’ lives: The coverage and high value of the Auxilio Emergencial grant has been shown to have decreased poverty and inequality in Brazil, despite the economic impact of the crisis. The grant from the perfume, cosmetics and hygiene products industry body supported about 5,000 waste pickers from 150 cooperatives in Brazil when quarantine measures were in place and they were not able to work. Each waste picker received a R$600 (US$120) cash grant, paid in two R$300 instalments.

Challenges: The Auxilio Emergencial has been extended in 2021 but at a much lower level, which is likely to reduce its overall impact on poverty and inequality. The grant for waste pickers would need to be significantly upscaled to reach more workers within the sector.


What it did: India’s Workers Welfare Boards provide an innovative example of contributory social protection that can provide coverage for employed, sub-contracted and self-employed informal workers. In the state of Kerala, the Unorganized Sector Workers Welfare Board played an important role in ensuring that relief measures reached workers in the informal economy.

How it did it: The Workers Welfare Boards have existed since the 1950s as a way to get basic welfare benefits to groups of workers who fall outside standard employment relationships. Each board is governed by a tripartite committee, with representatives from the government, workers themselves and employers. Each board is financed differently according to the sectors involved. For example, the Building and Construction Workers Welfare Fund is financed through contributions from construction workers, the state and a 1 per cent cess (tax) on all construction projects paid by the lead firm.

Impact on workers’ lives: The benefits provided through the boards cover the basic social security needs prioritized by informal workers – health, education, death, marriage and funeral expenses.

Challenges: The benefits are minimal. In Kerala, for example, the pension provided through the Unorganized Sector Workers Welfare Board is INR1,200 (US$16) per month, not enough to keep a worker above the $1/day poverty line. However, it is significantly more than the INR300 per month offered by the Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension, the major national social assistance pension scheme.


What it did: Togo’s Novissi cash grant scheme shows that even low-income countries can extend social assistance to informal economy workers.

How it did it: Togo is one of the smallest economies in sub-Saharan Africa – but this did not stop it from providing social assistance to workers in the informal economy during the COVID-19 crisis. The scheme was aimed at Togolese citizens in the informal sector whose daily income was disrupted by the pandemic.

Impact on workers’ lives: Workers received a monthly cash transfer, and women were paid more due to the unequal care burden. The value of the transfer was set at approximately one-third of the Togolese minimum wage.

Challenges: The Novissi scheme was largely financed through overseas development assistance, particularly from the French Development Agency (AFD) and the European Union. It is unlikely that the programme will continue without new ways to mobilize resources. As a small economy, Togo may be eligible to benefit from the proposed Global Social Protection Fund, enabling the country to continue its innovative work in providing social protection to workers in the informal economy.


Top photo: Vendors and customers at the Saturday weekly market in Vasant Kunj, Delhi. Credit: Rashmi Choudhary

Informal Economy Topic
Informal Economy Theme