This crisis has opened my eyes to the abuses I suffered. I always put up with the mistreatment of the lady I work for, but at least I had a salary which allowed me to live and pay for my daughter’s education. I started working [for her] to take care of her son when he was 6 months old and now in July he will turn 26. Not even for all of this did they consider me. For the entire month of April, they didn’t pay me a single sol. -- Domestic Worker, Lima, Peru
We had to face great difficulties. Our work/businesses were closed, hence we had no income. We couldn’t go outside the house. If we went outside then we got afraid. Food grains and grocery were costly. It seemed as if businessmen were trying to rob us. -- Street Vendor, Ahmedabad, India
There are no economic indicators so important or revealing as the words of workers. Today, the voices of informal economy workers, who constitute 60 per cent of the world’s workforce, are helping us unpack the hardship, injustice, and possibility for transformation within our economic system, laid bare by COVID-19.
WIEGO and our partners are listening long and hard to informal economy workers through our study: COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy.
In 2008-2010, WIEGO was one of the few organizations documenting the impact of the global financial crisis-turned-recession on informal economy workers. Now, in the midst of the current crisis, the world knows considerably more about COVID-19’s impact on the majority of the world’s workforce that is informal. Phone surveys and media reports demonstrate the devastating scale of income loss and food insecurity. WIEGO’s own Rapid Assessment in March showed how issues like police violence, increased care and household responsibilities, and supply chain breaks compound the crisis of income.
Nevertheless, in April, WIEGO and our institutional members and other partners—organizations representing informal economy workers in a variety of occupations—began planning further research to sharpen our understanding of the crisis. With support from the International Development Research Center, we are asking: How are homeworkers managing unprecedented disruptions in global supply chains? How are workers in public spaces and private homes protecting themselves from COVID-19? What kinds of relief measures are actually reaching them, if any, and what support do workers need to really restart and secure their livelihoods? These questions are as relevant for informal workers in New York City in the Global North as in Delhi, Accra, or Lima in the South.
COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy aims to fill these gaps. Conducted in two rounds, it will capture changes across the different stages of the crisis during the second and third quarters of 2020, and how workers are adapting by the first quarter of 2021. The study creates a platform for the experience and voices of informal workers to rise to the top of the policy agenda, for those who create policy to see, hear, and feel what is going wrong at the base of the economic pyramid—and what we could start doing right.
COVID-19 and the Informal Economy: WIEGO-led 12-City Study
From vulnerability to prospects for recovery
“COVID-19 and the Informal Economy” interrogates four central themes:
The crisis of income, health, food and care: The WIEGO study documents key impediments to work during and after COVID-19 restrictions, loss of working days and income, and how workers are adapting, including through negative coping strategies like high interest loans. We identify COVID-19 health impacts (including mental health impacts), how restrictions are changing household composition and care responsibilities for informal workers, and how these impacts vary particularly by gender and occupation.
Essential goods and services: Informal workers provide essential services—from food, to care, to transportation and waste management. We examine which of these functions are recognised as such, and which workers must carry on their essential tasks under the threat of penalty or state violence. The study also captures how workers themselves are accessing essential goods and services.
Role of the state and other institutions: Governments play a contradictory role for informal workers, on one hand providing limited social protections, while offering little (if any) legal protection or economic support—and frequently penalizing their livelihoods via local law enforcement. Through the COVID-19 Study, we are probing the role of state and non-state institutions during the pandemic. Importantly, we assess the role of the organizations that represent informal workers, and how they are adapting to a transformed economic and political landscape.
Relief and social protection: The COVID-19 era has seen a broad but incomplete extension of social protection measures and development of new relief measures to reach informal workers. Through the COVID-19 Crisis Study and other research by WIEGO’s Social Protection Program, our research assesses which measures are actually reaching workers, the reasons why not, and how and why they are having an impact.
Capturing intersections and narratives, through a mixed methods approach
To say the least, the global pandemic has challenged the way we traditionally do research. In-person, qualitative focus groups are out, and phone-based questionnaires are in.
Yet, capturing the complexity and diversity of informal worker experiences during the pandemic, and the policy responses to it, requires a mixed method approach. Research tools must allow interrogation of intersectional vulnerabilities, related to workers’ status in employment, place of work, race, ethnicity, and caste, migration status and gender.
A detailed questionnaire conducted in 12 languages, along with over 100 semi-structured interviews with worker leaders and other key informants, are allowing WIEGO and our institutional members and partners to unpack these themes. Our survey comprises questions on the topics described above, with open-ended questions at the end that allow time for free reflection on challenges faced, support received, and future needs. Because the surveys are tailored by sector, we can also zero in on how COVID-19 disrupts or changes the nature of domestic work, street vending, waste picking, and home-based work, among other occupations.
Semi-structured interviews permit local research teams to clarify what is happening at the level of city or neighbourhood economies. More importantly, they unearth the crucial, personal narratives of individual workers and their families, which make the “hard” data come to life.
The disease has caused us a lot of difficulties because in Mbeubeuss [Dumpsite] there is plastic but we can no longer export it so we are having difficulty selling the product, and the intermediaries are taking advantage to lower the prices. So we are obliged to sell at this price because we need it to support our family. -- Waste Picker, Dakar
My body is ok, but my emotional wellbeing is vulnerable. I got COVID and had to think of my elderly parents. I’m still recovering mentally. -- Canner, New York, New York
Creating spaces for learning, reflection and mutual care
Requesting such detailed, personal information over the phone is difficult under any circumstance, much less amid an acute crisis. The WIEGO-led research is possible only because of its close relationship with its members, and between workers and their membership-based organizations, who conducted or coordinated all questionnaires and interviews.
What we did not predict was the extent to which these interactions would also create vital new spaces of communication and reflection for the MBOs and their members. At a time of severe isolation, many workers were willing to spend an hour or more on the phone with a trusted MBO ally, to share details of this troubling period. For MBOs, these calls often helped clarify needs for immediate support and for broader organizing strategies. For the workers who were interviewed, these calls helped remind them that they are not alone.
This is crucial: Much has been said about the need for a just recovery, one that addresses pre-existing inequities and injustices. Yet how we define this “just recovery” must start with how those at the bottom of the economic pyramid define it.
Research for building movements and power
For WIEGO and organizations of informal economy workers, the generation of data is never an end in itself. It is a pathway for organizing and advocacy: for increasing the visibility of informal workers, their needs and demands; and for raising the voices of workers, their leaders, and their organizations. The history of the global movement of informal workers has shown that “knowledge and statistics in the hands of informal economy workers is power.”
For this reason, our work plan prioritizes the advocacy needs of local worker organizations in the 12 cities. The first output from the global study is 12 City Fact Sheets, written in local languages, which provide workers and local policy makers with a snapshot of key data points for each city and sector. Later this year, WIEGO will also release a global version of the fact sheets.
We hope you will join us in listening and learning from the voices of informal workers around the world, and will stand up alongside them to demand a just recovery from COVID-19.
Feature photo: Market vendors and customers use masks and incorporate other safety measures while shopping at the Villa María del Triunfo in Lima, Peru. Credit: WIEGO