What Will 2021 Look Like For Informal Workers? An Interview With Sally Roever, WIEGO’s International Coordinator

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Food Vendor in NYC
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Yola Verbruggen

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2020 was unlike anything we could have expected. The crisis has exposed and amplified inequalities in countries across the world, which has contributed to the growing awareness about the hardships faced by the working poor and their essential roles in society. What can we do in 2021 to seize this moment and ensure that it translates into better working conditions for informal workers? 

I think 2021 will be a moment of reckoning around the excessive concentration of wealth and power behind those rising levels of inequality in many countries, especially as economic recovery lags and the pandemic drags on. One thing we can do to take advantage of the increased awareness of informal workers is to raise their profile in discussions around the need for a new social contract that is fairer, more redistributive and more attuned to people and planet. There is increasing pressure on governments to universalize social protection and labor rights coming from formal trade unions, civil society and even from within international financial institutions. And there is increasing pressure to reign in corporate abuses through stronger governance mechanisms. Informal workers and their representative organizations need to be centered in these discussions. That in turn will mean building broader coalitions among those who understand how and why the challenges for different informal worker groups vary and what policy makers can do to reduce the risks that workers face.

Ultimately, the discussion around how to build a better social contract needs to be about what it means to value the contributions that every worker makes to their household, community and society, and what it means to hold accountable those whose actions produce risk and vulnerability. We need to use all resources and levers at our disposal to pressure governments to better regulate the extreme concentration of wealth and power that has been building up over the last few decades.

The impact of the COVID-19 crisis has had a colossal impact on the world’s 2 billion informal workers in 2020. What are the most immediate needs of informal workers this year?

The first consideration is the massive loss of earnings experienced in the informal economy and the resulting need for ongoing relief, including food, cash and debt moratoriums. A lot of workers in our network haven’t been able to return to work. Let’s remember that it is not only those 2 billion workers but also the people in their households who rely on their earnings, who are going hungry as a result of those lost working hours. The disproportionate impact of labour income losses on informal workers means policy measures should go as far as they can to support them. Here again, this will call for some creativity and innovation on the part of policy makers, but there are efforts to support them through technical advice and information sharing.

Then above and beyond cash transfers and food relief in the short term, a lot of workers in our network have also expressed the need just to get back to work. From their point of view, they can always find a way to survive or to solve any problem that may come along so long as they can work. 

This has its challenges where there are high levels of community transmission of the virus, of course, but there is some innovation here, too. We have heard from groups of street vendors and waste pickers who have been working with local authorities to devise ways of keeping themselves and their customers safe and keeping urban systems — food distribution, transport, waste management and so on — running. 

What are the most important lessons from 2020 in terms of supporting informal workers during the pandemic?

We learned a lot in 2020. Very early on, it became clear that having ways to get credible information to people quickly was going to be essential. Leaders of membership-based organizations (MBOs) reported that workers were the target of misinformation campaigns about the virus and that they urgently needed clear, appropriate and occupation-specific information about wearing masks, washing hands, keeping a workplace hygienic and so on. The demand for this was so great that we ended up translating the Whatsappable resources we produced for waste pickers into 17 languages.

Then, when the lockdowns started, some MBOs had to figure out what role they could play in getting relief to their members. A few had experience with this, but for some it was new. It meant things like making a membership list for the first time, figuring out how to link food distribution to their members, or navigating government websites on behalf of members to get them access to emergency cash transfers. These very practical organization-level needs around communication and information technologies prompted us to experiment with supporting the development of membership databases, finding ways to help strengthen SMS-based communication and supporting online fundraising in different ways.

So we learned a lot about what is possible in the short term, but then we also learned some substantive lessons over the course of the year. There was a great deal of appetite for knowledge sharing about social protection approaches and how they were changing, how the legal landscape was changing due to COVID-19, and where the success stories were in terms of urban policies that could support informal workers in the context of the pandemic. 

Given all of this, one of the really interesting outcomes of 2020 is that a lot of organizations in our network have actually seen their membership numbers increase, as workers realize that the only way to overcome their challenges is collectively. As a result, they are facing a new set of challenges with growing membership and growing needs.

In various places, informal worker organizations have stepped up to support their members when governments failed to do enough. What do you want to say to policymakers—how could they turn things around for the better for informal workers this year?

The pandemic made clear how desperately governments need better linkages to the communities they serve. We heard an astonishing story from Ghana where an attempt to deliver food relief ended up with government trucks driving into settlements and literally throwing food packets off the truck—and people crowding together, never mind social distancing, to try to grab what they could—because the authorities just didn’t have any contacts in the community and didn’t know how to find grassroots leaders and organizers who could help devise a sensible system for distribution. 

So there is a real opportunity for policy makers to open the door to those organizations that filled the gaps and find ways to work together. The policies that are needed the most will depend on the circumstances. Generally, though, if policymakers understand that employment represents a key pathway out of poverty and that most people in the world who work do so informally, they should also understand that they need much more nuanced insight into the realities that workers face day to day. How to design sustainable and appropriate policies that do a better job of delivering services, of making crucial livelihood resources available and accessible, of reducing risk—this is a complex question that can’t be addressed by simplistic ideas like equating formalization with registering and taxing small enterprises. 

Can informal workers look forward to a better 2021?

I think some informal workers can look forward to some things getting better in 2021. But let’s be clear about the circumstances they are facing just now. Very few are earning as much now as they were earning in early 2020. They are still being disproportionately hit by the virus because so many live in crowded informal settlements and have poor quality health care services. Few have access to any social protection at all. So the road to recovery is going to be long.

That said, as we’ve talked about, worker leaders have really stepped up over the past year. There has been a lot of learning and innovation at the grassroots level, especially where membership-based organizations had strong internal democratic practices in place before the pandemic hit. So if we couple more vibrant and proactive organizations with the possibility of global collaborations like COVAX getting the vaccine to low-income countries, 2021 could be considerably better than 2020.

Photo: Street Vendor in NYC. Credit: Street Vendor Project

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