Where Women are Leaders: Two Global Victories for the Working Poor

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Ela Bhatt

Ela Bhatt is Founder of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) and the Founding Chair of WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing)

This year, the global community has renewed its commitment to “a more peaceful, prosperous and just world” by committing to the Sustainable Development Agenda. Building upon, but also expanding the Millennium Development Agenda that preceded it, the Sustainable Development Agenda includes two new stand-alone goals which are of critical importance to the working poor: Goal 8 on inclusive sustainable economic growth and decent and productive employment; and Goal 11 on inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities. By making the Sustainable Development Goals tangible and time-bound, like the Millennium Development Goals before them, we have shown our collective will and declared our earnestness to make an impact.

But we still have far to go to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth; create inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable cities; reduce poverty and inequality; and increase access to health, education, basic infrastructure and transport services. The global community needs to focus on the working poor who are the backbone of every nation. By committing to the Sustainable Development Goals, we are in fact pledging to become partners with the poor.

The link between economic growth and the poor – what makes growth both inclusive and sustainable – is WORK. “Decent Work” means full employment at the household level; it builds human dignity, the local economy and social cohesion. Most of the world’s working poor are engaged in the informal economy -- which means that they are not covered by protective labour standards or social protection. In my country, India, around 95 per cent of all workers are engaged in the informal economy.

This year, the global community also adopted an International Labour Standard – Recommendation 204 – on Transitioning from the Informal to the Formal Economy. Concerned about the mainstream approach to formalization, SEWA and WIEGO worked hard with organizations of informal workers to ensure that the recommendation on formalization reflected the perspectives and needs of informal workers. We consulted with organizations of informal workers around the world and jointly facilitated delegations of informal worker leaders at the 2014 and 2015 International Labour Conferences when the ILO Recommendation was first discussed and then approved: see the blog interview with Chris Bonner, the director of WIEGO’s Organization and Representation Programme.

SEWA, WIEGO and organizations of informal workers around the world are pleased that the ILO Recommendation 204 recognizes and makes provisions for the following:

  • Most informal workers are from poor households trying to earn a living against great odds and, therefore, need protection and promotion in return for regulation and taxation.
  • Most informal economic units are single person or family operations run by own account workers who do not hire others.
  • Informal livelihoods should not be destroyed in the process of formalization.
  • Regulated use of public space is essential to the livelihoods of informal workers, especially in cities.
  • Regulated access to natural resources is also essential to the livelihoods of informal workers.

With the new Sustainable Development Goals and Recommendation 204, the working poor are more empowered than ever before to fight the injustices and indignities that they face on a daily basis.

Let us pledge once again to embark on a partnership with the poor to bring peace, prosperity and justice to all. If not, we will be left with poverty, inequality and violence.

Informal Economy Topic