Coping in Crisis: South African Workers' Lives in COVID-19

Warwick Junction, Durban, South Africa. Photo: Jane Barrett


There is widespread recognition, both internationally and in South Africa, that the measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 have impacted particularly negatively on informal workers, whose jobs are precarious, who often depend on daily earnings for survival, and who lack legal and social protections.

This joint WIEGO and UN Women advocacy initiative gives an in-depth account of the experiences of women informal workers in South Africa during the COVID-19 crisis. The narratives, video and policy paper highlight the contribution and struggles of women informal workers and raise awareness among government, policy makers and the general public of their situation. This project complements the findings from the Durban survey undertaken as part of WIEGO’s multi-city study: COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy.

Street Traders on the Move

On March 27th 2020, street vendors and market traders in South Africa were banned from operating under the country’s first COVID-19 lockdown. While restrictions were lifted, traders have struggled to resume work that was precarious long before the lockdown. In this short documentary, Johannesburg worker leaders Lulama Mali and Miriam Sibiya navigate the new reality and seek sustainable solutions for the city’s traders.

Policy Brief

dresses for sale in DurbanInformal Work in South Africa & COVID-19: Gendered Impacts and Priority Interventions
This policy paper reflects the latest research insights on the impact of South Africa's lockdown on informal workers. It assesses the extent to which informal workers are able to access national government support and highlights key intervention priorities.

Workers' Lives

Waste picker Justina Kgoele makes her living on Johannesburg’s Marie Louise landfillView from the Mountain: A South African Waste Picker's Uphill Battle during COVID-19
When COVID-19 hit, it was South African waste picker Justina Kgoele's resourcefulness that got her through the worst of the crisis. Forced to make new plans to survive, Justina tells of how she liaised with the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) to get food parcels and PPE to those who'd lost their livelihoods.

Romilla Chetty is a successful third-generation trader in Durban’s Warwick JunctionUndeterred in the Face of a Crisis: Profile of a Market Trader in Durban, South Africa
A determined advocate in the struggle for traders’ rights, Romilla Chetty was desperate to get her trading stalls at Durban’s Warwick Junction back up and running after South Africa’s strict early lockdown was lifted. To prove to local authorities that adequate measures to prevent COVID-19 spread could be upheld with all market gates open, she and colleagues ensured that all the traders were equipped with the necessary PPE.

A Migrant Domestic Worker in Cape Town, South AfricaHungry: A Migrant Domestic Worker in Cape Town, South Africa
Hunger during South Africa’s early COVID-19 lockdown was widespread among domestic workers. A domestic worker from Zimbabwe, who lives in Cape Town, found that among the most painful parts of the lockdown for her and other immigrant domestic workers was being hungry while watching their employers scurrying to help the poor with food donations.

The art of recoveryThe Art of Recovery: A Johannesburg Reclaimer's Story
Ernestine Mohloboli, who earns her income by gathering and reselling waste paper and beverage containers from Johannesburg betting shops, has long been an active participant in organizing workers. When COVID-19 shut down her and other reclaimers' livelihoods, the African Reclaimers Organisation (ARO) became a lifeline.

Sewing the SeamsSewing the Seams: Cape Town Homeworkers Pull Together as COVID-19 Halts Earnings
Homeworkers in the garment industry are the most vulnerable and exploited link in the supply chain and Cape Town homeworker Chevonne Jacobs found that having more than one source of income was her saving grace when COVID-19 hit. Selling cosmetics on commission provided a critical trickle of cash when the subcontracted sewing orders she relies on dried up.

Position is crucial to street vendors, who often set up shop near transport hubs to attract passing tradeHopes Go Up in Smoke: A Migrant Street Trader in Durban, South Africa
For immigrant street traders in Durban, life was hard and lean before COVID-19. When South Africa imposed a strict lockdown in response to the pandemic, their earnings dropped while costs soared, making their lives more difficult than ever.

Generation Equality logoGeneration Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights for an Equal Future
This campaign is facilitated by UN Women in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action.




Cover Photo Credit: Jane Barrett