Battered by crises, working women in developing countries demand inclusion

Growing up in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Lorraine Sibanda has always been proud of the work her family did. "My mother was a dressmaker who also sold vegetables. She was a strong woman. My sisters and I learned many skills from her. We enjoyed the fruit of our labor," she said.

Her family's hard work and loving support allowed Sibanda to receive a good education. The experience also inspired her to become a teacher to help girls from poorer backgrounds change their lives through education and by acquiring skills.

In Zimbabwe and across Africa, the majority of working women are not formally employed, meaning they are largely expected to earn a living and handle childcare duties without legal protection, Sibanda told CGTN.

Now a leading advocate for informal workers and women's rights, Sibanda has continued to work as a self-employed trader and dressmaker to support her daughters through school. But she refuses to stay quiet about the injustices.

"Women in public spaces, especially young women, have to deal with harassment, violence and abuse by overzealous authorities daily due to the lack of a proper system to protect them," she said.

"I grew up in a supportive informal economy home. At the end of the day, workers in the informal economy are normal people; their children need to go to school and be cared for."

African women trade food produce in a local market. /CFP

African women trade food produce in a local market. /CFP

At the bottom of global economy

The informal sector was historically a Western concept referring to low-income activities among unskilled migrants and colonized natives. In today's globalized world, the term encompasses the vast majority of the working population at the base of the economic pyramid, according to Martha Chen, co-founder of the global network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and a lecturer in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School.

These include domestic and home-based workers, transport workers, street vendors and waste pickers, as well as those further down the global supply chain. "It is the main source of employment and income for the majority of the workforce and population in the developing world," Chen said.

In South and Southeast Asia, where some multinational corporations have outsourced low-paid work, home-based workers like the women stitching garments for fashion brands and assembling boxes for fast-food chains are informally employed and without labor protections, Chen told CGTN.

The Geneva-based International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that informal workers account for 61 percent of the global workforce, with 90 percent of them in developing countries. Globally, 58 percent of women who work are engaged in informal employment, whereas in developing countries, this number rises to 92 percent.

Women are disproportionately represented in the informal sector due to gender norms in many societies that prefer investing in sons, but structural inequalities have kept them disadvantaged, Chen said.

A garment worker in South Asia. /CFP

A garment worker in South Asia. /CFP

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated many of the pre-existing inequalities in dramatic ways. The resulting economic fallout has proven devastating for the world's working poor, forcing many people to choose between their health and their livelihoods.

The impact on informal workers was immediate because for many, staying at home means "no work, no income and no food," Chen said. "They are stuck in this hole of despair."

The ILO estimates that 1.6 billion informal workers could see their livelihoods destroyed due to the continued decline in work as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Millions of home-based workers in the garment industry saw their orders grind to a halt, with brands refusing to pay for work already completed. At the same time, they had no safety net to fall back on.

A WIEGO study in 12 cities around the world found that by mid-2020, the average earnings of informal workers across all sectors had nearly halved from pre-pandemic levels.

Having been largely excluded from government aid, informal workers also risk being left out in the post-pandemic recovery, despite them providing many essential services on the frontline of this crisis.

That is because most social security models have been developed in the industrialized global north and are premised on the wage-employed, Chen said. "They don't fit the reality in most developing countries."

Recovery plans should focus on the base, not just the tip, of the economic pyramid, she said.

Speaking up

At the 109th Session of the International Labor Conference (ILC), where representatives from 187 countries are now discussing the issue of inequality in the world of work, women leaders of global informal workers' networks are demanding more inclusion in recovery planning.

Representing StreetNet, an international network of street vendors, Sibanda says women's leadership is needed in policymaking, and she has called for solidarity among women in developing countries.

Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet International, is elected as national president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), October 23, 2021. /ZCIEA

Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet International, is elected as national president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), October 23, 2021. /ZCIEA

"When you are an outspoken woman, who is strong enough to speak for yourself, and ultimately for others, the community will perceive you as cold and deviant," she told CGTN. "People are going to ask, 'Where is her husband? Is this why she is alone?'"

In December 2020, Sibanda's husband died after contracting COVID-19. The personal loss was a reminder of the woes of millions of ordinary families brought on by the virus. Now the fearless mother and activist is urging governments to prioritize the well-being of their people.

"Women are looking after the sick at home and they have minimal support from the government. We need personal protective equipment in public spaces. Healthcare should be a priority."

The lack of support often stems from a negative perception of the informal sector from authorities and the public that has led to discrimination against the workers, Chen said. "The mainstream narrative is that the informal sector is a problem that's dragging down the economy."

However, there is increased recognition that much of the informal economy today is integrally linked to the formal economy and contributes to the overall economy; and that supporting the working poor in the informal economy is a key pathway to reducing poverty and inequality, Chen said.

Recently, calls have been growing for universal social protection. This year, thousands of street vendors in New York City pushed the City Council to lift a cap on street food vending permits in place since 1983. On November 17, the Ford Foundation announced a $25 million grant to WIEGO to support informal workers' organizations.

"It is the first time the informal economy is talked about in a significant way," Chen said. As for countries without the means, the public policy scholar believes that changes begin with compassion and an attitude shift. 

"Do no harm," she said. "A change in mindset doesn't need financial outlay."

(Cover photo: Lorraine Sibanda from Zimbabwe, a leading advocate for informal workers and women's rights.)

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