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The 'invisible' urban workforce

Many women in cities are in informal work which takes place in areas where the workers are at best lacking in basic infrastructure and services and at worst regularly subjected to harrassment, corruption and crime. Common livelihoods such as street vending, home-based work and waste picking are not formally recognised by policymakers or society, meaning that those women following those trades everyday are not even considered when it comes to urban planning, service delivery and legal rights.

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Last week, a number of representatives from WIEGO (Women In Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) came to DFID to present their research on the challenges facing those in informal employment in low-income cities. The research focuses on 3 groups: home-based workers, waste pickers and street vendors and can be found here. My main take-outs appear below:
Home based workers represent around 30% of urban women workers in India and Pakistan, with many of these women working in manufacturing and the garment industry. Despite serving as their place of work, many of the homes and immediate neighbourhoods in which these women work lack basic infrastructure and services such as electricity and , thereby severely affecting productivity levels and increasing the costs of doing business.
Street vendors make up 12-24% of the urban informal workforce in sub-Saharan Africa and typically rely on insecure work spaces for their livelihood. Many street vendors experience harassment , insecurity and even stock confiscations or theft despite owning a permit to operate. This loss of stock and threatening behavior from officials can significantly dent a street vendor’s earnings and increase vulnerability to income shocks.
Lastly, despite being a very small minority of the urban workforce at only 1% of the population, waste pickers provide an important public service saving municipalities significant costs and contributing to public and environmental health and wellbeing. The social and economic value of this form of livelihood is seldom recognized with many waste pickers being exploited by buyers and other types of intermediary with whom they have extremely limited negotiating power.
So what does all this mean?
One immediate issue common to all of these urban livelihoods – followed in significant part by women – is the fact that these livelihoods are seldom recognized and their value to the macroeconomy, social environment and the rest of the formal private sector is understated or ignored. Providing more organization and representation for women operating in these lines of work would help to at least bring their needs and challenges to the forefront.
In addition, the workplace for many women operating in these informal urban economies is not appropriately serviced or is inadequately covered by basic legal rights and protections. As a result, the very pursuit of economic activity is putting women at risk and exposing them to very real threats and safety issues. Urban planning policy and practice needs to reconsider the role of public land and the delivery of basic public services in supporting livelihoods.
How might we raise the profile of informal livelihoods that make such contributions to society and to the economy?
How might we support women in informal employment to form networks and to get a voice at the table with urban planners and policy makers?
How can we demonstrate that we recognise public spaces and other areas of the urban environment as workplaces and in so doing, demonstrate that there is value associated with making those places more conducive to productive work?


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