May 18 2020

COVID-19: The informal economy speaks out!

The Network on the Right to Social Protection unites roughly a hundred social movements. The vast majority of these work intensively with people active in the informal economy. Since mid-March, they have been sounding the alarm because the lockdown measures are hitting them very hard. The latest ILO figures confirm this. Today, some 2 billion people work in the informal economy; more than 1.6 billion of them are affected by the lockdown, particularly in terms of income. There are some differences from region to region, but the calculations are crystal clear: these people see their earnings decline by 60 to 80%.


The informal economy loses between 60 and 80% of its (meagre) earnings

Driving people around? Prohibited! Markets? Closed! Processing and harvesting fields? Impossible! For many, the choice is heart-wrenching: no work means no food on the table! To work, however, is to get sick. And getting sick is...possibly fatal, because who can afford care? A tragedy that especially affects women and young people who are overrepresented in the informal economy. We shouldn't lose sight of these people. Not even in Belgium where a whole group of people is still vulnerable due to their unclear or weak legal status. For instance, people in precarious jobs and undocumented migrants: many of them are now without income or protection.

Taking matters into their own hands

Even in these trying times, it becomes clear once again that people are primarily social beings, working together and in solidarity with each other, as Yuval Noah Harari wrote in his masterpiece 'Sapiens'. Since mid-March, the member-organisations of the Network on the Right to Social Protection have adapted their services to the needs of their supporters, started all kinds of actions to raise awareness and negotiate with governments and employers in order to guide people in the informal economy through this crisis safely and effectively. The conclusion is always the same: provide a (temporary) income and ensure access to social protection!

Indian Network asks 20.000 INR for people working in the informal economy

Even before Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, formally announced the lockdown, he already received an official letter. The authors had a clear message: people in the informal economy will be hit very hard. Yet they do essential work for our economy and so we must support them. How do we support them? Give them temporary benefits of 20,000 INR (about 245 EUR) monthly and make sure they have access to universal social protection.

The letter was sent by the Indian Network on the Right to Social Protection, which unites various civil society organisations. Organisations active in the informal economy: domestic workers, farmers, construction workers, street vendors...  In the meantime, the Indian government has a support programme that allows for the payment of temporary benefits (social assistance) for a number of vulnerable groups in society: the elderly, widows and people with disabilities would receive 1000 INR; for 87 million farmers there will be a benefit of 2000 INR. In Tamil Nadu, AREDS will ensure that 185,000 elderly people continue to receive their pensions.

Yet our colleagues in the Indian Network fear a catastrophe. These amounts are much lower than what people really need. Moreover, the situation differs from one state to another. Also, many people fall through the cracks, especially internal migrants (some 130 million of them). They lost their jobs overnight, but were also unable to return to their native villages, because public transport also grinded to a halt. The only hope they still have? With the distribution of food parcels and PPE (face masks, gloves, gel) for domestic workers, farmers and construction workers, NDWM and CWM are trying to alleviate the worst needs.

We need to build strong local, social and solidary economies

Dixit RIPESS, the global network of social economy organisations. The RIPESS regional organisations have long been a strategic partner of our thematic network in Africa and Latin America.

“The resurgence of solidarity among self-organised citizens and within communities that we are witnessing all over the world in these difficult times […] is a very positive sign” said RIPESS in a recent statement, but they also pointed out it doesn’t end there: “we need to go further, strengthening the universal access to essential services such as healthcare, social welfare, the right to food and social protection.”


Not surprisingly, RIPESS members, including GRESP (Peru), called on local authorities not to close local markets during the lockdown. Social distancing may be easier to maintain in supermarkets, but these local markets are an essential link in the distribution of locally grown food: the social economy and cooperatives often provide the supply, while it is the poorer communities that do their shopping here.

Here and there, we notice that their voices are actually being heard. In a number of countries, local authorities now regard the markets as essential services, according to an analysis made by WIEGO. This network brings together organisations in the informal economy and made useful guidelines on how informal vendors can still guarantee the safety of their customers in such cases.


Prevention is better than cure

People are not standing idly by, and certainly not those who survive in the informal economy. They simply don't have that choice. That is why many organisations from the Network on the Right to Social Protection are focusing on awareness raising and health education. Compliance with the various safety regulations greatly reduces the risk of infection.

In the Dominican Republic, the government has launched a national campaign. However, experience shows that it does not reach everyone. MOSCTHA and FEI have long worked with Haitian migrants, many of them undocumented. They often live in densely populated slums called bateyes, where many basic services are lacking. MOSCTHA and FEI quickly decided to roll out a large information campaign in several bateyes. They also distribute hygienic kits (antibacterial gel and soap, face masks and disposable gloves) and food parcels.

Mutual health organisations are starting similar actions in West and Central Africa. These organisations do everything in their power to spread awareness among their members on the importance of social distancing. In Mali, UTM has developed and distributed posters to inform and raise awareness among its staff, volunteers and members. They also made commercials that are broadcast via local radio stations in order to reach as many people as possible. In addition, kits of liquid soap and alcoholic gel have been placed in local offices and health centres.

If someone has to go to the health centre, a busy location, it is extremely important to maintain social distancing, to be able to wash your hands, wear face masks etc. The Benin Network on the Right to Social Protection has therefore decided to make their own face masks and distribute them in the communities where the organisations are active. In addition, they are also going to install mobile hand washing stations at health centres so that people can wash their hands upon arrival and departure. These stations will be made by local craftsmen from... you guessed it, the informal economy.

Keep emphasising the need for (temporary) income and access to social protection

The informal economy presents us with many challenges. Challenges that we have known about for a long time and for which there is an answer. In 2015, governments and social partners reached an agreement to put people in the informal economy on the path to formal economy. In the famous ILO Recommendation no. 204, they agreed to make this transition a reality by, among other things, investing in social protection, health and safety at work and the creation of decent work as an alternative for these people.

Social movements show the way. It will be important to involve them actively in the development of support measures. In a recent policy brief, the ILO also stresses this message: “Informal economy workers and enterprises should have the possibility to express their views and defend their interests […] on policy measures that will affect them directly. […] it is even more important in the current context that these organizations further strengthen their relationships with organizations, workers and enterprises in the informal economy. This will foster social dialogue that is inclusive […]” (p.3). A message that is also fully endorsed by ACV-CSC, as shown by the line of action it adopted at its Congress in 2015 (p. 34-35).

But let us be clear: this recommendation should not only apply to support measures in times of crisis; it should also become the leitmotiv in the development of the policies developed after the crisis.  




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