Empowering the poorest of the poor

This article first published in the Financial Times

The global ‘gig economy’ is awash with the downtrodden and effective campaigners

The council wanted them out. The Grand Parade area in front of Cape Town’s City Hall needed to be clear for filming one day last month, so the market traders who have their stalls there would need to disappear. There have been traders on that stretch of ground for hundreds of years and, for them, a day without trading is a day without income.

But they had taken a lesson from the previous month. In February, they were to be removed for the then-president Jacob Zuma’s “state of the nation” address, as the Grand Parade area might have been needed for a helicopter landing.

In the end the whole plan changed because of Mr Zuma’s resignation. By March, though, the Grand Parade United Traders Association and its member stallholders knew about their legal rights, and, by showing that the council had not followed “due process”, had the clearance halted.

You may think of the “gig economy” as a new phenomenon, a byproduct of technology. In fact, it covers most workers globally. Wiego, a UK-based charity, co-founded two decades ago by a Harvard academic, supports organisations of informal workers such as those on Grand Parade, and has long published statistics and peer-reviewed papers about “informal work”. Based on its work with the International Labour Organization, Wiego estimated that the informal economy accounts for over 60 per cent of the labour force globally, nearly 70 per cent in less-developed countries. The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India alone has more than 2m members. “Officials are often visibly shocked by the size and contribution of these workers,” says Caroline Skinner, who works with both Wiego and the African Centre for Cities at the University of Cape Town.

As the UK government this week announced an overhaul of foreign aid to concentrate on poorer parts of Africa and Asia, there are good reasons for a closer examination of this segment of the economy.

Informal workers such as the Cape Town market traders are often the poorest of the poor. Yet in extraordinary numbers they spend their not very copious spare time organising themselves into groups to learn about their rights and to advocate for better conditions. It is all the more remarkable for the fact that any time they spend away from work, such as meeting with council officials, is lost income.

Wiego has more than 200 members and affiliates who collectively represent over 3.6m informal workers in 85 countries. There’s probably one near you: there is, for example, a New York Street Vendor Project. Common problems for informal workers include lack of childcare, harassment by police and lack of toilets.

Informal workers congregate in the worst-paid roles, and women are over-represented. They are street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers and home-based workers. The latter play a remarkably large role in producing clothes sold even by major brands, typically concealed by layers of outsourcing arrangements.

Domestic workers and home-based workers are tough groups to organise because they are geographically dispersed and hidden away. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable both to violations of economic and labour rights and also physical abuse as they are isolated and normally live on site. “We work alone and live alone,” says Myrtle Witbooi, once a domestic worker herself and now founding president of the International Domestic Workers Federation.

Where groups have self-organised, they operate not only locally but nationally and internationally. A local example is in the huge market in Accra, Ghana, where at the bottom of the pile are the “kayayei” or porters who carry goods on their heads, most of whom are young migrant women. They were charged a “daily toll” for working there, which was a significant slice of their daily income, despite the fact that they get nothing like sick pay or pension. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Wiego helped kayayei organisations extract a promise from the National Patriotic Party to eliminate those tolls if elected. The NPP did win, and has since followed through with a ban.

The national minimum wage in South Africa slated for introduction next month is R20 per hour, but only R18 for farmworkers and R15 for domestic workers. “We’re fighting that,” says Ms Witbooi, against whom I personally would not fancy negotiating, “because if we go into a shop, we don’t get a 25 per cent discount”.

Internationally, the International Labour Organisation’s annual conference in May is this year about gender-based violence in the workplace. The IDWF will be there to ensure that domestic workers are adequately considered and protected in the emerging “conventions” or binding agreements.

I know that many donors and FT readers are interested in helping people on the bottom rung and it can be hard to see how to do that well. Supporting this kind of work seems to be effective. The workers report that their self-organised groups help them improve their lives considerably, mainly by increasing income and reducing harassment. Since all of us get to use a clean toilet when we’re at work, perhaps we should ensure that these remarkably eloquent and tenacious informal workers do too.

There is much more to do. Childcare is one example. This is an issue because so many informal workers are women, and yet childcare is not included in many countries’ core suite of social protections, and isn’t even in the minimum suite recommended in the International Labour Organisation’s “Social Protection Floor”. Wiego is fighting that.

Another is ocean plastics, where work is just starting. Helping waste-pickers in coastal cities to organise themselves and engage with authorities can help increase the recycling rate, meaning that less plastic winds up in the sea.

Rare is the charity that operates both on the ground and at a global level on issues such as trade statistics. Wiego engages deeply with the people it supports, not just studying them like lab rats. I find this work astonishing and uplifting, and think it deserves wide recognition.

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