Social and labor protections for world’s informal workers — who represent 60% of all the world’s workforce — seen as crucial to equitable global economic recovery

NEW YORK – Today, the Ford Foundation announced a five-year, US$25 million grant to sustain and strengthen the global movement calling on governments at all levels to invest in protections for the world’s 2.1 billion informal workers as a central component of economic recovery plans. This funding comes ahead of the 109th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC), where representatives of governments, employers and informal workers from 187 countries will discuss the issue of inequality and the world of work.

Ford’s grant will support WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing), a global research, policy and advocacy network focused on empowering the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy to secure their livelihoods. WIEGO will regrant to global networks representing millions of domestic and home-based informal workers, street vendors and waste pickers in over 90 countries. These informal workers have been on the frontlines during the pandemic but have been devastated by the lack of social and labor protections during the crisis.

“We know there can be no global recovery without informal workers,” said Sarita Gupta, director of the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) program. “This grant recognizes the importance of ensuring billions of informal workers have a seat at the table to have their voices, demands and needs heard at the national and global levels, so policymakers and business leaders recognize their contributions and value. We are proud to support these women-led informal worker networks that are generating a global demand for social and labor protections for more than half the world’s workers.”

Workers in informal employment arrangements account for over 60% of all the world’s workforce, and 90% of workers in developing countries. One in five workers in the United States is employed informally. Globally, 58% of women who work are engaged in informal employment, a figure that rises to 92% in developing countries.

Although informal workers’ labor provides the foundations of the global economy — including domestic workers providing critical care; home-based workers producing garments, electronics and personal protective equipment; street vendors selling food; and waste pickers recycling valuable materials — their work is not regulated or protected by the state, and they lack basic labor protections, benefits and social security. Informal workers have been largely excluded from COVID-19 emergency cash and in-kind transfers by governments, leading to increased exposure to poverty, violence, hunger, homelessness and death. As a result, the percentage of informal workers falling into poverty was estimated to have doubled during the first month of the crisis, from 26% to 59%. These inequalities have an impact on the pace and sustainability of economic growth.

“As work has become increasingly precarious, informal and unsustainable, it is time for a deeper reckoning with inequality in the world of work,” said Sally Roever, international coordinator of WIEGO. “This infusion of funding will support WIEGO and our network partners to advance cutting edge research and build a bold global call for a just and inclusive economic recovery centered on informal workers. No one should work without just compensation and reasonable protections.”

The lack of social protections, and their human consequences, were brought into sharp focus during COVID-19. In Durban, South Africa, for example, a WIEGO study found that, in April 2020, during the heaviest lockdown restrictions, 97% of street vendors and 74% of waste pickers stopped working. By July, neither group had seen its income restored. In the Indian cities of Ahmedabad and Delhi, studies revealed that virtually no domestic workers were able to work during the first few months of the pandemic, and average earnings sank to 25% of pre-COVID levels. Across the 12 cities included in the study, by mid-2020 the average earnings of informal workers across all sectors were at only 55% of pre-COVID levels.

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 of health care, income or social protections, forcing many to resort to asset-depleting coping mechanisms. Overall, earning losses were greater for women than for men, irrespective of their sector of employment. The updated results of WIEGO’s 12-city study of the pandemic’s impacts on informal workers will be released in early December.

Even in the face of these challenges, informal worker networks have made strides. This year in New York City, thousands of street vendors pushed the City Council to pass a law issuing 4,000 new street food vending permits, lifting a cap in place since 1983. In Argentina, informal worker unions were among those that demanded a seat at the table on the country’s Emergency Social Committee, establishing increased food security for the working poor throughout the pandemic. In 2019, at the International Labour Conference, informal worker network leaders successfully lobbied for adoption of Convention 190 on ending workplace violence and harassment, and establishing protections for informal workers operating in public spaces or in private homes.

The grant to strengthen the work of these informal worker networks is financed by the Ford Foundation’s Social Bond. WIEGO partner networks that will receive support through this grant include:

  • HomeNet International, representing 600,000 home-based workers through 36 affiliates in 20 countries. The world’s 260 million home-based workers manufacture, package and sell a vast array of products, including electronics, clothing, footwear, foods, automobile parts and more. Home-based workers are the ground floor of many global supply chains that are now backlogged, increasing pressure on multinational companies to extend better protections to workers throughout their supply chains. The conditions of home-based workers remain an important yet unaddressed factor in supply chain recovery.
  • International Domestic Workers Federation, representing 600,000 domestic and household workers through 84 affiliates in 65 countries. Domestic workers are also part of the invisible labor force that propels supply chains. Globally, 60 million domestic workers provide essential services like child care and house cleaning so others can report to work outside their homes. Yet, they can be fired at a whim — as countless were during the pandemic — and often must tolerate abuse to keep their jobs.
  • StreetNet International, representing 610,000 street and market vendors through 55 affiliates in 49 countries. They are the grocery stores of the world, providing essential food and goods for billions of people, including the vast global labor force in low-paid factory and service jobs. While there is no definitive count of street vendors, they are integral to urban economies. For example, they account for 11 percent of total urban employment in India and 15 percent in South Africa.

WIEGO and its member networks will be at November’s 109th session of the ILC — held under the theme “Equality in the World of Work” — on behalf of the millions of workers they represent. They will put forward a series of demands that include calls for universal social protections, freedom of association and collective bargaining and implementation of ILO Recommendation 204, Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, including principles to respect informal workers’ rights as a starting point for any legal or regulatory measures.

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent organization working to address inequality and build a future grounded in justice. For more than 85 years, it has supported visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. Today, with an endowment of $16 billion, the foundation has headquarters in New York and 10 regional offices across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.

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