Virus Lockdowns Imperil 2 Billion Informal Workers Worldwide
Mon, August 15, 2022

Virus Lockdowns Imperil 2 Billion Informal Workers Worldwide


Women in the informal sectors will likely be most affected by the virus lockdowns.  / Photo by Daniel-Alvarez via Shutterstock


As Covid-19 spreads in different parts of the world, billions of informal workers are faced with two horrible choices: stay at home while their family starves or go out and continue their informal jobs at the risk of spreading the disease.


The informal economy

The International Labor Organization (ILO) reports that more than 60% of the world’s workforce is in the informal economy. They are workers that are neither regulated by any form of government or taxed. Most of them are those who earn their livings in public spaces, such as streets, selling goods and services of every kind. Some informal workers that are least visible are those who produce goods from their own homes, including cigarette rollers, foot processors, embroiderers, and garment workers. About 2 billion people work informally, the ILO says. Most of them lack rights and social protection at decent working conditions and work.


Informal workers, not eligible for government benefits

This also means that 2 billion people have nothing or little to protect them if they cannot go to work because of the virus lockdown. They also have no health insurance or sick pay and may not be eligible to be given benefits from the government. The threat is particularly severe in Africa, wherein 85.8% of employment is informal. ILO states that the proportion of the world’s informal employment is 68.2% in Asia and the Pacific, 25.1% in Europe and Central Asia, 40.0% in the Americas, and 68.6% in the Arab States.

Informal employment is likewise a greater source of income for women (58.1%) and men (63.0%). Out of the 2 billion informal workers in the world, more than 740 million are women. Female informal workers are more exposed to this kind of employment in lower-middle and low-income countries and are usually found in vulnerable situations. The key factor that is affecting the scale of informality in a country is the level of education of people. If the level of education in a country increases, it decreases the level of informality.


The South African government’s move, though, has cut the threads of livelihoods of millions of street vendors, garbage recyclers, cleaners, and others with no labor rights. / Photo by VladanRadulovicjhb via Shutterstock


Why women in the informal sector will be most affected

UN Women, an entity working for the empowerment of women, explains that women in the informal sectors will likely be most affected by the virus lockdowns because they comprise the “disproportionate percentage” of the workforce in the sector. According to the recent statistics published by scientific online portal Our World in Data, the share of female employment in the informal economy of Uganda was 86.17%, in Indonesia 80.29%, Bolivia 79.72%, Pakistan 73.17%, Zimbabwe 72.91%, India 70.3%, Ecuador 67.08%, Peru 66.08%, Colombia 58.11%, Vietnam 51.5%, Panama 40.51%, Brazil 36.91%, South Africa 36.91%, and Albania 24.13%.

The percentage of total non-agricultural employment in the informal economy includes all jobs in small-scale private or enterprises or those unregistered that produce goods and services for sale. Home-based workers, taxi drivers, and street vendors, regardless of size, are also considered in the statistics.

UN Women also stated that there are more women in the developing countries that are working informally, including 95% of working women in South Asia, 89% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 59% in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Imposing lockdown in poorer countries: worse than the virus

Some countries are uncertain about how they are going to deal with the coronavirus. As reported by international news organization Quartz, Benin President Patrice Talon said that his administration cannot enforce public confinement because it lacks the means that other countries have. He said in a televised address that rich nations are putting up huge amounts of money and some countries are even resorting to disguised monetary solutions or printing notes to prevent socio-economic chaos. Instead, Benin has opted for “cordon sanitaire” in 8 major urban areas. This kind of restriction prevents people in or out of a defined geographic area. Nearly 95% of the non-agricultural workers in Benin are working informally, based on the latest ILO data. Benin is a country in West Africa.



David Pilling, the Africa editor of Financial Times, said President Talon’s idea has a point. Imposing a lockdown in poorer countries is harder because it would mean confining millions of people in cramped housing, with no easy access to soap or water. It is like “silent bombs” and there are also invisible consequences of fighting one disease while neglecting others. For instance, measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed 6,200 people and malaria 17,000 in 2019. There are also other silent killers, like infant mortality, malnutrition, and diarrhea that may sweep the populations.


World Peace Foundation’s executive director Alex de Waal said that lockdowns are effective only if nations can also strengthen its testing capacity and health systems. This does not, however, mean that South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa and India’s PM Narendra Modi are wrong. In times of uncertainty, they made “agonizing decisions.” Modi even warned that if their country will not get the 21 days of lockdown right, it may risk wiping out their 21 years of gain. On the other hand, Ramaphosa said that the shutdown is necessary to save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The South African government’s move, though, has cut the threads of livelihoods of millions of street vendors, garbage recyclers, cleaners, and others with no labor rights. These people in the informal sector are not facing destitution, poverty so extreme that they lack the means to provide for themselves.

Anita Machekere, a Soweto resident who earned 1,200 rand every month cleaning, said, “I don’t have a choice." So far, there has been no financial help from the government to protect those in the informal economy during the outbreak. The poor are also at risk of a mass outbreak as they are crowded in inner-city slums and congested township. Meanwhile, the South African Reserve Bank has already provided a capital relief for banks in the country so they can maintain providing loans to businesses that are affected by the crisis, but this only helps workers in the formal sector through the unemployment insurance fund.

The longer the lockdown will be implemented, the more informal workers will be making a choice. That is, to go out and survive. Remember that they also need a safety net and, in so doing, it can prevent widespread hunger. Consequently, it will be more effective for the government to defeat the virus.