Meet the women at the forefront of the global fight for workers’ rights in the informal economy

Myrtle Witbooi was just 18 years old when she called the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town, South Africa. It was 1965, during the years of racial segregation, and Witbooi’s actions carried many risks. Witbooi, 74, told TIME in a phone interview: “We shouldn’t disobey the people we’re working for. “As of today, I cannot tell you how I did it, but I disobeyed. I really fought my way and became a spokesperson for domestic workers.”

Domestic helpers make up only a fraction of the global group 2.1 billion workers those comprising the so-called informal economy, which includes a multitude of industries, enterprises and jobs that are not protected or regulated by the state. Informal workers, from garment manufacturers to street vendors, provide the foundation of the global economy, accounting for more than 60% of the global workforce.
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However, despite the geographical, cultural and industry diversity that the informal economy spans, there is one thing that unites the workers in it – they are predominantly women. Globally, 58% of working women are engaged in informal work, an increasing number 92% in developing countries.

The pandemic has hit informal workers hard. As many governments responded to the crisis with economic aid, most of these workers were looked down upon. According to a study by the International Labor Organization (ILO), twice the number of workers in the informal economy fell into poverty in the first month of the pandemic compared with pre-COVID-19 times.

In response, the charity Ford Foundation has announced a five-year $25 million grant to women-led informal labor networks, in an effort to support a global movement calling for government invests in the protection of informal workers.

“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 that billions of informal workers have a seat at the table where their voices, requests and needs are heard at the national and global level, because so policymakers and business leaders recognize their contribution and value.”

Recipients include the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), representing 600,000 family workers through 84 affiliated organizations, and Witbooi is the chairman. Scholars focus on labor note that the IDWF is “the first international labor union run by women for women-dominated work”.

Fighting for workers’ rights in the face of gender discrimination

According to Jhanavi Dave, international coordinator at HomeNet International, a global network of work-from-home organizations, there are a multitude of socioeconomic factors that push women to enter the informal economy. “The biggest problem is that they have a lot of caregiving responsibilities,” she told TIME. “The second is the lack of mobility,” mainly due to the limitations of patriarchal societies. “Many women are not allowed to work outside of their homes, but there is also no safe and affordable transportation for women to move out and work elsewhere.” The lack of formal employment opportunities also forces women to engage in alternative forms of work, she said.

While considerable progress has been made — including securing a Convention to protect the rights of domestic workers in ILO in 2011 — IDWF wasn’t always taken seriously.

Witbooi says that when she formed the federation without any men participating, the idea was met with skepticism from some men. “I said ‘OK, okay, let’s just leave it at that, let us show you what solidarity is, let us show you the strength of women now that we’ve had enough’ .” Now, she said, the IDWF is being recognized for the achievements of its former detractors.

During the pandemic, IDWF had to quickly adapt to a world of confinement and social restrictions, Witbooi said. In the past, union affiliates have distributed brochures and brochures directly to other domestic workers, meeting them at bus stops and other local meeting locations. Now they use the messaging app Whatsapp. “I was very surprised by tShe said. Witbooi has all the province groups she works with on various Whatsapp group chats. Every Monday, she sends inspirational messages to her networks.

IDWF has a history of dealing with issues. Under the apartheid regime, Witbooi and other domestic workers would seek contact whenever they could, gathering on “Sheila Day,” the South African term for the weekly rest day. housemaid. (“Sheila” is the catchy name white bosses often give to black employees who can’t pronounce their names.) “On my street in the afternoon, we bring the young walk in the park and that’s where we Witbooi said.

Read more: The exceptional impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the mental health of women around the world

Another organization set up to benefit from Ford Foundation funding is StreetNet International, a global coalition of organizations representing 735,000 street vendors. There are no exact numbers of street vendors in the world, but they are an integral part of urban economies, especially in the developing world. In Ghana, for example, street vendors and market traders 29% of total urban employment. That’s another area To be a greater source of employment for women than men.

Lorraine Sibanda, a street vendor and union member from Zimbabwe, is the president of StreetNet International. Elections in 2016 made her the first black person and the first African leader of the global worker network.

Sibanda became a peddler and merchant when her salary as a teacher was not enough to support her. Faced with the precariousness of her job, where the police could confiscate her goods at any time, she joined unions and women’s organizations. “I realized that I just love fighting for my rights as well as the rights of others,” she told TIME.

It is these organizations that equip Sibanda with bargaining and collective bargaining skills, which she says are just as important in the informal economy as in more traditional workplaces. . “When you look at countries like Zimbabwe,” she said, “our country is almost completely informal. As street vendors, we are constantly engaging with local authorities and all the necessary stakeholders through which our work goes.” Resources such as StreetNet International’s six-book toolkit assist leaders of each group in the workers’ organization network and strengthen their collective voice.

The outbreak of the pandemic has demonstrated how important street vendors are to local economies. “As street vendors, we bring affordable food to their doorsteps,” says Sibanda. “We travel and bring food.” When these street vendors are absent from their workplace, the whole community suffers.

While the grant is a good start, Sibanda hopes that governments’ economic recovery plans include informal workers as the world begins to open up. “We don’t need government austerity,” she said. “What we need from governments is further protection.”

Community support unions

At the height of the pandemic, it was informal unions that stepped in as the authorities were depriving some of society’s poorest members.

Dave of HomeNet International says that people who work from home — those who produce goods or services in or near their home for the local, domestic, or global market—Has been severely impacted by mobility restrictions and commercial supply chain disruptions. Almost 2/3 of workers work from home– mostly women – live in Asia and the Pacific region.

Lockdowns and movement restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 often have a disproportionate impact on people living in poverty. During the lockdown in India, says Dave, people living in Mumbai’s Dharavi—One of the largest slums in Asia — confined to their cramped living quarters and without access to the shared toilets they often rely on. The police have cordoned off the slums to make sure no one steps outside their house. “This is when a local union, LEARN, decided to build Dave said. “They said it was completely inhumane if we couldn’t even go to the toilet.“Union leaders have come up with alternative ways to reduce social distancing while accessing facilities, such as food stations, and they have worked with police to do so. currently testing benefits for women working from home.

HomeNet International observed that, When home workers are organized, whether it is unions or cooperatives, they have better access to food than unorganized people. “Last year,” says Dave, “we actually saw an increase in union membership because home workers saw the benefits of joining some form of organization.”

Driven by Ford Foundation grants, which will be distributed by the nonprofit Women Working Informally: Globalization and Organization (WIEGO), many recipients will attend the conference ILO annual labor force later this month. There, IDWF, HomeNet International and StreetNet International will lobby for greater forms of social protection, more comprehensive and transparent economic recovery plans for female workers in the non-economic sector. official.

Despite the many challenges ahead, Sibana and Witbooi said they are excited to expand the organization’s services and reach to those in need.

“For me, working with these women is a reminder of where I used to be and where I am now,” said Witbooi, who drew on her experience as a maid. family, said. “If I could reach out from racism and liberate myself from it and I still stand tall today, they know they can too.” she speaks. “They may ask for respect and say, ‘I am the housekeeper, I am the mother, I am the wife, and my job must be taken seriously.’ | Meet the women at the forefront of the global fight for workers’ rights in the informal economy

Aila Slisco

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