Evidence reveals burdens borne by women informal workers during the pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening to undo much of the progress countries have made toward gender equality in the past few decades. While early data suggests men are more likely to die from COVID-19, women are paying a higher social and economic price as the pandemic exacerbates existing gender inequalities in the labour market and in the home.
COVID-19 has been severe for women at the base of the economic pyramid, particularly those in informal employment, whose experiences are further differentiated by their occupations and status in employment. There is an urgent need to generate evidence on these realities to drive advocacy and guide tailored support to meet women’s varied needs during and after the crisis.
Reduced employment leads to hunger, debt and disempowerment
The International Labour Organization estimates that 2 billion people around the globe participate in informal work, and that 37% of them are women. Most employment in the Global South is informal. In low-income countries, for example, 92.1 % of employed women are in informal employment compared to 87.5 % of men. Their work affords them little social and legal protection, making these workers extremely vulnerable in times of crisis.
In an 11-city study funded by IDRC, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) found that lockdowns and restrictions have had a severe and lasting impact on informal workers’ employment and earnings. Using a sample of more than 2,000 informal workers, the study found that 74% of respondents were unable to work during the peak lockdown period in April 2020. In mid-2021, the average respondent still worked only four days per week compared to five and a half days per week before the pandemic hit. What’s more, they were only earning 64% of their pre-COVID earnings.
Several of the hardest-hit occupational groups are predominantly female. In particular, home-based workers — for example, stitchers paid on a piece-rate basis in the garment industry — were earning just 2% of their median pre-pandemic earnings in mid-2021. In Delhi, India, female waste pickers and street vendors saw a greater loss and slower recovery in earnings than their male counterparts. In Bangkok, Thailand, physical distancing measures put massage workers out of work entirely.
Reduced earnings have had a deep impact on informal workers’ health, with many of their households going hungry. In mid-2021, nearly one-third of WIEGO’s study respondents said that someone in their household hadn’t had enough to eat over the last month.
“All of this was a surprise,” said one respondent. “We feel scared and worried because we didn’t have any savings to survive that whole time [during the lockdown] and we couldn’t work. We stayed at home to protect our health, but now we are worried about what we’ll live on.”
Unlike those in the formal economy, informal employees and own-account workers have no paid leave policies or unemployment benefits. Those who work as employees are also less likely to be compensated by their employer for loss of work. One domestic worker in Lima, Peru, reported: “I was laid off and was not paid a thing even after working three years for [my employer].”
Among informal workers who didn’t experience a drop in earnings, many have felt other negative effects to their employment. WIEGO’s study found that while live-in domestic workers had recovered their previous level of work and earnings, many faced additional demands on their time and energy. Many experienced restrictions on their ability to leave their employers’ homes, and saw their cleaning, cooking and caregiving duties increase since their employers were home more.
Additional unpaid care duties erode women’s earning power
Unpaid care and domestic work has increased everywhere as a result of COVID-19, with women shouldering most of the burden. Even before the pandemic, women in Asia and the Pacific, for example, did four times more unpaid care work than men. The closure of schools, daycare centres and public transportation have left many struggling to balance a sudden increase in care duties with the need to earn enough money to survive. WIEGO’s study reported that more women than men saw their unpaid caregiving duties encroach on their paid work: 34% of women and 21% of men reported that increased care responsibilities had reduced their working hours in 2021.
COVID-19 has laid bare the pressing global need for affordable and accessible childcare, which was lacking for nearly 350 million preschool children even before the pandemic, according to a 2021 World Bank report. Adequate childcare will be critical to the economic recovery from the pandemic, as well as to ongoing efforts to address inequalities facing women and children. Without it, many more women will be forced to give up employment or take insecure jobs with little income or protection. The added burden of care work brought on by the pandemic also undermines women’s health and well-being and reinforces harmful gender norms.
Government relief for informal workers falls short
Governments rapidly expanded relief measures to cushion the impacts of COVID-19, including many interventions targeted at vulnerable individuals such as women and informal workers. Yet WIEGO’s study found that only slightly more than 40% of respondents reported access to a cash grant or food aid. The most common barriers preventing informal workers from receiving relief were a lack of knowledge about availability and issues with eligibility, such as not meeting certain criteria or not being registered with social-protection programs.
Even where relief was delivered, it was often viewed as insufficient to meet basic needs. WIEGO’s study found that households that received cash grants and food aid were not exempt from experiencing hunger. Many informal workers in Bangkok received a three-month emergency grant, yet as one WIEGO study respondent noted, “for those who rent a place, this amount is sufficient just for the rental fee, but insufficient for food expenses.” With limited government support, many informal workers have been forced into potentially damaging survival strategies, such as borrowing money, using up already meagre savings, or reducing their household allowance for essential items.
WIEGO’s report also found that government relief measures stalled after the first three months of the pandemic. Furthermore, over 25% of street vendors and market traders reported harassment by law enforcement officials.
Study lays out priorities for policymakers
With the help of many collaborating organizations in the selected cities, the WIEGO-led study has created a platform to ensure the experiences and voices of informal workers are heard. This evidence is already driving advocacy and influencing policy.
In Thailand, where a voluntary social security scheme already existed for informal workers, HomeNet Thailand and the Federation of Informal Workers of Thailand advocated for new support measures based on study findings. The Ministry of Labour reduced informal workers’ social security contributions by 40% for six months and allowed them to use ministerial rehabilitation centres in the case of injury at work. During the third COVID-19 wave in 2021, the ministry collaborated with members of the Federation of Informal Workers on two food relief projects. It also provided two cash grants of CAD195 (5,000 Thai baht) to informal workers enrolled in social security in 2021. This initiative increased registration into the program from 3 million to more than 10 million.
Two key takeaways from the study are:
Governments must improve the delivery of cash grants and food relief and extend social protections to informal workers.
To support resilient, sustainable economic recovery, policymakers must respond to informal worker demands, promoting, for example, more equitable work conditions, fair wages and improved access to public spaces, basic infrastructure and transportation services.
WIEGO also advocates for COVID-19 recovery efforts that prioritize accessible public services such as childcare, healthcare and care for the elderly and that recognize the competing burdens that women in informal employment bear when performing unpaid care and domestic work in addition to working for income.
In each of the cities and countries where informal workers were surveyed, critical evidence can guide policymakers, enabling them to understand what’s going wrong at the base of the economic pyramid and improve support. Collaboration with organizations and associations that have established relationships with informal workers can help to achieve inclusive recovery.
In mid-2021, the average informal worker was only earning 64% of their pre-COVID-19 wages.
Nearly one-third of respondents in mid-2021 said someone in their household had gone hungry over the last month.
Thirty-four percent of women and 21% of men reported that increased care responsibilities had reduced their working hours in 2021.
Recommendations include investing in social protection, accessible public services to reduce unpaid care work, and better working conditions.