'Invisible' informal workers rally for a role in green movement

Fish vendor Mbaye reaches for a fish to serve a customer during a night market in Marché Soumbédioune, Dakar, Senegal, January 30, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Fish vendor Mbaye reaches for a fish to serve a customer during a night market in Marché Soumbédioune, Dakar, Senegal, January 30, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

What’s the context?

More than two billion informal workers worldwide are impacted by climate change and they are calling for social protection

  • Recyclers, weavers, vendors gather at labour conference
  • Calls for just transition to include informal workers
  • Social and legal protections for workers spotlighted

JOHANNESBURG/NEW DELHI - The wetlands where Ugandan weaver Betty Lunkuse usually collects native grasses to create her baskets are rapidly turning into construction sites, floods have destroyed her products more than once and scorching heat can make it unbearable for her to trade.

Informal workers like Lunkuse - who number more than two billion worldwide - often bear the brunt of climate change impacts but seldom get a say in high-level discussions about how the global economy can shift to a cleaner and greener future.

However, Lunkuse was one of 17 such workers from around the globe who attended the International Labour Conference in Geneva this week to call for social protection and demand that informal workers are not left behind in the so-called "just transition".

"I am directly affected by climate change, but my carbon footprint is very low," the 32-year-old said in a video interview from the annual conference, which is hosted by the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO).

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"We are here to sit at the table, to listen and to contribute as informal workers to the conversation around the just transition," Lunkuse said. "We want to give our voice to call for social protection for all workers."

The term "just transition" is used to describe a shift to a low-carbon economy that minimises the social and economic disruption of moving away from fossil fuels, while maximising the benefits for workers, communities and consumers.

It was first coined by U.S. trade unions in the 1980s to protect the jobs of workers affected by new water and air regulations. More recently, the term was included in the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, focusing on those working in carbon-intensive sectors from fossil fuel extraction to mining.

But informal workers say they too need social protection - which can include sick pay, maternity leave and unemployment benefits - as climate change directly impacts their jobs.

Worsening pollution, heat stress and extreme weather like floods, for example, are hurting their incomes and wellbeing as they are often exposed to the elements while working - be it cleaning or trading, informal workers' organisations said.

Mobile vendor Souleymane Ba looks at the camera while peeling oranges he is selling from a wheelbarrow in Sandaga Market, Avenue Lamine Gueye, Dakar, Senegal, February 10, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

Mobile vendor Souleymane Ba looks at the camera while peeling oranges he is selling from a wheelbarrow in Sandaga Market, Avenue Lamine Gueye, Dakar, Senegal, February 10, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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Yet informal work is often intrinsically linked to reducing pollution through recycling and repairing materials, producing goods from natural and degradable materials, and supporting local economies, the workers' groups said in a joint paper.

"The just transition needs to take the needs of informal economy workers into account," said Janhavi Dave, international coordinator for HomeNet International, which represents 1.2 million home-based workers from 33 countries.

"We need to talk about universal social protection, their transition to formal economies and, most of all, a seat for them at the table where these decisions are being taken," she said.

Informal workers as 'part of the solution'

Informal workers make up about 61% of the global labour force, according to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), a global network for informal workers.

One of those workers, Lorraine Sibanda, gave up her job as a teacher in Zimbabwe due to low pay and poor working conditions, and is now a street vendor near the border with South Africa.

A food vendor stands behind his glass stall displaying meat and bread in Ouakam, Dakar, Senegal, January 26, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

A food vendor stands behind his glass stall displaying meat and bread in Ouakam, Dakar, Senegal, January 26, 2022. Marta Moreiras for StreetNet/Handout via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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The 55-year-old said she had witnessed how street traders were often harassed, fined and arrested by authorities for hawking, how mothers had no safe places to leave their children, and how the heat, cold and floods took a toll on the workers.

"It is very important to hear from this range of informal economy workers like street vendors, domestic workers, waste pickers and home workers," she said in a video call from the conference in Geneva.

"These are the seemingly invisible workers affected by climate change as well."

It is estimated that up to 90% of Zimbabweans work in the informal economy, the Institute of Development Studies says.

These informal workers also need clean, affordable energy, said Sibanda.

She has seen fires spread through markets sparked by erratic electricity supply, and watched traders return to homes where they have to work in the dark because they cannot afford power.

Despite such challenges, informal workers can play a part in tackling climate change, said Theresa Bul, a waste picker from Nigeria who said recyclers in Lagos typically earn about $1 an hour.

"We collect the plastic that blocks the gutters and causes flooding ... we do this all without any health insurance, protective gloves, masks, overalls," the 47-year-old said, who was also speaking from Geneva.

"The just transition dialogue can help informal workers be a part of the solution through peaceful dialogue," she added.

Adapting to climate change and environmental destruction

Informal work is also increasingly an adaptation measure for those forced out of other jobs by climate change and environmental destruction, according to Rajiv Khandelwal, the head of Aajeevika Bureau, an Indian informal worker collective.

"Due to ... climate change, we have seen how the absolute collapse of the agricultural economy in India ... has led to an increase in the workers seeking informal jobs elsewhere in construction, manufacturing or as street vendors," he said.

About 80% of Indian workers work informally without the security of labour laws, according to the ILO.

"The best way to help these workers adapt to the shocks of climate change is to start formalising them," Khandelwal said.

This is part of the informal workers' demands in Geneva: legal recognition of informal employment, social protection and more specifically, recognition of the ILO recommendation 204.

First proposed in 2015, it requests "immediate measures to address the unsafe and unhealthy working conditions that often characterize work in the informal economy".

"Governments need to include us in negotiations and the implementation of recommendation 204 (because) we are the workers who make up the informal sector," said Lunkuse, the Ugandan weaver.

In the joint paper, the workers' groups said boosting the informal economy is one key way of preventing further job losses and economic disruption, as seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During COVID-19, Sibanda said "we made our own sanitisers, we made face masks to help stop the spread of the virus".

"We are not complainants, nor are we victims," the Zimbabwean street trader said.

"Despite our disadvantaged condition ... we still have innovative ideas, and we can offer alternatives and solutions which may even work well for everyone."

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg in Johannesburg and Bhasker Tripathi in New Delhi; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Megan Rowling)


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  • Extreme weather
  • Agriculture and farming
  • Migration
  • Future of work
  • Loss and damage
  • Workers' rights

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