Informal Workers Are Vital to Cities, ‘Legitimate Actors,’ Says Martha Chen

Illegal. Criminal. A drag on the economy. These are just a few of the derisive labels that beleaguer urban informal workers, says Martha Chen, co-founder of and senior advisor to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. Informal workers – those whose labor is not regulated or protected by the state, like street vendors, waste pickers and home manufacturers – make up more than half of the world’s urban workforce, yet negative narratives around them persist.

These narratives “are then reflected in the city’s policies and plans and practices, making it very difficult for [informal workers] to earn an honest living in a very harsh regulatory environment,” says Chen, who co-authored “Including the Excluded,” a case study in the World Resources Report, “Towards a More Equal City,” and serves as lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

In order for cities to work better for everyone, informal workers need to be better incorporated into the economy and policymaking. “We know that these workers contribute to the local economy,” says Chen in an interview for the Cities Research Seminar Series. She points to a study showing that 70 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa buy their food from informal markets and street vendors. Waste pickers, meanwhile, can both keep the city clean and reduce carbon emissions by recycling waste.

Informal workers need “access to public space to pursue their livelihoods,” she says, access to public services like transport, and access to public procurement processes – or fair competition with other businesses to provide goods and services to public authorities.

“What we know is key is that there should first be a participatory process in which the organizations of the workers have a voice and a say,” says Chen.

In Durban, South Africa, for example, the non-profit Asiye eTafuleni (a finalist for the first WRI Ross Prize for Cities) provides training, advocacy and technical support to traders operating in the historic markets of Warwick Junction. Together, they have helped save the area from redevelopment that would have displaced many informal workers. They have also redesigned strategic areas and created a new, collaborative relationship with municipal leaders.

In the city of Pune, India, the municipal corporation has signed contracts with the waste picker association SWaCH Pune Seva Sahakari Sanstha (also a finalist for the first WRI Ross Prize for Cities) to recognize and compensate workers for collecting, transporting and recycling waste. The worker-owned cooperative has established a thriving model for incorporating informal workers into the economy in a way that not only fills a municipal service gap, reaching many thousands of households that otherwise had no waste collection, but also bolsters workers’ rights and quality of life. Bogotá and other cities in India have since adopted similar models.

Chen says that “the ways these workers earn their livelihoods have to be enabled and supported by the city.” When that happens, “the economy itself will flourish, not just the informal workers.”

Hillary Smith is an intern on the communications team for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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