Empowering the Informal Sector

Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor and Albina Ruiz

Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor and Albina Ruiz

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of meeting with Albina Ruiz, co-founder of Lima-based Ciudad Saludable (Healthy Cities), and several of her colleagues in the movement to organize and extend basic rights to waste pickers. On November 8, Albina received the Global Fairness Initiative’s second annual Fairness Award, which Secretary Clinton helped inaugurate last year.

In cities across Latin America and around the world, grossly inadequate waste management systems pose public health and environmental health risks for residents and the approximately 50 million people who make a living recycling and repurposing other people’s refuse. Albina, an engineer, has created an innovative solution: she helps women organize their own local enterprises to collect and process garbage. Through Ciudad Saludable, Ruiz has organized over 1,500 waste collectors, creating employment and improving health and living conditions for people in rural and poor urban regions of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and India.

Ciudad Saludable and the Latin American “recicladores” (“recyclers”) movement bring an often invisible and highly stigmatized occupation out ofthe shadows and into the mainstream. The waste pickers are now working to obtain legal recognition and protection under labor codes, and demonstrating that their work is integral to the challenge of creating greener, more livable cities.

Secretary Clinton often talks about creating the conditions for every person to make the most of his or her potential. As the Special Representative for International Labor Affairs, one of my priorities is calling attention to the challenges faced by informal sector workers. Bringing informal sector workers –“recicladores,” domestic workers, street vendors, agricultural laborers, and others – in from the margins through organization and legal reform is absolutely essential to empowering millions and millions of people to realize that potential.

My colleagues and I benefit greatly from the kind of conversation we had today, in which we hear from activists and leaders driving real-world solutions to some of the world’s most pressing social, environmental, and economic problems. These conversations help inform U.S. policies and programs, and I look forward to having more of them.

Additional information:

Secretary Clinton’s 2010 Fairness Award remarks: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/11/150942.htm

“Rethinking the Informal Sector,” by Martha Alter Chen: http://www.inclusivecities.org/pdfs/rethinking_IE_m_chen.pdf

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