Decent Work for Informal Sector Workers

DipNote, the Official Blog of the U.S. Department of State

Special Representative Barbara Shailor and Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer meet on informal sector workers with a group of experts from academia, labor, and civil society.

Melanne Verveer serves as the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues and Barbara Shailor serves as the Special Representative for International Labor Affairs at the Department of State.

On May 14, a group of experts from academia, labor, and NGOs joined us for a vibrant discussion on the role of women in the global economy. The conclusion was clear; we must continue to advocate for decent work for working women around the world — especially for women in the informal sector.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commented on this in 2010 at the United Nations in New York: “I remember once driving through Africa with a group of distinguished experts. And I saw women working in the fields and I saw women working in the markets and I saw women with wood on their heads and water on their heads and children on their backs. And I remarked that women just seem to be working all the time. And one of the economists said, ‘But it doesn’t count.’ I said, ‘How can you say that?’ He said, ‘Well, it’s not part of the formal economy.’ I said, ‘Well, if every woman who did all that work stopped tomorrow, the formal economy would collapse.’”

But what is the informal sector and what is “decent work”? According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the informal sector is the activities “of the working poor, working very hard that are unrecognized, unrecorded, unprotected or unregulated by public authorities.” It includes both marginal activities and profitable enterprises. According to a forthcoming statistical analysis of informal employment in 50 countries, informal employment comprises more than half of non-agricultural employment in most developing regions and is as high as 82 per cent of non-agricultural employment in South Asia, and over 80 per cent in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Special Representative Barbara Shailor and Ambassador-at-Large Melanne Verveer meet on informal sector workers with a group of experts from academia, labor, and civil society.

For women in the developing world, informal work is a common type of employment. Women in the informal sector work as farmers, wage laborers, and entrepreneurs. Home-based workers, domestic workers, and waste pickers are also part of the informal economy. Work in the informal economy has risen rapidly all over the world in the last three decades, and is significant in many regions; including North and sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) notes a growing number of informal sector workers are “self-employed.” Due to the subcontracting links of the global economy, for example, home-based work is a recent growing phenomenon, and there are estimated to be 100 million home-based workers worldwide.

In almost all parts of the world, women are over represented in the precarious informal sector. Women also take on the majority of domestic responsibility — caring for children, the sick, and the elderly — resulting in long days of both paid and unpaid work. Why is this significant? Evidence shows that investments in women are positively correlated to growth, prosperity, stability, democracy, health — and are vital to our national security.

The Department of State therefore supports activists and NGOs around the world who advocate for decent work and equality of opportunity for everyone. Promoting a decent work approach means promoting “productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity [that] delivers a fair income; provides security in the workplace and social protection for workers and their families gives people the freedom to express their concerns, to organize and to participate in decisions that affect their lives; and guarantees equal opportunities and equal treatment for all.”

Promoting a decent work approach empowers women to live in dignity, and it is a pathway to sustainable development that benefits us all.

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