The What If of Informality

Caroline Skinner

Informal workers in cities across the global south are challenging the precarious and unsupportive work conditions to meaningfully better their lives

Informality_finalRecently the Forum for the Future, an international consultancy specialising in scenario planning, interviewed me about current and future drivers of change affecting the informality of cities in the global south. I offered a pretty bleak prediction. I have been thinking since about brighter alternatives for the huge proportion of urban informal workers. In that interview, we reflected on rapid and accelerating urbanisation trends: how basic service delivery fails to reach nearly 900-million people, and how colonial spatial structures persist in many cities, keeping poorer dwellers on peripheral land far from opportunities. We agreed that few can deny climate change, and that it appears those living and working informally are the most vulnerable to its impact.

Economic trends are equally bleak. Industrialisation has not kept pace with urbanisation. When the term “informal sector” was first coined in the early 1970s, informality was expected to dissipate with development. Now most workers in cities in the global south are working informally. This should not be romanticised—the work is often very precarious, especially where unsupportive or hostile authorities hamper it. The policy research network with which I’m affiliated, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), tracks global trends for different occupational groups within the informal economy. Our news monitoring, for example, suggests that there is on average one major eviction of street traders somewhere in the world every day. These evictions are often characterised by high levels of violence. Not surprisingly, detailed analysis of exclusionary practices like evictions often reveals that private sector interests are being served.

In late 2009, in partnership with membership-based organisations of the working poor, WIEGO did a rapid assessment of how the global economic crisis was impacting informal workers in ten developing cities. These already vulnerable workers were particularly hard hit. They reported decreased demand for products and services and, with the many newly unemployed entrants, increasing competition. Many had cut back on expenditures such as food and health care.

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