Don’t Forget the Forgotten Workers

COVID-19 has laid bare the stark reality of economic inequality around the globe. When we finally emerge from the COVID-19 lockdowns, how will we respond to what we have experienced? Will we ignore the chasms in our economies, our health care, and our social safety nets, exposed by COVID-19?

For decades, many social justice advocates have been arguing that the favored economic system under which we operate — defined by open markets, small government, and low taxes — leaves the most vulnerable either to fend for themselves and their families or to die from inadequate nutrition, health care, or social protection. Will we simply attempt to restore the economy, and the fragile health care system to the status quo ante, returning to the way it was before COVID-19 crippled the global economy and devastated families with limited means to fight the virus?

While most of the post-COVID-19 economic recovery discussion has been about the bailout of traditional business and employer models, the vast majority of workers in the global economy are in the informal sector. They work in agriculture, households, transportation, vending, and markets, to name a few. The numbers are startling: for example, in India, 90 percent of employment is informal; in Africa 85.8 percent; and 68.8 percent in the Arab States.[1]

There is no “social distancing” for these informal workers because they cannot afford not to work — nor afford the luxury of staying at home. They have no access to health care, social security, or insurance. They have to work to survive. The ironic sadness is that they are the very people working to provide for others — typically those most fortunate. Planting crops, tending to harvests, transporting food, cleaning buildings, manufacturing goods — all staples that the rest of us depend on. In the global south these are the most vulnerable population — their counterparts in the global north are those precarious workers in the “gig” or undocumented economy.

The UN Secretary-General has called on all leaders to enact policies focused on the low-wage service worker, relief that certainly should be prioritized.[2] But we also have to focus on how to provide meaningful assistance to the globe’s informal workers — those who are “off the economic grid” in most economies and relief networks. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown urge the international financial institutions to do more, including forgiving debt, but they also affirm “[it] would be unconscionable if all the money flowing from multilateral institutions to help the poorest countries was NOT used for health-care and anti-poverty measures but simply for paying private creditors.”[3] We must take it one step further and ensure that multilateral institutions are both mindful and determined to reach the millions of informal workers in these very countries.

In taking steps to restore their economies post COVID-19, today’s leaders must go beyond engaging the traditional and accessible drivers of the economy — businesses small and large and those employed by those businesses — and identify those workers in the informal economy and integrate and extend to them the benefits and protections of the formal economy. While businesses need to be re-engaged and supported financially with loans and grants — workers in the informal economy cannot — and can no longer — be ignored. Integrating informal workers has never been more of a priority than it is today. It must be done, can be done, and has been done. Countries such as Argentina, South Africa and more recently Tunisia have successfully instituted policies that benefit their workforce as a whole, both formal and informal. By putting an emphasis on social services and labor protections these counties have strengthened the benefits of the formal economy and reduced the size of their informal sector.

There is opportunity in crisis, even one as dire as COVID-19. Global leaders have a chance to finally address and repair the historic inequity of the informal economy. If we fail to repair this widening economic and social chasm, we will fail to rebuild the global economy where over 2 billion workers are informal. The most vulnerable will once again be ignored. We will also fail to prepare the global community for the next pandemic — one that will take more and more lives.

Let us work to establish a new generation of leaders who seize the moment to address the issues endemic to informality and informal workers — workers who are the backbone of the global economy. As we confront the global pandemic we have a chance to get it right this time and we must not fail. We must make the systemic changes COVID-19 has forced the world to see are absolutely necessary. Taking action now will ensure the global community not only to survives, but also thrives.

[1] “More than 60 per cent of the world’s employed population are in the informal economy,” ILO News, April 30, 2018, https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_627189/lang--en/index.htm.

[2] “UN chief: World at war with a virus, recession near certain,” by Edith M. Lederer, AP, March 19, 2020.

[3] “Opinion: National governments have gone big. The IMF and World Bank need to do the same.” By Gordon Brown and Lawrence H. Summers, Washington Post, April 14, 2020.

Karen Tramontano is the Founder of the Global Fairness Initiative (GFI), a non-profit organization working to promote a more equitable, sustainable approach.

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