Informal Workers Have the Tools to Build Better Cities Post-Crisis — Will Governments Listen?

Op-ed: Informal workers saw their earnings plummet 75% in the first months of the pandemic, but have been largely shut out of goverment relief. There's a better way.

(Photo by Street Vendor Project)

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In November 2020, New York City street vendors from the Street Vendor Project marched over the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in force – food carts, multilingual signs and musical instruments in hand – to call city hall to action. Eight months had passed since the COVID-19 pandemic devastated their livelihoods, and they had received no relief. While the city took multiple measures to provide a lifeline to storefront businesses, vendors received no dedicated small business support. Instead, many continued to receive summonses and fines from a punitive enforcement regime. Struggling vendors were left to make ends meet supporting each other through mutual aid. Their patience was gone, and their proposal was simple: the city should decriminalize vending, lift the arbitrary, 38-year-old cap on new vendor permits and create an advisory board that would allow vendors to have a voice in city policy.

Like NYC street vendors, the majority of the world’s workers — approximately 2 billion — are informally employed, representing 61 per cent of global employment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers around the world have been working on the frontlines of the crisis, providing essential goods and services that have supported businesses and the public to cope with the public health and economic emergency.

In Mexico City, informal recyclers continued working alongside their formal counterparts – solely on tips and without protections or pay from the city. Their work kept the metropolis’ sprawling solid waste management system intact. Market vendors and porters in Lima’s wholesale markets kept the city’s vast food distribution network running during the strict lockdown, at times sleeping outside the market to avoid potentially exposing family members to the virus. Home-based workers in South Asia produced personal protective equipment (PPE) at a time of severe shortages. Food delivery drivers in NYC helped keep the city’s famous restaurants from financial ruin and closure, while NYC vendors played a role in promoting food security in low-income neighborhoods, as well as distributing PPE.

A study we conducted) looking at the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on informal workers in 12 cities confirmed that despite these critical contributions, informal workers in cities were hit hard – 75% of informal workers’ earnings were lost during the first months of the pandemic. Despite this devastating impact, informal workers were largely shut out of government relief – only 36% across all 12 cities reported receiving a government cash relief grant and only 38% reported receipt of government-provided food relief.

Rather than receive relief, these essential workers have often been repressed under the pretext of crisis management and the promotion of public health – a strategy for marginalizing the poor with a long, dark history in urban planning. For example, waste pickers in Accra were locked out of the dumpsite where they had recycled the city’s waste for years as it was decommissioned without consultation or livelihoods safeguarding. Mobile street vendors in Mexico City had their tricycles confiscated en masse. Workers across cities reported witnessing or experiencing police harassment, evictions and violence, often even after lockdown measures were lifted and when workers had permission to return to work.

In response, informal workers are articulating proposals for just recovery and sustainable change. These agendas, emerging from diverse geographies, share three common principles:

Do no harm and decriminalize informal work: Governments must immediately stop inflicting harm – evictions, harassment, confiscations of goods – against informal workers and their enterprises. This should be followed by regulatory change – to decriminalize all informal work. Informal workers have been calling for governments to take this step since before the crisis, to respect human rights, promote public trust and protect livelihoods. Taking this step will also result in significant savings for cash-strapped local governments, as funds formerly spent on violent enforcement can be re-invested into making informal livelihoods more secure and enhancing their contributions to the community.

Invest in improved infrastructure for public markets and vending areas: It is well-established that open-air environments are many times more safe than indoor ones to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other illnesses. As a result, investing in infrastructure improvements for existing markets and vending areas, such as providing access to basic services, storage and fire safety measures, as well as opening up access to space and permits for new areas, will serve not only as an economic recovery measure for informal vendors, but also as a means to promote public health.

Transition to formalization in a way that integrates and respects existing livelihoods: Informal waste workers in cities as distinct as New York City, Ahmedabad and Accra are calling for integration into solid waste management systems. Waste pickers are often the primary source of recycling in cities, and their contributions to the green economy could be enhanced, and their livelihoods made more secure by simple steps, often at no cost to government.

For example, the NYC-based canners’ center Sure We Can calls for increasing the redemption value of cans, and expanding the types of materials that could be redeemed through a revision of the existing bottle bill policy – a policy change which would make an immediate difference in increasing the earnings of the sector. In Accra, the Kpone Waste Picker Association is asking for formal contracts and secure facilities for recycling through extended producer responsibility schemes.

Lifting caps and easing access to permits for street vendors and other workers in public space would also promote formalization. The Street Vendor Project estimates that in addition to the benefits for workers, this action could result in 3.21 million dollars of additional tax revenue for New York City. A true win-win.

In 2021, decision-makers in cities will be faced with a historic choice – rebuild, but on the basis of whose vision? Historically crises are seized as opportunities by powerful groups, to advance their interests and further entrench the inequalities that left societies vulnerable to crisis in the first place. The post-crisis, private interest playbook often takes the form of privatization of public goods, services or spaces, displacement of settlements to make way for new developments, or the rolling back of rights and democratic freedoms to quell dissent.

Local governments facing massive budget deficits this year will be tempted to look to economic elites for ideas and investments, but the private interest playbook is tired and predictable – short-term fiscal gains will cost governments in the long term in the form of increasing inequality and destabilization. Faced with sharply rising poverty and job losses, and a proven record of what doesn’t work for post-crisis recovery, governments must make different choices – to rebuild, they must draw on the ideas, knowledge and vision of workers at the base of the economic pyramid, not the powerbrokers at the top.

Three months after NYC street vendors marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to city hall, and years after they first started organizing around a proposal to lift the almost four-decade-old cap on new permits, the city recognized their demands. On January 28, 2021, NYC City Council passed Intro 1116, a bill that the Street Vendor Project helped to write.

Informal workers have the ideas to lead cities to a just recovery. Are cities willing to listen?

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Jenna Harvey is the Brooklyn-based Global Focal Cities Coordinator for WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). She has a master's degree in City Planning from MIT and has written about participatory planning, action research and inclusive models of urban economic development.

Tags: covid-19street vendorsinformal workers

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