COVID-19 and Informal Work: Distinct Pathways of Impact and Recovery in 11 Cities Around the World
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This paper presents findings from a study on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on informal workers in 11 cities across 5 regions of the world (Asia, Africa, Latin America, North America and Eastern Europe). A unique feature of the study is that it examines the degree – and pathways – of impact on different sectors of informal workers and, within sectors, by key variables (status in employment, place of work, goods/services provided, and gender). Also, the study provides insights from informal workers in their own words. The paper concludes with common demands for recovery by local organizations of informal workers and a call for a Better New Deal for informal workers. The study methods included a survey questionnaire for informal workers and in-depth interviews with informal worker leaders and organizers as well as representatives of government, civil society and academia. The survey was conducted by mobile phone and collected information on the ability to work, working hours, earnings and sector-specific constraints to livelihoods at three points in time: mid-2020 (June–July) when the survey was carried out and two recall periods – April 2020 (period of peak lockdowns or restrictions in all study cities) and February 2020 (pre-COVID-19 reference period). The survey also collected information on health and safety, food security and hunger, care and other household responsibilities, relief measures and household coping strategies. The study was conducted by local researchers in partnership with local organizations of informal workers in each city. The total sample of just over 2,000 informal workers was drawn from the membership of the local organizations using a purposive quota approach: to reflect the membership in four main sectors (domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors/market traders and waste pickers) as well as several additional sectors in some cities. The sample was not intended to be representative of informal workers in each city or even of the membership of the local organization. The study findings confirm that the COVID-19 crisis had a major negative impact on work and earnings. In April 2020, during peak lockdowns or restrictions, 74 per cent of informal workers were not able to work. By mid-2020, when the lockdowns or restrictions had been eased to some degree, 21 per cent of informal workers were still not able to work; and the average days of work per week and earnings of those able to work were lower than in February 2020 (pre-COVID-19). The study findings also illustrate how changes in demand, supply, prices, wages or piece rates and other factors impacted specific groups of informal workers: resulting in different degrees of impact on work and earnings. The degree of impact differed between live-in and live-out domestic workers; self-employed and subcontracted home-based workers; street vendors/market traders who sold food versus non-food items; and between waste pickers by city, depending on whether the sites where waste was reclaimed (e.g. dumps and landfills), sorted and stored and/or the dealerships where reclaimed waste was sold were closed or open.