Informal workers are routinely excluded from economic and political decision-making, and their work is systematically devalued and made invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these dynamics and has resulted in skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, bringing a renewed urgency to address poverty, exclusion and precarious work.
Labor leaders, organizers and advocates from around the world gathered on December 2 for a virtual panel discussion of the impact of gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH) on workers in the informal economy. The discussion was sponsored by the Global 16 Days Campaign (coordinated by Center for Women’s Global Leadership), Global Alliance of Wastepickers, HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Solidarity Center, StreetNet International and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department co-director, moderated the panel, which included: Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO); Carmen Britez, vice president, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF); Janhavi Dave, international coordinator, HomeNet International; Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and a SEWA homeworker; and Saraswati Rijal, central committee member, Independent Transport Workers Association of Nepal (ITWAN).
Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO)
Chidi King framed the discussion, citing the themes and issues to be addressed. “As we all know, violence and harassment in the world of work is a manifestation of the societal issue that has deep roots in the continued tolerance of violence and harassment,” King said, “particularly towards women and population groups that too often find themselves on the margins of society.”
Women workers, who make up the majority of informal economy workers in many countries, are disproportionately affected. “Violence and harassment have deep roots in social norms and stereotypes,” King said, “especially around the roles assigned to men and women.
“And as a connection to inequality and discrimination suggests,” King added, “violence and harassment is also deeply rooted in unequal power relations, and the abuse thereof, in our societies, as in the world of work.” Thus workers play an important role in addressing and remedying violence and harassment, including addressing the impacts of domestic violence in the world of work.
ILO Convention 190 (C190) protects all workers and recognizes that for many the workplace is not an office or factory setting, but can be a public space or private. C190 protects informal economy workers, who work in their own homes or the homes of others, and recognizes the impact of domestic violence in their workplaces.
However, many countries’ laws do not recognize homes as workplaces, leaving many workers in the informal economy lacking protection against violence and harassment and without access to social safety nets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers have experienced high rates of domestic violence and difficulty accessing social support services that have been put on hold.
Saraswati Rijal spoke about working with women tuk-tuk drivers in Nepal to build support for women workers during the pandemic and supporting victims of domestic violence. COVID-19 has only made conditions worse, as women workers are forced to choose between their and their families’ health or earning an income and risking being subjected to unnecessary hazards.
Workers in the informal sector “do not have any economic security,” Rijal said. “And moreover, due to COVID-19, they are deprived of their daily wages, and they are also unable to earn their living and sustain their livelihood.”
Carmen Britez spoke of IDWF’s work with the Ministry of Labor in Argentina to develop exclusive protection for domestic workers around domestic violence. Domestic workers suffer not just from not having registered employment, but from also having no protection against violence. Britez said that lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many domestic workers to be shut in with their abusers.
Argentina ratified C190 in November 2020. Britez emphasized C190’s role as a tool to push for national legislation: “We were pushing for this convention so that it could become another tool in changing national law. If we have laws that protect us around violence, we want something that would not only include specific sectors but all sectors at a national level. Because that’s really important for us as women workers.”
“It’s also important to say this is not just an issue facing women. “We do account for the majority of those who are suffering from this kind of violence,” Britez added. “But it also is important for us to let our [union] leadership, who are often men, to let them know that it’s also their responsibility to push for a national law on this topic.”
To underscore the urgency of the issue, Britez shared that during her remarks her center received news of a woman whose employer broke her wrist.
Janhavi Dave spoke of the scale of the problem of domestic violence and its impact on women workers. “According to one of the recent ILO studies, there are over 260 million home-based workers, which is around 8 percent of global employment. This was prior to the pandemic, and this number has only increased,” Dave said. “According to the same study, 56 percent of home-based workers are women. So we’re actually talking about a huge section of women workers.”
HomeNet South Asia, a regional organization, conducted a study on the impact of domestic violence on home-based workers in Nepal, and is conducting similar studies in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. “One of the key findings was that home-based workers faced rampant domestic violence,” Dave said, “which has a direct impact not only on physical and emotional health but also on productivity.”
Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
SEWA’s Sonia George introduced a traditional bamboo worker, who shared her experience as the sole earner for her family, which included her husband and their two children. Her husband, she said, was supportive in the beginning of the marriage, but became physically violent after he was out of work. Sibimol was forced to leave her traditional job and go to work in a latex factory in order to earn a livelihood and escape domestic violence at home.
“This is the experience of most of the women in India,” George said after Sibimol shared her story. “We know that most of these women have experienced domestic violence. One of the statistics states that during the time of COVID, domestic violence has increased 2.5 times. That means women in India are suffering that much more violence.”
Lorraine Sibanda shared how COVID-19 also worsened conditions for women workers in Zimbabwe. “The pandemic exposed adverse challenges for women,” Sibanda said, “because they are performing unpaid care work, domestic care work, on top of providing for their families.” Measures to control the spread of COVID-19 compromised livelihoods and increased economic strain on families supported by the informal economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions also increased rates of domestic violence. “It meant that women and girls were locked down in their homes,” Sibanda said. “They were forced to spend time enclosed with families, and possibly many were trapped at home with their abusers.”
Married and partnered women also faced physical violence from husbands and male partners for refusing to hand over their earnings. “They would be abused physically because they refused to hand over money, which they’ve been working for, to their partners, so that their partners could either go for a drink or use that money,” Sibanda said. She also suggested that Zimbabwe had seen an increase in child marriage. ”There was this rampant trait of people marrying off children in order to gain economically.
“All in all, the pandemic amplified the vulnerability of women and girls,” Sibanda concluded.
Workers who risked their health to provide essential services during the pandemic joined with actors, global union leaders and policymakers in a first-of-its-kind worldwide gathering to share their experiences and demand a response that urgently and effectively protects all people, and especially the most marginalized.
Yalitza Aparicio spoke in support of government action to ensure essential workers have decent wages and safe work.
“COVID-19 has taught us about the importance of workers in all sectors and recognize that they deserve dignified work and they are important in the world economy,” said actor Yalitza Aparicio. “Governments know about this. But, what are they doing about it?” Aparicio was among dozens of speakers during the September 8–10 Essential For Recovery virtual summit who pointed to the need for action to ensure decent wages, rights and social protections like paid sick leave so workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic will not be left behind after the crisis passes.
As the Summit made clear, essential workers often work in the informal economy. “They have no rights, no minimum wages, no rule of law, no social protection,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “We have to get a minimum living wage to all essential workers. We have to afford them collective bargaining rights. And we have to put in place universal social protection in safe workplaces.”
Organized by the Open Society Foundations and hosted by actor Sophia Bush, Essential For Recovery focused on four themes: increased income and improved working conditions; healthy and safe workplaces and access to health care; social protection benefits and support for vulnerable workers; and ending gender-based violence and harassment at work.
The Solidarity Center co-sponsored the event, along with HomeNet International, ITUC, StreetNet International Alliance of Street Vendors, UNI Global union and WIEGO.
Catch the full three one-hour sessions:
Unions, Collective Action Key to Building Back Better
Mithqal Zinati (right), a coordinator for Jordan’s agricultural sector, says workers need the right to form unions to ensure safe workplaces.
In Jordan, where workers have limited rights to form unions, Mithqal Zinati, a coordinator for the country’s agricultural sector, says the government’s action “keeps thousands and tens of thousands of workers from being part of providing solutions to the problems facing the agriculture sector. This eliminates the role of workers to defend their rights and protect their interests and to see beneficial gains.
“For everyone, having a union is very beneficial. For farmers and for workers at the same time.”
As the pandemic highlighted, workers with unions often more readily had access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and decent wages. Summit participants discussed the power of grassroots organizing to improve workers’ lives, and described how, over the last year, essential workers in the formal and informal economies went on strike to win access to PPE and vaccines. They took to the streets and to social media to demand more democratic societies and governments.
Maria do Carmo, a Brazilian street vendor, organized street vendors into a nationwide organization, the National Union of Hawkers, Street and Market Vendor Workers of Brazil (UNICAB), and through their collective power, raised awareness of their issues with politicians. “Today we have respect from City Hall,” she said.
“Over the past two days, we’ve seen proof of the effectiveness of collective action, and of the importance of eliminating gender inequities. But at the heart of it all is power,” said Bush, at the start of the third and final session.
Women Targets of Gender-Based Violence, Burdened with Carework
The pandemic also forced many to work from home where women disproportionately engaged in care work. Globally, women lost $800 billion in income due to COVID-19.
Mercedes D’Alessandro, the first national director of Economy, Equality and Gender in Argentina, described a study in which she found that during the pandemic, three-quarters of women did unpaid care work, amounting to 22 percent of GDP—up from 16 percent of GDP before COVID-19.
“The truth is that the increase in time that women dedicate to care activities means also a smaller opportunity to go out and look for a job, continue with their jobs, develop their careers or study, graduate from university,” she said.
Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, urges governments to ratify a treaty ending gender-based violence at work.
Women also experienced high levels of violence during lockdowns, further highlighting the need for governments to ratify an International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty (Convention 190) to end gender-based violence at work.
“Violence and harassment can happen anywhere, and it can happen to anyone,” said Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union. “But this must not be tolerated. It must stop. Let us push together for governments to ratify this very important convention.”
C190 covers wherever work is performed, such as where workers take a rest break or meal or use sanitary, washing or changing facilities, and includes commuting to and from work.
“We are seeing a new normal. Home has become a workplace,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner. Employers must ensure workers have what they need to work from home, including safe workplaces, she said.
Building to a Better, More Equitable Tomorrow
Artists like Sinkane performed during the Essential Worker Summit.
Omamo was in conversation with Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International. The summit provided opportunities for shared discussion, “lightening rounds” featuring workers telling their stories and urging action, and videos showcasing worker issues such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)’s documentary on women agricultural workers seeking safer transportation.
Essential for Recovery also featured multimedia presentations by performance artists such as Khansa, a singer, songwriter and dancer from Lebanon; U.S. actor Martin Sheen; Sonam Kalra of the Sufi Gospel Project; and Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab Sinkane, a Sudanese-American musician.
“I stand with all essential workers around the globe. The domestic and agricultural workers, waste pickers, street vendors, caregivers and home-based workers who make our world run,” said Sinkane, before performing U’Huh.
“During the pandemic, we saw how essential they really are. They deserve a living wage, proper employment conditions and a safe and healthy workplace,” he said. “Let’s build forward to a better, more equitable tomorrow.”
Key participants in Essential For Recovery also included Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union general secretary; Maina Kiai, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Guy Ryder, ILO director general and Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance executive director.
As a new wave of COVID-19 hits Cambodia, a new study recommends urgent action to ensure garment and tourism workers workers do not experience widespread loss of jobs and wages as they did in 2020. The Center for Policy Studies survey is supported by Solidarity Center and The Asia Foundation.
Half or more workers in key Cambodian industries were suspended for three or four months, and most were unable to support themselves on government aid during the pandemic, according to a new study that put hard data to the suffering of the country’s low-wage workers.
Some 53 percent of those working in tourism were suspended for an average 15 weeks, and 40 percent of workers in Cambodia’s garment and footwear industries were suspended for an average of 11 weeks, according to a survey of 1,525 workers by the Center for Policy Studies. Solidarity Center and The Asia Foundation supported the research, which reports results from July and August 2020. (See the full survey.)
Women workers in Cambodia worked more and were still paid less than men during the pandemic. Source: CPS/Solidarity Center/Ponlok Chomnes
Women comprise the majority of workers surveyed and are the majority of 800,000 workers in the country’s garment and footwear industries. Before the pandemic, women were typically paid less than men. Yet, even when they returned to work in July 2020, they reported being paid less than men even though they worked more days than men.
All workers who returned to the job by July 2020 on average were employed for fewer hours and earned less than in July 2019.
COVID-19 an Excuse to Exploit Workers
Although many businesses were forced to temporarily suspend operations or shutter permanently during Cambodia’s first wave of COVID-19, some employers took advantage of the pandemic to lay off workers, union leaders say.
Further, hospitality and garment workers who returned to, or remained on the job, were not provided adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or measures to ensure their safety, according to union leaders in Cambodia. Unions have been organizing to hold employers to account, negotiating for better protection measures.
Government Support Helpful, Not Sufficient
To assist garment and tourism workers during the country’s first wave of COVID-19, the Cambodian government launched several programs, including financial support for workers suspended from the job and a skills improvement training program. But workers interviewed for the survey said the suspension payments, which ranged $40 to $70 per month, were not sufficient to cover the roughly $69 they needed for basic monthly food expenditures.
Half of those surveyed say the suspension allowance was their only income, and more than 50 percent said they could not afford to send remittances to their family as a result of pandemic-related losses. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of workers surveyed say they took on debt to survive.
The government announced in July 2020 that businesses closed during COVID-19 were not required to pay workers hardship or layoff wages. Tourism sector operations also were not required to contribute the $30 per month toward the suspension payments. The government provided $40 per month.
Urgent Action Needed for New Pandemic Wave
Since February, Cambodia has experienced its worst COVID-19 outbreak, which has led to a deepening crisis for workers as many major cities and several provinces have been in strict lockdown.
During the pandemic, workers in many industries have been left out of public social protection programs, such as health coverage, and the survey recommends extension of these benefits for the most vulnerable.
The survey also recommends expanding skills improvement training programs and funding opportunities for temporary jobs.
Without such support, garment workers like Eang Malea are returning to their factories despite the risk of contracting COVID-19.
“I need to pay rent, utilities and debts, ” Malea, 26, said. “I worry that I will get infected by going to work without being vaccinated, but I don’t really have a choice.”
Workers and their unions in Colombia will hold a national strike April 28 to protest a tax hike proposed by President Iván Duque that would increase costs for workers already struggling from lost jobs and income from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Union leaders say the tax plan is misleadingly labeled a “Sustainable Solidarity Law” and instead would raise taxes on fuel and electricity and greatly expand the number of people required to pay additional taxes. The plan also would increase taxes on produce, harming both farmers and consumers.
It is a “tax reform that disguises itself as solidarity, ” says Unitary Workers Center (CUT) President Francisco Maltés.
Unions across Colombia have joined in solidarity to hold the 24-hour strike as part of a Unified National Command (Comando Nacional Unitario) comprised of the CUT; the General Confederation of Workers (CGT); the Workers Confederation of Colombia (CTC) the Education Workers Federation (FECODE); and the Confederations of Pensioned workers (CPC and CDP).
Tax Big Business, Not Working Families
In an 11-point set of demands, unions say the government should establish tax reform based on progressive taxation so those who earn more pay more. Unions also say taxes should be lowered for small and medium businesses while increased for big business, including multinationals. Further, tax evasion should be effectively punished and taxes increased on large land
Colombian workers have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic. Unemployment is at a record 20 percent, with more than 5 million people losing their jobs.
Women in Colombia, as around the world, have been disproportionately affected. Between September 2019 and September 2020, for every man who lost his job, 2.2 women did so, nationally. In smaller cities, for every eight women who lost their jobs, one man lost his job. Many women work in the informal sector, where nearly half of Colombians make their living as market vendors and domestic workers, who are paid low wages and are not covered job protections like health care.
The pandemic compounded workers’ struggles to make a living and support their families. In 2019, more than 35 percent of Colombians lived in poverty, and the top 10 percent of the country’s earners received 40 percent of the country’s income, 10 times what the bottom 20 percent earned.
Beginning in November 2019, tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets to protest the Duque government’s repeated attempts to hike prices and reward corporations with tax cuts.