2. Employment, labor markets and informality
- Why is there a disproportionate representation on women in the informal economy, what are the particular vulnerabilities that arise from that?
I’m Renana Jhabvala, and I represent the Self-Employed Women’s Association and that stands for SEWA. Self-Employed Women’s Association is actually a trade union of women in the informal economy.
We have yearly membership, last year we were 1.7 million, hopefully this year 2 women together for their rights but we also realise that development is equally if not more important, and so we have helped women to have their own companies, their own cooperatives, we have our own bank and I think we must have sponsored by now, over 105 cooperatives or companies. All my life, I’ve worked with, for, on behalf of women in the informal economy and that is what I’d like today’s lesson to be about.
Let’s start with the SDGs. As part of implementation of these SDGs, the UN, in fact, the Secretary-General in the UN had set up has set up a panel; it’s called the Secretary General’s UN High-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. This is the first time that at that level women’s economic empowerment as opposed to reproductive rights, education, violence that women are recognised as economic actors and that very much fits in with the SDGs. The panel has submitted its first report, here you can see the cover of the report. It was launched at the UN General Assembly this year in 2016 and I’m showing, I’d like to show yo u this particular diagram which sort of represents a summary of all the things that this panel says. Now in the diagram, if you’re looking at it now, you can see that work, women’s work is divided into four types Informal work, Formal sector employees, Agriculture and Women-owned enterprises.
Informal work and Agriculture: these two are by large, by far the largest number of women work there, employees the largest number, some are self-employed, some are wage employed, some are contract, all types of work both in agriculture and in informal work. However, if we look at urban áreas then we see that informal work is by far the predominant. Now, let’s go back to this diagram: the seven primary drivers of women’s economic empowerment. I’m going to go through it with you only because this is the direction and then it’s very broad, obviously, urban,rural, every country and so on and then how does it apply to our country, our urban workers, our urban informal workers and I’d like to give you some examples. So, first of all, is Adverse norms and role models: We all know girls are not allowed to the houses, girls are married off early, girls are allowed to study up to a certain point and not after. Legal protection: there’s all kinds of legal protection, I’ll come to that for our country.
Recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid work and care: now a lot of girls and women are not able to work, are not able to work productively because they have to do care work in the houses but also a lot of women work productively like domestic workers, in care work. Then this one, which I think is perhaps the most important is: Building assets and assets means property but assets today are also financial assets and digital assets. And the others are: Changing corporate culture, Improving public sector practices and Strengthening visibility, collective voice and representation. If you cannot voice your issues and if you cannot epresent your issues, then there is very little likelihood your issues will change. So, this is sort of, for me a very central point. Let me now come to India and what we have been seeing.
The largest or a very large number of women are what is called home-based workers. It fits in with the social norms: women are not allowed out of the houses, women have to do care work and therefore they try to do productive work within the homes. Here you can see some examples of women doing home-work. Now, if you ask the women what’s the best thing about doing home-work, they’ll say that it’s in the home and they can do other duties but what’s the worst thing is because it’s in the home they are not able to be productive, get skills, get finance. So, they always work at very low skill levels and very little earnings. What is very interesting about these home-based workers is that they’re linked-in with the market.
Some of them are self-employed, a lot of them, very interestingly, are linked-in with global supply chains. If you actually look at what they’re making, it leads into a very long chain with the big companies, big multinational companies like GAP, Monsoon or Ikea or Walmart or many, many others. So these home-based workers are often the very last chain of a global supply chain.
What can we do? And I’d like to give you some solutions. Now these women in the global supply chain, in the urban areas, where do they live? They live in a slum areas where they don’t have toilets, they don’t have access to water; so their productivity is obviously very low. They can’t raise their productivity, they don’t even have access to markets. Perhaps, if they did they could become self-employed and earn more.
What are some of the solutions? First is, to recognise that the home is often the workplace – it’s not just a dwelling-place, it’s also the workplace and especially for women and so when you improve slums, you’re also improving productivity, you’re also increasing employment and you’re also contributing to a global supply chain. So improvement of slums is not just about increasing people’s happiness, bettering the living conditions but it’s also about increasing our own GDP, increasing earnings and linking us in with the international markets.
In SEWA, this is something we have been doing, we have our own organisation called Mahila Housing Trust (MHT) and this Trust has helped women in, I think it would be over a lakh (1,00,00) families actually improve the dwelling through loans, through better and more safer housing, through better lighting and especially through better toilets, as you can see.
I’d also like to point to a new venture which is quite innovative, which is that many of these women don’t have access to loans for housing because their houses are not considered mortgageable. So, we have started a new venture called SEWA Grih Rin: SEWA housing finance company which actually lends loans to informal sector women even if their houses are not mortgageable. They are securitised but not mortgaged. Another solution is something that we have tried which is bringing women together and dealing directly with the multinationals, so that all the cuts that are made by the contractors and the steps in-between go to the actual producer and through that we find we have just, for many years, of course, for last 6-7 years we have this company called Ruaab and through it women have doubled and now almost tripled, their own earnings by directly supplying to the international market.
The second one, I want to tell you about is: the street vendors. Street vendors are not considered a real part of our economy, they’re driven away but public spaces are often used by street vendors and others to generate not only their own livelihoods but to also deliver na important service.
SEWA has been organising the street vendors, bringing them together, raising their voices and we now have a law which protects street vendors, which gives them a space in the city.
Unfortunately, that law has not yet been implemented in many cities, and so I would urge you and if you would like to look at different cities and see what is happening with the street vendors, I would urge you to look at the law, is it being implemented and if it is to be implemented, what kind of urban planning would we need, where street vendors can come in the morning and leave in the evening or have night markets or have temporary markets? There are many solutions which can be worked out for street vendors which will really protect employment.
Domestic workers, you know, they come to our houses, they do our work, and they go back again but they have very little access to improving their skills, they earn very little and they have no social protection. So, if they’re ill, they miss a day’s work and they have to spend. There are lots of issues around domestic workers, I would urge you to find out more.
The one thing I would like to point to, which is: the daughters of the domestic workers, the street vendors, the home-based workers, the informal sector: What is their future? Will they become street vendors and domestic workers? And SEWA has been trying, has been educating these girls – helping them to get into school, helping them to graduate and that’s not enough, you know. Girls who graduate from government schools find it very difficult to get into the labour force, so they need skills but they need a lot of confidence and you know a very important area which we have discovered and didn’t even know that it’s something that can be done is, you remember, I was talking to you about property: Digital property, the internet and all kinds of applications are a huge source of information which these young girls don’t have. Once, it’s either they cannot get on or if it at all exists it’s mediated through their brothers, their fathers and so on.
And we find that direct digital information is a sort of power for them, what we’re calling empowerment. So that’s a whole area of these young girls who are being educated – how do we get them into the workforce, how do we make them productive for the country and for us.
Just a small figure: the McKinsey Global Institute did a study and they found that if women were fully participant in the workforce as men are, then the GDP of the world would rise by 26%. So, from the economic point of view too, it’s important to get women into the workforce and especially in the urban workforce where the women’s participation rate is very low due to the fact that all those factors that I told you.
Finally, I think the only thing that will really change is for those women’s voices to be heard, for them to come together. I told you about our cooperative, I told you about our bank, I told you about our housing finance company and the way that we were able to change their own infrastructure was, they come together and they talked to the municipality. So, collective voice, a woman’s own empowerment by getting together, I think that’s the most important thing if we want to go towards change.