New UN Report Draws Attention to Human Rights Concerns of Women Workers in the Informal Economy

This image is adapted from the UN Working Group microsite.

On July 22, 2020, the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls[1] hosted a webinar to launch their new thematic report on women’s human rights in the changing world of work. This report is the Working Group’s eighth thematic report that examines systemic discrimination against women and is based on information compiled from governments, expert group meetings, UN agencies, civil society organizations and more. It analyzes the gender dimensions of key trends in the world of work, including technological change, demographic change, globalization, environmental degradation, and their implications for the future of women’s work, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic is “further intensifying and increasing levels of violence against women, women’s unpaid care and domestic workloads,” and that “women in the most vulnerable forms of informal work will be the most harshly affected.”

According to the report, the majority of women workers remain concentrated in the lowest-paid, most vulnerable jobs, often in the informal sector, where they are deprived of the social and legal protection that would be included in formal employment contracts. The report points out that the lack of investment by governments in public services and other funding cuts often have the harshest impact on women workers in the informal sector. The report also draws attention to the fact that women in vulnerable forms of informal work, such as domestic workers, waste pickers, and street vendors, “are particularly vulnerable to harassment and violence in the course of their work.” The pervasive and gendered nature of violence and harassment in the world of work is borne by the fact that women in all sectors, whether formal or informal, are acutely impacted: “a 2014 European Union-wide study found that every second woman (55 per cent)  has experienced sexual harassment at least once since the age of 15,” and among those, “32 per cent identified somebody from the employment context – such as a colleague, a boss or a customer – as the perpetrator.”

Technological Developments

The report notes that while there are many opportunities to use technology to advance gender equality and women’s rights to work, such as through flexible work arrangements, increased networking, and access to information and collective organizing, technological advances are not necessarily predisposed to create more inclusive spaces for women. In fact, the online economy is capable of worsening the gender gap, and increasing women’s economic inequality: “rather than being a source of decent work, the growth of digital platforms, including the gig economy, will likely contribute to increasing women’s economic inequality by increasing the informalization of women’s work.” Alarmingly, the report states that “online platforms risk substituting the traditional ‘sweatshop’ for a digital one.”

Another major challenge is that women are still underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and employment, which additionally contributes to technology that is designed to “entrench a male-dominated world view, rather than being designed to be inclusive of women.” The report also raises the issue of “defeminization,” which describes the phenomenon of women’s employment declining as countries upgrade their industries through technological advances, replacing women workers with automated machines or robotic mechanisms.

The gender digital divide is a key concern highlighted in the report which persists across several regions in the world. Furthermore, technological developments also create new risks to women’s safety and privacy, including heightened exposure of women and girls to violence and abuse in digital platforms and technology-enabled spaces. Some examples include online harassment, revenge porn, and doxxing, all of which have been used to threaten or harm women for speaking out online.

Demographic Changes

The report warns that demographic changes that will present new challenges and require more inclusive solutions from policymakers that take into account women’s lived realities and experiences in the world of work. Recent decades have seen increasing numbers of women migrant workers. There are 11.5 million migrant domestic workers globally, and nearly ¾ of that population are women, according to the report. In particular, there has been a growing demand for migrant domestic and care workers, creating a phenomenon known as the “global care chain.” However, as noted, “migrant workers are often denied human rights, such as access to health care and social protection, in their country of work.” Migrant domestic workers face the “double marginalization” of lacking protections as migrants working in the informal sector, where they have very limited or no options for recourse against heightened risks of wage theft, exploitation, violence, and abuse.

Rapid urbanization also has significant implications for women’s work, according to the report. Many women in rural areas migrate to cities in hope of securing work or better work, but often are relegated to precarious and informal work. On top of that, the growing trend of urban development and renewal projects encourages increasing evictions, confiscations, and demolitions, all of which negatively impact women who work in public spaces or run small businesses, such as women street vendors or merchants.

Accelerated Globalization

The report also highlights globalization as a key concern for the future of women’s human rights in the changing world of work and recognizes how neoliberal globalization has weakened mechanisms and functions that are important for gender equality, such as the government provision of quality care services, which are now becoming either increasingly privatized or non-existent. In some cases, more women are getting access to employment opportunities due to the increase in global supply chains– “more than ⅕ of the global workforce have a job in a global supply chain,” the report states. However, women’s employment in global supply chains is often insecure, with low or subsistence wages, poor working conditions, and human rights violations. Additionally, “mass land acquisitions for global supply chains also result in the loss of work and income for rural women in the global South, and forced displacement in some contexts” as well, according to the report. In many parts of the supply chain where workers are predominantly women, sexual harassment and other forms of GBV are also “rampant” issues.

Accountability for violations that occur in global supply chains is also very difficult to maintain – research conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) found that the world’s 50 largest companies only employ 6% of people in a direct employment relationship and rely on a “hidden workforce” of 94%, making it extremely difficult for women garment workers, for example, to report and seek redress for workplace harassment to the companies that rely on their labor. The “fissuring” of the workplace lies at the heart of this problem, which has created challenges to workers’ ability to organize.

“Unless structural and systemic discrimination is specifically addressed, there is a significant risk that future work trends will deepen existing inequalities for women.”

Women are entitled to have job security, equal pay, decent work conditions, respect and freedom from violence and harassment in the workplace, access to the right skills and training, and support for their care responsibilities. The report presents five key recommendations as necessary steps to reimagine the structure of work and the economy, prioritizing women’s human rights.

  1. Ensure freedom from violence and harassment.
  2. Recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care and domestic work.
  3. Disrupt patterns of “women’s” and “men’s” work.
  4. Ensure all women workers can enjoy their rights, without discrimination, including informal workers.
  5. Support women’s collective action and organizing.

This image is adapted from the UN Working Group microsite.

With respect to women workers in the informal economy, among other things, it recommends that governments increase investments to “ensure universal access to affordable and high quality childcare, disability and aged care services, ensuring access for both informal workers and those in non-standard forms of employment,”  “ensure informal and non-standard workers have access to workplace rights and entitlements, including access to social protection, health care, paid leave and occupational health and safety provisions, in particular providing protection in the context of cconomic and environmental shocks,” such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and “remove all discrimination laws against migrant women workers,” including in migration policies and employment laws. Additionally, the report recommends that governments ratify and implement the ILO Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189), the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment (No. 190) to ensure that migrant workers and domestic workers and informal workers are protected against discrimination against abuse and have access to their rights.

The report concludes by noting that “a world of work that realizes women’s human rights will not only benefit women but will lift all.”

To read the full report, please click here. To view the newly released microsite which presents an interactive version of the report, please click here. To like and follow the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls on FaceBook, please click here.


[1] comprised of independent experts Elizabeth Broderick, Alda Facio, Ivana Radačić, Meskerem Geset Techane, and Melissa Upreti.

This article was written by Michelle Fan, 16 Days Campaign Program Intern, and published on July 30, 2020.