Informal women workers in public transport organise!

By Alana Dave

International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)

“As women workers, we want access to information and training.  We want equal pay for equal work.  We want women on all decision-making bodies.  And protection against any form of violence.  We do not want discrimination.” —  Informal public transport woman worker, Dakar, Senegal

Public transport is like any other essential service, and therefore must belong to those who work in it and rely on it. Increasingly, profit-making is being brought into public transport discourse and policies without regard for the needs and working conditions of the workers on whose labor it thrives. The ITF’s Our Public Transport programme is challenging this approach and mobilising trade unions around a different vision of public transport.

Informality in the public transport sector

The majority of transport workers are not in unions. In fact, most public transport workers in the world have to survive in the so-called “informal economy,” In some cities, they are 85% of the workforce. Their jobs are extremely precarious. They have no contracts of employment, no job security and no access to social security. Most are very poor, unsure whether they will have enough to survive from day-to-day.

In a typical informal transport hub, you will find many different transport occupations (drivers, conductors, electricians, ticket sellers etc), but you will also find food vendors, hawkers, waste-pickers and other workers performing informal work. This public space is their collective workspace, and informal workers regardless of their occupation share many of the same issues and problems. For example, violence and police harassment, and access to facilities, toilets and clean water.

The role of informal women workers in the transport sector

There are many women employed in and around the informal transport economy, mostly in the most precarious and low paid jobs – cleaning, vending, catering etc. They frequently experience violence, abuse and sexual harassment. They face discrimination preventing access to more skilled and better-paid work as drivers, conductors and despatchers. Their testimonies reveal the challenges that they face:

“Men are favoured as drivers. During the pandemic, management have a strong preference to work with men.”

“Women are forced to go on leave without any prior warning.”

“I got back to the bus depot 15 minutes after the curfew. I went to get my wages and then I was attacked and beaten by the police for being out past curfew. I had to hand over all my money and still now can’t use my arm properly.”

These are just some of the experiences of women informal public transport workers in Nairobi, and they reflect similar experiences for women informal workers in public transport elsewhere.

What’s next for informal transport workers

The rallying cry of informal workers “Nothing for us without us” requires transport workers organising with fellow informal workers who work alongside them. Together, they have a right to occupy public spaces with decent conditions and rights.

Any reform or formalisation process must include action for gender equality. This requires a complete dismantling of gender-based occupational segregation, and an end to gender-based violence and harassment, where demands for sexual favours in return for employment are common.

Transport workers will never be able to shift thinking in policy by sitting in meetings and talking. We need to be stronger in our organisations so that we can tilt the balance of power, in favour of workers. There cannot be worker-led transformation of public transport, unless informal workers are organised and there is unity between formal and informal public transport workers.


For more information on the ITF’s work on informal workers, please see: https://www.itfglobal.org/en/sector/urban-transport/bus-rapid-transit and for our work on transport workers together for a gender equal new normal: https://www.itfglobal.org/en/news/women-transport-workers-rights-and-covid-19

See ITF’s informal workers’ website blog at: http://www.informalworkersblog.org.

Alana Dave is Urban Transport Director at the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), based in London. Alana leads the ITF’s global programme on public transport, which includes a number of strategic projects on labour impacts and workers issues. She is responsible for the development of public transport policy to further decent work, social and climate justice and gender equality and represents the ITF in external relationships with political decision makers and public transport employers.