Lockdowns, the fear and stigma of contagion, increased care responsibilities, and heightened rates of domestic violence and gender-based violence (GBV) during the COVID-19 pandemic, have severely impacted the lives and livelihoods of informal women workers (IWW). According to the ILO, more than 60% of the world’s employed earn their living in the informal economy and 92% of women in employment in developing countries are informally employed. Informality is a global concern and while it predominates in the Global South, it exists everywhere, affecting women workers in low, middle, and high–income countries. Informal women workers face precarious workplace conditions, are typically excluded from national labor laws, and denied social protection. The preexisting risks and vulnerabilities they face have only been heightened by the pandemic. Without timely and targeted interventions, these challenges will continue even once the pandemic recedes. The dire and unjust situation of many could worsen before getting better on account of critical gaps in relief and inequitable access to vaccines as well as many other missing rights. Over time, in the absence of targeted interventions, the situation only seems to be getting worse.
In line with the Campaign’s goals of amplifying the voices of IWW, on November 25, 2020, the Global 16 Days Campaign ran “16 Days Chat 2020” on Twitter, co-hosted by key partners Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), StreetNet International (SNI), HomeNet South Asia (HNSA), HomeNet South East Asia (HNSEA), Coordinadora Regional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras en Domicilio en América Latina y el Caribe (COTRADO ALAC), Sex Workers Allies South Asia (SWASA) and Sangram. This online conversation generated many crucial insights reflecting the realities of women’s lives, consensus on the relevance of the ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (C190) to their issues and recommendations for future action.
The realities of women’s lives:
- Nearly 70% of informal workers surveyed across 12 cities have reported zero earnings at the height of their cities’ COVID-19 lockdowns.
- Where government and legal systems have failed, worker-representative organizations have stepped in to fill the gap. Home-based worker organizations like SEWA have mobilized their field workers to respond to the crisis.
- Home-based workers in South Asia who are victims of domestic violence are locked in with the perpetrators of the violence due to lockdowns and decreased mobility.
- Home-based workers were also asked for sexual favors in exchange for work by intermediaries or contractors.
- In the formal economy sectors, employers are not responsible for domestic violence that takes place in the homes of their workers. In domestic work, employers are often the abusers. Thus, it is crucial to ratify C190.
- Even where employers aren’t abusive, domestic workers’ highly ‘subordinate’ position makes it very difficult for them to raise the issue and seek support, which is made even worse with lockdowns and economic crises, when workers cannot afford losing jobs.
- The hidden nature of home-based work makes workers particularly vulnerable to violence within supply chains, where employers conveniently deny their existence.
- Workers may be denied relief due to lack of government citizenship and identification Undocumented migrant sex workers reported being at high risk of violence, which was exacerbated by the lack of documents.
- C190 is a crucial instrument in recovering from COVID-19 and supporting informal workers, as it provides protection to ALL workers and broadly defines workplaces, protecting those who work in private spaces (like domestic workers) and public spaces (like street vendors, waste pickers).
- C190 has helped the sex worker rights movement to bring back the debate on working in safety and the right to freedom from violence in work, instead of constantly focusing on the conflation of sex work and trafficking, and depicting sex work as a criminal act. Creating awareness about C190 among informal workers is essential to building a movement. Currently there are very few awareness raising initiatives.
- Worker education on their rights and protections is essential to implement C190 and other human rights instruments.
- C190 recognizes violence and harassment in informal workplaces and in precarious forms of work, which makes it a critical tool for negotiating rights of sex workers at work.
- Governments must use international standards such as the Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (C189) and C190 as frameworks to guarantee equal labor rights and freedom of harassment, as well as provide means to report violations, labor abuses, and unfair dismissals through ministries of labor, workers’ unions, and other groups.
- Demanding government ratification and speedy implementation of C190.
- Worker organizations should come together and build a collective voice. Organizations must be strengthened, and workers empowered.
- Continued access to food relief and cash grants are essential for informal women workers. Food rations and essential services should be free.
- All forms of informal work must be recognized by governments as legitimate work.
- Trade unions and civil society organizations can support informal workers by training leaders on addressing violence at work, providing resources to informal workers’ organizations so they can raise awareness on the issue with their members, and uniting with informal workers’ organizations in the fight against violence and harassment.
- Governments should ensure timely, transparent, and rightful access to information and make such information available in the languages of informal workers.
All recommendations and insights above were contributed by partners and participants of the “16 Days Chat 2020” on Twitter, available via this link.