Since the 1980s women have been entering the labor force in the emerging economies of South Asia, particularly in Bangladesh and in Pakistan. They are working in increasing numbers, driven by the garment industry and in tandem with global economic changes that make women’s labor essential, both to the economy and to the family’s financial well-being.
In 1997 Dr. Martha Chen co-founded a global network called WIEGO, or Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. She describes it as “part think tank, part social movement,” with the goal of increasing the voice, visibility and validity of the working poor — especially women — in the informal economy. Today it is a global grassroots network that promotes the rights of workers in the informal economy while also undertaking studies that collect the data and analyze the impact of informal employment on the national economy.
In China, factory jobs and construction provide significant employment opportunities for women. In India, on the other hand, there is a widening income gap driven by the growth of the IT and financial sectors, which leave uneducated, poor women behind. But women still proliferate in the informal economy – as cleaners, vendors at outdoor markets, garbage pickers, and so on.
Chen first became acquainted with poor women in the informal economy when she was doing doctoral research in rural Bangladesh. But her knowledge of South Asia goes back to her childhood, when she was the daughter of missionaries who lived in Allahabad, North India, during the 1940s and 1950s. Her parents, she explains, were ecumenical missionaries, committed to service, education and inter-faith dialogue – not to conversion. Her father was active in the Indian Student Christian Movement and was blacklisted by the British for being sympathetic to the Indian freedom struggle. Hindi was her first language.
In other words, Chen grew up feeling very much a part of the place in which she lived, even as she understood that she was ultimately a foreigner — albeit one who was in a unique position to bridge cultures. The experience of feeling deeply connected to India, but knowing she would leave one day, bred a sense of empathy and passion, she said. “I’m just committed to learning from the ground,” she said, explaining: “It’s inductive learning, not deductive.”
As examples of the policies WIEGO struggles against, she points to evictions of street vendors and slum dwellers. When urban planners try to push slum dwellers to a city’s periphery, she said, the cost to the workers in terms of transportation and distance are not taken into account. If they’re relocated to the periphery of the city, she explained, they won’t stay. The cost of transportation would become prohibitive and the time spent traveling would make it impossible to lead a normal life. Lobbying for policy changes regarding the rights of slum dwellers is one of many struggles WIEGO has helped lead, by empowering women in the informal economy with the knowledge they need to make their voices heard.
WIEGO has seen some significant successes. In India, thanks to their members’ lobbying, there is a law to protect street trade. In Durban, South Africa, there is a national organization of street workers who successfully fought against the construction of a shopping mall that would have destroyed their livelihoods. There is now a global alliance of waste pickers, built under the auspices of WIEGO, with members in Brazil, Colombia and Argentina having established an organization of contractors.
As a think tank, WIEGO has expanded the definition of informal employment to include informal wageworkers. Their researchers have changed the mindset among some economists, who now recognize the value of the informal economy. In addition, WIEGO has committed to innovative work in place-making, advocating for the contributions street vendors and waste pickers make in creating vibrant public spaces; to implementing the WIEGO Focal City approach, facilitating dialogue between municipal officials and informal sector workers on policies affecting the workers; and to narrative shift.
Today WIEGO is a global social movement of more than 180 organizations in 80 countries. It is non-hierarchical and it is a place where women come to be mutually supportive.
“We consider ourselves a family,” said Chen. “We are made of deeply committed people and WIEGO is structured around membership. So we are accountable to the people we represent.”
The numbers of people employed with the informal sector presents both challenges to and opportunities for the development sector. The fight for fairness and non-exploitation of informal workers is directly related to economic stability and sustainability in local economies around the world, and WIEGO is taking a multi-dimensional approach to the fight. But what sets the organization apart as it confronts informal sector challenges is two things: First, that it is member-based and member-driven and invests in networking informal sector workers. Second, “what WIEGO is trying to do,” according to Chen, “is to try to change the thinking and mindsets of the elites.” She added, “We are trying to change the dominant narrative,” in which developers and policy makers neglect the basic needs and rights of workers in the informal economy.
Learn more: www.wiego.org