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close this bookVolunteer Participation in Working with the Urban Poor (UNDP - UNV, 64 p.)
close this folderII. Insights derived from community-based programmes
close this folderUrban informal sector
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View the documentMicro-enterprise promotion
View the documentWorking conditions in the informal sector
View the documentThe ILO experience

Working conditions in the informal sector

Dismal working conditions are among the most pressing problems of the urban informal sector, which affect individuals who are self-employed, wage-workers, apprentices, as well as those involved in outwork (piece-work usually at home) or unpaid family labour. In many cases, these problems are associated with the lack of primitive levels of services and utilities - the absence of which presents even higher costs to informal sector enterprises (transport, fuel, electricity, warehouses). The extreme shortage of work-space and marketing space in densely populated low-income settlements, for example, is a major setback to the potential expansion of the informal sector.

Nevertheless, there are examples of successful community initiatives to improve working conditions. Arising out of credit schemes, three women's groups in India (Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad, the Annapurna Mohila Mandal in Bombay, and the Working Women's Forum (WWF) in Madras) have established excellent reputations in working with low-income urban groups to help them improve their working conditions, using credit schemes as an entry point for organisational assistance. Assistance in organisation has been one of the major requirements of groups struggling for higher wages, such as the workers in Nipani, India who assemble local cigarettes or "beedis." By developing links of solidarity, workers, women's groups and others have been able to establish multi-purpose consumer cooperatives, dispensaries etc., and, more importantly, to develop a process of local participation to address their self-defined concerns. In this process, VDWs were key catalysts in assisting groups in organising themselves to address their concerns, which extended beyond those of their workplace.

A similar example is the work of the Church Missionary Society Friendly Taxi Drivers' Association in Lagos, which was able to organise itself to address work-related and other concerns of its members. Starting with an urgent need to have a common stop-off point where they could count on support facilities, which developed into the Lagos Taxi Park, the Association has been able to expand into areas of credit and storage, and establish marketing stalls and various forms of mutual support. In other situations, motivated and committed VDWs have been key in the organisation of Mobile Creches, operating in India's major cities, for the welfare of migrant worker families - particularly through infant and child care facilities for working parents, which also deal with issues of nutrition, pre-school and adult education and family planning.

In all these examples, there was a direct correlation between the success of the initiative and favourable government policies. It is clear that governments could do more through favourable legislation, extension of credit facilities, provision of training, technology and marketing outlets, as well as directly improving community services for the informal sector, to create a conducive environment to improve working conditions. In addition, NGOs and VDWs could play a greater role in organisational assistance to self-help initiatives and awareness-raising of community rights.