Written by: Aiman Haque, Max Gallien, Vanessa van den Boogaard. Inputs by Paromita Sen of SEWA Bharat.
In recent months, we have seen an increase in the attention paid to informal workers, both among policymakers and in media circles. Some of these narratives have been positive, recognising the essential nature of informal work — such as in care or waste management — during the crisis. However, there has also been a rise in panic about the supposedly ‘unhygienic’ nature of informal work, with informal workers being singled out as potential carriers of the virus.
These negative narratives that are dismissive of informal work are not new and one of the reasons they persist is because informal work often remains invisible to policymakers. As we already know, while countries are increasingly attempting to measure informal employment as a share of GDP, it often remains excluded from national indicators and economic assessments, such as GDP or employment.
Not only does this lead to an underestimation of the actual numbers, it also has other wide-reaching implications, including poverty and environmental assessments that rely on government statistics. As a result, governments are unable to meet the needs of under-counted and invisible populations.
Critically, and likely as a consequence of some of these wider discourses, informal workers themselves often do not recognise the value of their work and contribution to the economy. In our work at the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD), we have often seen informal workers — particularly women — use language that devalues their contribution to both their own households and the national economy.
Given the importance of research in informing policy discussions and emphasising the value of informal employment, we suggest a few ways forward in approaching the challenges to engaging in research and advocacy in this area.
First, it is particularly important for policymakers to rapidly collect data on the informal economy, and integrate this information within a holistic view of the economy and the effects of the current crisis. As noted, when policymakers do not have appropriate data about the effects of the pandemic on informal workers, there is the risk that relief efforts will overlook them, further marginalise them and exacerbate inequalities among sub-populations.
“We need to acknowledge differences that come with variance in regions, languages, trades, state policies, and levels of marginalisation.”
Additionally, there is a need to recognise the heterogeneity of informality at every stage of the research and advocacy process. Rather than embracing broad statements about the informal economy, efforts should be made to understand its diversity in order to have the greatest impact for informal workers — particularly the most vulnerable. We need to acknowledge differences that come with variance in regions, languages, trades, state policies and levels of marginalisation, then tailor research and advocacy to reflect this.
The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate modalities of work on a global spectrum. This includes how we do research as well as how research contributes to the new global order. It, therefore, behoves us all to tread deliberately and consciously as we work to empower communities with data and research for their own goals.
About the authors:
Aiman Haque is a research associate in the Research and Data Vertical at SEWA Bharat. Her responsibilities include researching lives and livelihoods of women in the informal sector with a primary focus on women-owned social enterprises within SEWA and more recently, on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on female informal workers. She has also been involved in the training of grassroots teams in data collection and setting up of a grassroots research social enterprise in SEWA.
Max Gallien is a political scientist specialising in the politics of informal and illegal economies, the political economy of development, and the politics of the Middle East and North Africa. He is a research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD), where he co-leads the research programme on informality and taxation.
Vanessa van den Boogaard is a political scientist specialising in the politics of taxation and informal taxation, the political economy of development, and conflict and state building processes. She is a research fellow at the International Centre for Tax and Development, where she co-leads the research programme on informality and taxation.