The event started with a speech from Dr (Mrs) Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the 6th President and the First Female President of the Republic of Mauritius. She asked the question, "who are the women at the bottom of the labour market?" It is clear that those most effected by the vulnerable situations often created by informal economies are women. Even across different contexts, low-pay challenges transcend nationality, GDP, culture and workplace, as women suffer from a significant pay gap and lack of access to education and training. Dr Gurib-Fakim spoke of the need for gender responsive policies, affordable care policies, the elimination of violence and the extension of labour and social protection to female dominated sectors. Using the example of the consistent and systematic policy making in Mauritius, she spoke of the transformative power of social protection that has transformed basic social security, social stability, the workplace and economy.
"Expenditure in education is not an expense, it is an investment." - Dr (Mrs) Ameenah Gurib-Fakim
Author of the paper, Elizabeth Stuart is head of the Growth, Poverty and Inequality Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) and leads the Institute's work on the Sustainable Development Goals, with a focus on the 'leave no one behind' agenda. As highlighted by the paper, she reinforced the situation that for many workers within the informal economy the position of 'formal jobs, a secure contract and decent wages' is not the starting point. Which raises the question; how can wages and productivity be increased in the informal economy?
"To be clear, this paper does not argue for diluting hard-won rights to protections and to organise in the context of the formal economy and decent work. Instead, it proposes a more pragmatic and less binary approach to labour market policies, whereby at least some of those rights, as well as supports such as access to credit, are extended to the lower reaches of the informal workforce. It should be stressed that these rights and benefits can only truly transform workers' experiences if they are delivered as part of the process of addressing wider structural barriers, such as gender and caste-based discrimination and exclusionary growth patterns."
Dr Louise Fox, USAID’s Chief Economist, who joined the panel via video call from the US, emphasised that little is known about the informal economy due to the prejudice of formal work being seen as 'the only work that matters.' She praised the fact that pragmatism is finally reaching researchers and policy makers in this space, after talking about it for decades. She stressed the importance that solutions to these problems cannot be top down and the need to build and support collective structures for collective actions and voices. She bought attention to the need to interview the people involved to find out what they actually want to the need to provide training as well as the role of urban planning and policy in order to secure access to workplaces.
Proving the power of authentic voices speaking from experience and heartfelt action was Myrtle Witbooi, a South African labour activist, currently serveing as the General secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and President of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). She spoke of her work with the IDWF, and how for the first time domestic workers were able to speak for themselves with respect and dignity. She raised some challenging questions; how do we make domestic workers be seen as human beings? and although it is nice to listen to us, and nice to talk about us, what are you going to do to help? This encouraged questions and reflections on the role of technology, education and training to empower workers to act for their rights and improve their situations.
The video and audio recordings of the full panel can be found on the ODI website.