Exchanging Experiences, Expanding Opportunities

The New Urban Agenda must prompt planners to recognize informal labour

File Created On:
February, 2016

Urban informal workers represent the broad base of the urban economy in most developing countries. On average, these account for well over half of the urban workforce and, where estimates are available, over a quarter of gross domestic product in these countries. And yet the activities — the livelihoods — of these workers remain almost entirely unrecognized, valued or taken into account in urban planning or local economic development.

If urban poverty, inequality and unemployment are to be reduced, urban informal workers, especially the working poor, needs to be recognized, valued and supported as economic agents who contribute to the economy and to society. No amount of social or financial inclusion can make up for their exclusion from city plans and economic policies.

Consider three groups of urban working poor who, together with domestic, construction and transport workers, constitute the majority of the urban informal workforce. First, home-based workers produce a wide variety of goods and services, including garments and textiles, craft items and prepared food, as well as electronic goods and automobile parts. Yet most do not have secure tenure or basic infrastructure services to make their homes into productive workplaces. Further, many face the threat of eviction and relocation.

Second, street vendors provide easy access to a wide range of goods and services. These include anything from fresh fruits and vegetables to building materials, garments and crafts to consumer electronics, prepared food to auto parts and repairs. They buy goods from both formal and informal suppliers and pay for services provided by porters, security guards, transport operators and others.

Many street vendors also pay fees for licenses, permits for the use of public space, creating revenue for local governments. Yet most lack a fixed and secure vending site. Most also face harassment from local authorities on a regular, even daily, basis — including demands for bribes, arbitrary confiscations of merchandise and physical abuse. And again, many face the risk of eviction.

Third, waste pickers collect, sort and recycle waste. In so doing, they help to clean city streets and reduce carbon emissions. Yet they typically go unrecognized for their services, are often denied access to waste — the basis of their livelihood — and are not allowed to bid for solid-waste-management contracts.

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