Slow recovery of the informal economy still costing many livelihoods

The informal economy has been hardest hit by the pandemic and the lockdown. Archive photo by Lilita Gcwabe

The informal economy workers are one of the group of workers who are bearing the brunt of the pandemic as some have lost their livelihoods.

Although the lockdown regulations have been eased to level 1, workers in the informal economy say that the road to recovery for workers in the sector is still going to be long and difficult.

Street and market traders, home-based workers, waste-pickers and community care workers make up some of the 5-million workers in the informal economy.

The level 5 lockdown meant that people could only leave their homes for the purpose of performing an essential service or to purchase and collect essential goods. This was inclusive of the informal workers in the health, security and transport sectors but left out informal traders who sell uncooked food, and waste-pickers who were not declared as essential service providers. For informal workers who depend on the income they make on a daily basis to survive, this meant that they were locked out of their livelihoods and a means to provide for their families.

Gift Kenamu (31) is a Malawian-born African who sells colourful African paintings in Green Market Square. Kenamu says that his life during the lockdown was miserable because on most days, he did not know how he’d survive: “I live because I trade. Once they closed the market, there was no life for me. I would sit at home, with no food, no money for rent, and there was no support that was being given to me.” Although the country’s borders for international leisure visitors have been opened, with 57 of the most popular countries to visit SA identified by the government as covid-19 hotspots, it will take time before traders recover. “Our storages are full of stock that will take months to sell. For some there hasn’t been any business since we opened and for others its been slow; we don’t even see tourists coming here anymore,” says Kenamu.

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President of the South African Informal Traders Alliance (SAITA), Rosheda Muller, says that their goals in their engagements with government during the lockdown, were to call for “the funds from the UIF surplus, and from large events that have been cancelled, and other sources, [to be redirected to] establish a living cash grant to all informal workers, regardless of their nationality,” and for the protection of informal traders who commonly work in vulnerable areas that expose them to contracting the virus.

Muller noted that till this day, informal workers receive no grant or support to hold on to their livelihoods or personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitisers from government. Informal traders, however, are among the most in need of support: “People don’t go into informal trading by desire but by desperation, which is why we find that there are more women in informal work than men, as women are the ones who have to make sure the children don’t go to sleep hungry.”

One of the heavier burdens of the lockdown that women in the informal economy had to bare was the widened gender gap in earnings between February, before the lockdown, and in April, during the first month of level 5. According to the Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey 2020 (CRAM) conducted by Michael Rogan and Caroline Skinner, women in the informal economy saw a decrease of 49% in the typical hours that they were used to working, while men saw a 25% decrease. For women in informal self-employment, typical earnings decreased by nearly 70% between February and April.

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Jolie Kazadi (42) who sells second-hand African clothes at the market located in Parade says that she survived the lockdown by the grace of God because she had no help, aside from food donations from a church and handouts from people walking past her stall. She says she is concerned that she will not be able to recover: “Business has not been good since we opened in June because people say they don’t have money. Whatever small money they have, they go and buy food. I don’t know if things will get better even in this level 1. Most of the businesses have closed and people have lost their jobs. If they are not working, where will they get money to buy something?”  

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