The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

Urban women organizing in the informal economy

Over the next few weeks, The Global Urbanist, in collaboration with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), will publish six photo essays that take us inside the daily lives of women, ranging from street hawkers to hairdressers, working in the informal economy. Reporting from Ahmedabad, Bangkok, Accra, Johannesburg, Lima and Bogota will highlight the daily challenges they face and the ways in which they are organizing to demand their rights as workers.

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing

Cities: Ahmedabad, Bangkok, Bogotá, Lima, Accra, Johannesburg

Topics: City networks, Urban economics, Informal economy, Local economic development, Labour and livelihoods, Community organisation, Poverty and inequality, Gender, Informal settlements, Divided cities

Today, over half of non-agricultural workers in most developing countries – over three quarters in some – work in the informal economy. These workers clean people’s homes, sell vegetables at local markets and collect household and municipal waste. Their services help their cities function and are often essential to families struggling to stay out of extreme poverty. But they are also ignored and marginalized. National governments often don’t count them in employment data. They are evicted from growing slum areas, even as many cannot afford a home elsewhere, and often work without reliable water, electricity and other basic services. 

We’ll explore how home-based cooks, seamstresses and other workers in Ahmedabad struggle to labor in the face of leaking roofs, irregular electricity and other problems related to their housing in informal settlements; how waste pickers in Bogota, who collect and recycle the city’s trash, struggle to be recognized and remunerated for their civic and environmental contributions; and how street vendors in Lima face issues with authorities who see them as a problem and cut them out of urban development plans. In addition to exploring such barriers, each essay examines how informal workers have taken inspiring steps to band together and influence change.

Come October, informal workers will be present at the UN’s Habitat III conference in Quito to speak for their needs themselves in the hopes that local, national and international bodies take real and meaningful steps in creating more inclusive cities for all. It is a prime opportunity for global leaders, who will convene there to agree on a roadmap for our urban future, to include informal workers in urban and economic planning and to address the institutional barriers faced by the working poor.


> In the first photo essayCarlin Carr introduces members of the Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) in Ahmedabad. The organisation has been supporting informal workers to gain greater visibility and improve their working conditions. 

>In the second photo essayLeslie Vryenhoek discusses the lives of domestic workers in South Africa, where they make up a significant portion of the urban labour force. She finds that, while a growing movement to organise domestic workers and secure their labour rights has led to some improvements, many employed in the sector still face injustices and abuses.

> In the third photo essayCarlin Carr explores how workers in Bangkok’s informal economy came together in a collective movement to advocate for their labour rights, even playing a role in influencing the Thai government's decision to roll out universal health coverage, with the support of an organization called HomeNet.


Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) is a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.