Urban thinkers look at the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on informal workers and small businesses

Urban thinkers look at the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on informal workers and small businesses

Nairobi, 21 May 2020  

A webinar looking at the wage gap, social security and small business during pandemics gathered over 90 participants in a lively debate with experts as part of the COVID-19 Urban Thinkers Campus Series session organized by the World Urban Campaign with ActionAid India and Smartly.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit 2 billion informal workers worldwide as countries lock down and restrict movement. There has also been a large exodus of workers from cities. In India, forty million unemployed people are returning home and 120 million have lost their jobs, reported Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director at ActionAid India, an NGO engaged in the COVID-19 crisis response for vulnerable communities by ensuring food security and public health and re-building people’s livelihood.

Tikender Singh Panwar, Convenor of the National Coalition for Inclusive Sustainable Urbanisation (NCU), India, explained that the current situation reflects our incapacity to address massive inequalities. This is the result of several decades of inadequate policies, he said adding that local governments have not been sufficiently empowered.  

“The pandemic has revealed the inadequacy of our regulatory frameworks, particularly in cities,” said Mr Panwar. The current informality has exposed millions of workers who no longer have any  bargaining power. He called for a shift in policy responses at all levels to protect workers and enterprises, particularly smaller businesses and those operating in the informal economy.

Winslow Sargeant, President Elect of the International Council for Small Business, USA, pointed out that front-line workers often do not have decent wages to face daily expenses despite their critical role in maintaining economic stability. He underlined the lack of safety nets in case of job loss and the steep gender wage gaps. The COVID-19 crisis he said  undermines the earnings and economic stability of women and people of certain backgrounds with cascading effects on families.

In some countries, micro and small enterprises have experienced a larger decline in businesses activity than medium and large firms as they had to stop working because they could not implement preventative health measures for customers. Florence Nisabwe explained how Lance d'Afrique, an NGO working in Burundi and South Africa, is training women in new lines of work such as creative industries.

For Analia Pastran, Founder of Smartly Social Enterprise on the Sustainable Development Goals, there is a need to invest in green jobs in the future, and those that are likely to address the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They will be the most relevant and the most sustainable jobs and less likely to be affected by pandemic events as they will be contributing to long term development objectives, she stated.

Panelists recommended that policy and regulatory frameworks should be revisited to address the wage gaps, safety nets and the sustainability of small business. Participants also raised the importance of flexible, targeted financing mechanisms and microfinance to support the millions of workers and entrepreneurs who are suffering the effects of the current pandemic.

This campus was the eighth of its kind in a series of online webinars which are continuing throughout May to discuss current actions on the ground in different contexts, analyze good practices and solutions, extract lessons from the crisis and make recommendations for building resilience. For more information and to register go to https://www.worldurbancampaign.org/urban-thinkers-campus


Article by Christine Auclair, UN-Habitat

Photo Credits: kellysikkema (CC)