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Social assistance and livelihood promotion for informal women workers

FarmingWomen’s entry into the labour market in response to economic crises and men’s falling wages does not necessarily lead to their economic empowerment. Economies are not generating enough secure jobs and the deregulation of labour policies allows employers to pay low wages and opt out of basic social insurance schemes such as paid leave, maternity benefits and health insurance. Export processing industries depend on paying women less than men to raise their profit margins. The combination of low wages and lack of social security benefits even in large export processing sectors means many women workers need social assistance, universal health coverage and access to quality public services. Increasing rates of migration amongst women workers call for more research and careful policy design on the portability of social protection benefits across rural and urban areas within the same country, and between countries. Social protection programmes can help to make migration a more empowering experience for women both in the host country and upon their return.

Social protection for informal workers can address the vulnerability women face regarding their work. Social assistance through cash transfers can supplement low wages, while universal health coverage can provide women with the maternity benefits they cannot receive from their employer, or do not receive because they are self-employed. Social protection should also extend to compensation for work-related accidents and diseases, occupational health and safety. Women are found in the most precarious forms of informal work in urban areas such as street and market vendors, waste pickers, homebased workers, domestic workers, subcontracted cleaners and unpaid or low paid agricultural labourers. Social protection programmes can integrate health compensation for workers who are self-employed or work for an employer in the informal sector.

Amongst the most vulnerable workers are women engaged in unpaid agricultural work. Specific social protection schemes such as cash transfers and micro-insurance mechanisms can mitigate women’s lack of access to natural resources and income in the face of bad harvests, natural disasters and food insecurity. Cash transfers can stimulate demand and help to build rural markets, while input subsidies for fertilizers and seeds can buffer the costs of production for women farmers.

Public employment programmes can also be a way to guarantee access to a minimum income and employment particularly in rural areas where paid work available to women is scarce. In order to lead to women’s empowerment such programmes need to consider women’s specific needs both as workers and primary care providers in their own home. Public work schemes have tended to have a male gender bias, but this can be addressed by including less physically demanding work, regulating working hours, providing employment opportunities close to women’s homes, and providing childcare facilities as part of these programmes.

Women’s disproportionate responsibility for childcare can be addressed through the provision of quality childcare services for informal workers and augment the benefits of cash transfers for children. These forms of social assistance and public service provision are supported in commitments made by governments at the ILO and through the Global Goals. For instance, one of the targets under Goal 5 on gender equality highlights social protection as a specific tool to recognise women’s unequal responsibility for unpaid care work.

Yet, social protection can only address some of the challenges informal women workers face. Labour legislation that guarantee a minimum wage, equal wages for work of equal value, and freedom of association for trade unions and workers’ associations coupled with quality public services are also needed to bring about women’s economic empowerment.

Recommended reading

The informal economy and decent work: a policy resource guide supporting transitions to formality
International Labour Organization 2013
This is a policy resource guide developed to build the capacities of ILO constituents in approaches that facilitate transitions to formality. Previous work has shown that the move out of informality requires approaches that are target...
Migration and social protection: a concept paper
R. Sabates-Wheeler; M. Waite / Development Research Centre on Migration, Globalisation and Poverty, University of Sussex 2003
This paper presents a theoretical and empirical framework in which to understand the relationships between vulnerability, migration and social protection. It examines social protection concerns as emerging at all stages of a migration...
Occupational health and safety and the poorest
F. Lund; A. Marriot / Women in Informal Employment Globalizing and Organizing 2011
This report addresses the role of employment in efforts to reduce poverty in the context of increased globalisation and its impacts on labour markets. Worldwide, countries are experiencing a decline of jobs with secure and lasting con...
Issues in labour market inequality and women’s participation in India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme
S. Dasgupta; R. M. Sudarsham / International Labour Organization 2011
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee (MGNREGP or NREGP), functions as an income supplement for poor households by providing 100 days of work to a rural household, with 33 per cent of all workdays reserved for women w...
How do social protection and labour programmes contribute to social inclusion? Evidence from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Nepal
B. Babajanian; J. Hagen-Zanker; R. Holmes / Overseas Development Institute 2014
Today, the positive effects of social protection and labour programmes on core dimensions of well- being such as food consumption and access to health and education are well-recognised. However, less is known about the ability of thes...
Social protection for domestic workers: key policy trends and statistics
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This working paper examines the global situation of social security provisions for domestic workers in 163 countries, analysing trends, policies and gaps in terms of legal and effective social security coverage for domestic worke...
Gender inequality, risk and vulnerability in the rural economy: refocusing the public works agenda to take account of economic and social risks
R. Holmes; N. Jones / Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2011
Although the gender-specific challenges of women’s largely unequal involvement in agricultural activities are generally well-articulated, social protection policy and programming have not adequately recognised the gendered exper...
Empowering rural women through social protection
A.P. de la O Campos / Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2015
This paper reviews evidence on the most widely-used social protection schemes, assessing the extent of their current and potential impact on women’s economic empowerment and, where possible, the programme design characteristics ...