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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
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