Building resilient cities with the resilience of informal workers
Guest blogger Sonia Dias states the case for an approach to urban resilience that puts informal workers front and centre. This includes a key role in the transformative system changes needed to tackle the impacts of climate change on the cities of the global South – and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Creating resilient urban economies and cities as drivers of growth and recovery is the focus of this year’s Urban October. With most of the world’s workers informally employed and with cities having to grapple with the impacts of the climate crisis, this theme highlights the need to embrace economic diversity, climate justice for these workers and rights to the city as a pathway to resilience.
Through its research and advocacy work over the past 25 years the global research policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), has called for the embracing of economic diversity in cities. For us and our membership-based organisations, urban economies should allow workers in informal employment to operate alongside those in the formal sector.
WIEGO focuses on the concrete reality of the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy and seeks to integrate an informed understanding of this reality into mainstream development thinking, urban policies and institutions.
Recognising street vendors, domestic workers, home-based workers and waste pickers by acknowledging their key role in urban economies and their co-production of urban plans, will help create cleaner, greener, socially responsive, vibrant, and ultimately resilient cities.
Reclaiming rights to the city
The most recent roadmap for climate justice, Right to the City (PDF), can serve as a guideline towards resilient cities. A previous version, ‘Right to the City (No 7)’, envisions cities with diverse and inclusive economies that “safeguard and ensure access to secure livelihoods and decent work for all inhabitants”.
The latest paper calls for a sustainable city with inclusive rural-urban linkages that benefit poor people, and ensures food sovereignty, and “protects biodiversity, natural habitats, and surrounding ecosystems”.
Together with membership-based organisations of informal workers, WIEGO argues for an inclusive approach to the informal economy with a set of principles:
- Recognition that most informal activities are legitimate efforts by the urban poor to forge their livelihoods in often hostile policy environments
- Recognition of the rights of workers in informal employment to public resources and services
- Regulations that enable access to public space and natural resources for informal livelihood activities
- Extension of the right to bid for government procurement contracts to organisations of workers in informal employment
- Provision of basic infrastructure and transport services in informal settlements and informal workplaces
- Research, documentation and statistics on the size, composition and contribution of the informal economy, and
- Recognition of the rights of workers in informal employment to have a seat at the policy table.
Hard-won, official recognition
Informed by an understanding that global agendas should be translated into policy work at the grassroots level, membership-based organisations of waste pickers have been demanding their integration as service providers for ‘segregation@source’ waste collection in many cities of the global South. They advocate for legal frameworks at country, subnational and local levels that recognise their rights to work.
The Rights to the City agenda can be a guideline for workers to address rights to work, agree fair contracts and for their role as environmental stewards and climate change frontliners to be officially acknowledged.
Cities like Pune, India, where SWaCH cooperative has won the right to provide door-to-door waste collection and charge residents for collection services, to Bogotá, Colombia, where the Asociación Cooperativa de Recicladores de Bogotá (ARB) has successfully managed to get the city to authorise a payment system enshrined in constitutional law, demonstrate how this agenda can work in practice.
The ability of cities to withstand shocks and crises is predicated by the ability of communities, informal settlements and different sectors of the economy – including informal ones – to prepare, react, resist and bounce back. Recognition and strengthening of informal economies may be a key way to increase urban resilience.
As our planet battles unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes and floods, there is an increasing call for systems transformation. Cities are major contributors to global climate change, but also have a unique capacity to face the challenges it brings.
Given the magnitude of the climate emergency, international organisations, and national and local governments need to know how workers in informal employment are affected by extreme weather events so that they can formulate public policies to support these workers, including informal waste pickers.
With this in mind WIEGO mapped the impacts of climate change on waste pickers across Brazil. We identified the perceptions of climate change among waste picker cooperatives and autonomous waste pickers, mapped the impacts of extreme weather events on their work and identified their coping strategies, needs and support networks.
This research aimed not only at highlighting the importance of documenting climate change impacts on waste pickers, but of rethinking urban development’s paradigms to increase resilience. Cities have a unique opportunity to shape a just transition from national to global level if they build from what waste pickers already do, and factor in their sector-specific demands in climate change adaptation plans.
The findings of the study will be released in November, but early results confirm the premise that building waste pickers’ resilience to climate change will increase cities’ resilience.
It has already been established that they play an important role in climate change mitigation. Waste pickers reclaim and recycle waste for raw materials and packing materials – contributing to a reduction in carbon emissions. Their work diverts more than half of plastics to recycling, and recycling reduces emissions 25 times more than incineration.
Central and critical role
Informal waste pickers supply most or all solid waste collection in many cities in developing countries, with low costs to the municipal budget. By incorporating them into modern solid waste management systems, urban planners would save cities money and support environmental improvements, while securing the livelihoods of some of the world’s poorest workers.
See for instance the work of the Zabbaleen in community-led waste management at scale in Cairo providing an essential service achieving record recycling rates at no cost to the government.
Fundamental systemic changes are urgently needed to enable the: “redistribution of resources and opportunities, the fulfilment of human rights and ensuring climate and environmental justice” (PDF).
We are confronted now more than ever with the imperative to move to new economic models. This transition will entail several technical, financial, technological and institutional challenges.
But it also means a political and ethical challenge that calls for careful consideration: how can the livelihoods of workers in informal employment be appropriately integrated into a new system? It will be at the level of cities that this will ultimately happen.
So it is, in this Urban October, we call for the rights to the city for all informal workers.