Addressing risks facing informal workers

IIED and partners assessed the occupational, environmental and public health risks faced by workers in the informal economy. This project also explored responses to these risks with workers in India and Zimbabwe, while helping to build their resilience to climate change.

April 2018 - June 2022
Urban health equity
Multifaceted partnerships to promote the social, environmental and political determinants of urban health
Home workers making bouquets (Photo: Siddharth Agarwal/UHRC)

Home workers making bouquets (Photo: Siddharth Agarwal/UHRC)

Informal settlements in urban areas are often sites of dynamic economic activity, but there is limited understanding of the multiple health risks faced by people working in informal settlements and others working in the informal economy. This project examined the multiple health risks facing informal workers, and we partnered with workers to develop effective, inclusive responses in India and Zimbabwe.  


Throughout the global South, a vibrant informal economy contributes significantly to economic growth and urban livelihoods. But informal workers lack key protections: working conditions are often poor and unregulated, while occupational health and safety is overlooked.

Informal workers tend to have lower incomes and less training than formal workers, as well as more limited access to healthcare and protective equipment. Although comprising most of the labour force in Indian and African cities, informal workers usually remain invisible to policymakers and are rarely included in health or urban development strategies. 

In addition, many informal settlements are located on poor-quality land and lack adequate shelter or infrastructure, making residents and workers more vulnerable to climate change impacts such as extreme heat, storms or flooding.

What did IIED do?

This project assessed and responded to the complex occupational health and safety risks of informal workers in Zimbabwe and India.


In Zimbabwe, an estimated 66% of women and 43% of men in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment. We will partner with the Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC), a non-profit organisation that conducts action-research and capacity-building activities on public health.

TARSC has well-established links with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), a membership organisation representing Zimbabwe's informal workers. ZCIEA has 265 chapters with a total membership of 198,466 workers. 

We carried out participatory action research with researchers and workers in the cities of Harare and Masvingo. The analysis focused on three themes: waste collection and recycling, urban agriculture and food selling, and water access.


In India, we worked with the Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC), a non-profit organisation that works closely with residents of informal settlements to promote health and nutrition. UHRC has provided technical support on health and nutrition to local, state and national officials as well as NGOs. 

We carried out research in Indore, a city of 2m people and Madhya Pradesh's commercial capital. Although Indore is a successful industrial hub, many residents have precarious informal livelihoods and half the population lives in slums. The city is in a drought-prone area and faces severe water stress. Our research focused on informal workers working in factories, street vending, construction, brick kilns, and home-based workers as well as their family members. 

UHRC has strong links to women’s groups in Indore’s informal settlements, and these groups helped to implement our action-research, outreach and advocacy activities.

Research focus

IIED and partners began with a wide-ranging literature review to draw together what is known about occupational health and safety within the informal economy. This was followed by community-based and participatory action research to assess informal workers’ key health determinants and health outcomes. This also explored how these will or may be influenced by current and projected impacts of climate change. 

Research questions:

  1. What are the key health determinants and health outcomes for informal workers and those living in informal settlements?
  2. What is the interaction between these in relation to public health, occupational health and environmental health?
  3. How do the current and projected impacts of climate change affect this interaction?
  4. What approaches are being used by informal workers to mitigate risks and enhance benefits?

These findings were used to develop worker-led initiatives to address risks, strengthen assets and promote public, environmental and occupational health, while also enhancing their resilience to climate change. We engaged regularly with local authorities, community representatives, and other stakeholders to develop strategies for improving workers’ health and livelihoods.

Our recommendations were shared widely with government officials, interdisciplinary researchers and urban practitioners in the global South and global North.  

Our findings, advocacy and capacity-building activities sought to ensure that informal workers can thrive even in the face of occupational, climate-related and environmental health risks.

In June 2022 three case studies were published focusing on:

Additional resources

Understanding the interplay of occupational, public health, and climate-related risks for informal workers: A new framework with findings from Zimbabwe and India, Alice Sverdlik, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Artwell Kadungure, Siddharth Agarwal, Rangarirai Machemedze, Shabnam Verma, Rene Loewenson (2024), Social Science & Medicine Vol 348 

Climate change and informal workers: towards an agenda for research and practice, David Dodman, Alice Sverdlik, Siddharth Agarwal, Artwell Kadungure, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Rangarirai Machemedze, Shabnam Verma (2023), Urban Climate Volume 48 

Towards climate change resilience and informal workers’ health in Zimbabwe: an action-research case study, Artwell Kadungure, Rangarirai Machemedze, Wisborn Malaya, Nathan Banda, Rene Loewenson, Alice Sverdlik (2022), Cities & Health Volume 7, 2023 - Issue 6

Climate change and informal workers: towards an agenda for research and practice, David Dodman, Alice Sverdlik, Siddharth Agarwald, Artwell Kadungure, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Rangarirai Machemedze, Shabnam Vermad (2023), Urban Climate, Volume 48, 101401

Video: Climate change, health and informal workers – urban challenges and responses from India and Zimbabwe (June 2022)

Propelling virtuous and breaking vicious cycles: responding to health and climate risks for informal residents and workers in two areas of Zimbabwe (PDF), TARSC, ZCTU, ZCIEA (2021), TARSC, Zimbabwe

Climate change, health and well-being for cities and informal settlements: a panel discussion with Siddharth Agarwal (UHRC), Sari Kovats (LSHTM), and David Satterthwaite (IIED), audio recording (80 minutes) 


National Institute for Health Researc (NIHR)

This research was commissioned by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Global Health Research Group using UK aid from the UK Government. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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