Addressing risks facing informal workers

April 2018 - ongoing

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

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 will examine the multiple health risks facing informal workers, and we will partner 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 is IIED doing?

This project will assess and respond 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 will undertake participatory action research with researchers and workers in the cities of Harare and Masvingo. The analysis will focus on three themes: waste collection and recycling, urban agriculture and food selling, and water access.


In India, we are working 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 will undertake 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 will focus 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 will help to implement our action-research, outreach and advocacy activities.

Research focus

IIED and partners are beginning with a wide-ranging literature review to draw together what is known about occupational health and safety within the informal economy. This will be followed by community-based and participatory action research to assess informal workers’ key health determinants and health outcomes. This will also explore 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 will be 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 will engage regularly with local authorities, community representatives, and other stakeholders to develop strategies for improving workers’ health and livelihoods.

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

Our findings, advocacy and capacity-building activities all seek 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:


Prioritising action on health and climate resilience for informal workers, Siddarth Agarwal, Nathan Banda, David Dodman, Artwell Kadungure, Kanupriya Kothiwal, Rangarirai Machemedze, Wisborn Malaya, Alice Sverdlik, Shabnam Verma (2022), IIED briefing paper

Additional resources

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 Research

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.

NIHR, UK Aid logos



Training and Research Support Centre (TARSC)

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)

Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA)

Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC)

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