From risks to resilience for informal workers – part one

Informal employment plays a huge role in India’s urban areas, so a greater understanding of the health and wellbeing of workers is of paramount importance – not only to them and their families – but to the wider economy. Guest bloggers Siddharth Agarwal and Kanupriya Kothiwal summarise the findings of a detailed research project in the city of Indore, India, in this first of three blogs.

Siddharth Agarwal's picture Kanupriya Kothiwal's picture
Siddharth Agarwal is director; and Kanupriya Kothiwal is research associate at the Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC)
07 February 2023
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
Woman wearing a face mask sits on the floor and handles tools

Female factory worker cutting plastic in a factory (Photo: copyright Urban Health Resource Centre)

Informal workers living in slums and informal settlements are confronted with multiple risks linked to public and occupational health, climate change and exclusion from social benefits. Women informal workers face additional burdens. COVID-19 lockdown in India further aggravated these risks and its impact continues to be felt. So publishing these research findings, which include practical measures which could be adopted in other cities to promote resilience, was timely and productive.

Some background

The Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC) has been mentoring slum-based women’s groups in Indore since 2004-2005 on varied challenges of urban health. As an NGO the UHRC did not just limit itself to data collection, but also implemented feasible solutions within the timeframe of this project. These solutions have wider implications for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); specifically, SDG 8 (economic growth), SDG 11 (sustainable cities) and SDG 13 (climate action).

We conducted our study in Indore, the economic capital of Madhya Pradesh, which is also a programme site of UHRC’s operations. Being a commercial and industrial centre, Indore attracts many informal workers, who now account for most of its workforce.

Informal workers’ occupational hazards, deficient access to health care, low-quality housing, neighbourhood conditions, exposure to climate change impacts, access to social benefits and COVID-19 impacts were explored in the course of 90 qualitative interviews.

Our sample included: women and men working informally in factories; women making goods such as clothes at home; domestic workers who cook and/or clean in higher-income neighbourhoods; street vendors (selling vegetables, fruits, spices, jewellery and household items); construction workers; and daily-wage casual labourers.

What did we learn?

Occupational health

Construction and factory workers were vulnerable to injuries caused by sharp implements and machines. On construction sites, falls were common, particularly during the rainy season. Few workers received first aid for occupational injuries – this being dependent on their employer’s or manager’s goodwill. Musculoskeletal pain was common among women workers, particularly those with a history of several pregnancies. Many home-based workers had inadequate space and insufficient light, especially in rented houses.

Women informal workers were relegated to less skilled work, and consequently received lower wages than men. In factories they often packed items, or cut plastic, in comparison to men who operated machines or became supervisors. Women also reported carrying the main burden of household and care responsibilities, in addition to their economic roles.

Access to healthcare

Few workers had the knowledge or the negotiation ability to access affordable quality healthcare, usually attending low-cost private clinics for injuries and minor ailments. Since these clinics are within or near their informal settlements and operate late evenings, workers prefer them as they can be seen outside working hours. For more serious conditions (such as major injury, surgery and maternity care) some are forced to use expensive private hospitals, resulting in debt traps.

A few workers reported using government hospitals and felt confident in navigating the bureaucratic system. These ‘positive deviant’ families in the study were aware of the benefits of obtaining good quality and affordable care at large government and low-cost charitable hospitals.

Access to social benefits

Workers faced difficulty in obtaining the official documents and therefore the social benefits intended to cushion them against extreme hardship. Nearly a quarter of interviewees did not have the universal identification document (Aadhaar card) they needed to claim many social services. Similarly, nearly half did not have the informal-sector labour card required to get a ‘ration card’ which then entitles families to subsidised food through the public distribution system.

Changes in procedures, administrative delays, applications rejected for minor gaps in information or documentation, and problems with biometric or mobile phone text message authentication contributed to low access to social benefits (this is covered in more detail in part two of these blogs).

Climate change and living environment

Climate change is exacerbating many challenges, like erratic rainfall (with more intense downpours), more frequent and hotter heatwaves, and water scarcity. These come on top of existing deficiencies in infrastructure and services in informal settlements.

Climate change is elevating temperatures markedly both at work and at home, where the hot air interacts with indoor air pollution in single rooms without separate cooking spaces. Unreliable water supplies are making good hygiene harder, and collecting clean water consumes productive hours, affecting livelihoods – especially for women. At other times, downpours make living conditions damp, damage houses and exacerbate illness associated with poor sanitation.

COVID-19 impacts

The pandemic aggravated food insecurity and impacted livelihoods, children’s education and health services. Most informal workers lost their regular work during India’s lockdown. Factories shut, domestic workers were sent home, home-based workers could not collect or deliver their materials, and vendors lost their customers. Many workers returned to their native villages.

Supporting resilience

Our work also uncovered several examples of resilience amongst informal workers and residents of informal settlements. Incrementally improving their housing brick-by-brick (including creating underground water storage) is an established strategy to adapt to climate change.

We held community-level workshops to share other positive experiences and promote effective action, at both individual and collective levels. We supported communities to collectively request water connections from municipal authorities.

The report covers the practicalities and results from these strategies which can be capitalised to realise SDGs. This implementation phase to build resilience in informal settlements is explored further in the third and final blog in the series.

  • Download the report that contains detailed coverage of the various risks and coping mechanisms adopted by workers.

This is the first of a three-part blog about understanding the risks faced by informal workers and the strategies adopted by them. The second blog focused on informal workers’ challenges in accessing social benefits, and the third blog described some key interventions implemented to meet workers’ priorities.

With thanks to David Satterthwaite for his valuable input.