Social protection must be extended to millions of informal workers

* All opinions expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Informal workers tend to be those most in need of social protection, yet they are among the groups most likely to be left behind.

Olivier De Schutter is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights

Worldwide, more than 60% of workers – some two billion people – live in the informal economy: street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers and countless others. There, they are exposed to high risks of poverty, marginalization, insecurity and often shockingly dangerous working conditions.

But in a disturbing paradox, they are significantly less protected by social safety nets than their counterparts in the formal economy.

Informal workers tend to be those most in need of social protection – largely due to their income insecurity and exposure to hazardous work – yet they are among the groups most likely to be left behind. for account.

They are often completely excluded from social protection schemes, like Franciszek, in Poland, who was hired informally: “I don’t have insurance, I have no rights”.

Or Juan, in Argentina, who had an informal job and therefore could not benefit from health insurance: “If I had had an accident at work, I would not have been insured. Much of my income went to pay for private health care.

Informal workers are rarely covered by social insurance schemes because their jobs are not declared to the authorities and neither they nor their employer pay social contributions; no wonder given that these schemes were designed for workers with stable jobs, regular wages and long-term contracts – the reality for only a minority of workers worldwide.

At the same time, informal workers also tend to be excluded from poverty-targeted social assistance programs because they are not considered “vulnerable enough”.

Excluded from the two social insurances and welfare, informal workers are what is often called “the missing link”.

Even when they are theoretically covered by social protection schemes, many informal workers are regularly deprived of the advantages put in place to protect them; a phenomenon known as ‘non-recourse’ and the subject of my report to the United Nations Human Rights Council this week.

Not knowing that benefits exist or how to apply for them, along with complex application processes, can be the main reasons why individuals do not apply for benefits that are rightfully theirs.

Non-use is also compounded by literacy issues and an individual’s level of education.

Since workers with little or no education are more likely to work in the informal economy, they run an increased risk of non-take-up. They may also fear having to pay back taxes and social contributions if they apply for certain benefits, so they prefer to remain invisible, “under the radar”.

We know how to meet this challenge. Beyond extending social protection schemes to informal workers and, at the same time, encouraging formalization, some measures have proven effective in reducing non-use of social protection by informal workers.

The first is – quite simply – the provision of information. Informal workers, like other beneficiaries of social protection systems, need clear information on the availability of the benefits to which they are entitled.

Sending targeted information to potentially eligible households, or large-scale information campaigns specifically targeting vulnerable groups, have proven effective in increasing uptake over time.

Information should take into account different levels of literacy and be available in several languages. No one should be excluded from social protection because they have not been informed of their rights.

Second, application procedures need to be made more accessible to workers in the informal economy.

Given that people living in rural areas are twice as likely to be in informal employment as those living in urban areas, physical access to social welfare offices should be facilitated, avoiding the need to walk long distances and forfeit income in the process.

In Brazil, buses and boats have been transformed into mobile agencies to identify and contact potential beneficiaries of the country’s rural pension scheme, offer information and registration and, in some cases, collect contributions and provide benefits and services.

Third, informal workers should be protected from retaliation or other harmful consequences that they may face when trying to access their rights.

Firewalls should be built in to prevent social services from transferring data to labor inspectorates or law enforcement. And, if issues related to working conditions are reported to labor inspectorates, such as violations of occupational health and safety regulations, this should not lead to adverse consequences for the worker.

This would ensure that claiming one or more social protection benefits would not put informal workers at risk of having to pay back taxes and social contributions, or of being fired. Only by alleviating these fears can the non-use of rights by informal workers be overcome.

By seeking to integrate informal workers into social protection systems, improving their access to information, simplifying administrative procedures and protecting them from possible reprisals, governments can improve social protection coverage for millions of workers. informal currently being left behind. This is how they can deliver on their promise to provide social protection for all.

Joel C. Hicks