COVID-19 impact on informal workers in Warwick Junction

Asiye eTafuleni (AeT) has spent the last 12 years enhancing the lives of informal workers, with a particular focus on the 8000 informal workers who sustain their livelihoods in Warwick Junction, Durban’s main transport hub. At the best of times, these informal workers are a vulnerable population group. Many of Warwick Junction’s informal workers live day-to-day off meagre earnings, are subjected to police harassment and are treated with hostility by the government. The informal markets within and between which they work are neglected; running water is often very difficult to come by, waste removal happens infrequently, infrastructure issues are often left unfixed for months on end. Furthermore, as informal workers, they have no access to the social protection measures that those who are formally employed are entitled to. For all of the above-mentioned reasons informal workers suffered greatly during the nationwide lock-down and even upon the reopening of most of the economy on June 1st 2020, there are still a vast number of challenges that they are facing. AeT has committed itself to working alongside informal workers, towards a ‘new normal’ wherein they are able to protect their health, sustain their livelihoods and enjoy the rights which they are entitled to as working citizens.

For more information read
Impacts of Coronavirus: An uncertain future for informal workers
Impacts of Coronavirus: Evolving challenges faced by informal workers
Workers’ Lives: A WIEGO Publication Series that profiles individual workers, putting a face to the realities of informal employment 
Impact of the pandemic on informal workers in Durban: Stories from the street

AeTs initial response

In mid-march 2020, when the threat of the coronavirus in South Africa became more apparent, AeT responded to the immediate health and safety needs of informal workers in Warwick Junction through the provision of sanitizer and masks and, along with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and experts in public health, the creation of physical distancing and hygiene guidelines (more detailed explanation to follow) relevant to informal workplaces. When it was decided that the country would go into lockdown from the 27th of March, AeT distributed food parcels in order to help alleviate the financial pressure which would be felt by the informal workers when they were unable to work. AeT created a WhatsApp group with informal workers in Warwick Junction in order to communicate valuable information regarding the pandemic, the lockdown, and their rights. Through this platform, and through AeTs co-founders long term relationship with traders and community leaders in Warwick Junction, our team was made well aware of the dire position that many of them were put into due to a lack of income. The trust that has been built up between informal workers and AeT in the 12 years since the founding of the organization, paved the way for effective communication during the crisis.

While these initial measures would have helped informal workers in the short-term, far greater measures are needed in the long-term in order to protect the health and safety, as well as the livelihoods, of informal workers.

Government relief measures

There were number of relief measures that the government offered to workers who have been negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown. However, the system prioritized the formally employed over the informally employed. The Tourism Relief Fund disregarded the existence of informal tour guides and non-profit entities in this sector. In order for Spaza Shop owners and informal traders to qualify for the grants being offered by the Department of Small Business Development, they are required to be registered with CIPC, SARS, UIF and be willing to buy products produced by South African small manufacturers and submit monthly financial records over a 12 month period. Notwithstanding the intentions to formalize informal businesses, this clearly shows limited understanding of how the sector operates and how to support its needs. The average incomes earned in the sector are far below tax payment income thresholds and compliance costs. Furthermore, informal traders optimize profits by buying from different suppliers depending on prices.

For the majority of informal workers, the ZAR350 [around 20 USD] COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund was their only option with regard to receiving relief funds from the government. While this money may have helped small about in terms of contributing to household expenses for the 6 months that it was available, it missed the mark in terms of re-invigorating the informal economy post-lockdown. Furthermore, many informal workers were ineligible for this grant because they are already recipients of another type of government grant (Childcare or Pension grants most commonly). These grants were all increased slightly for a 6-month period. However, the negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are still pressing, over a year later, and informal workers have found it impossible to return to their pre-lockdown levels of income. A large injection of funds into the informal economy is vital in order to allow for its re-establishment and sustainability.

AeTs resources to support informal workers during COVID-19

1.Strategic plan

AeT has created a strategic plan for the reoccupation of public spaces by informal workers, to ensure that their livelihood opportunities are re-established, their personal health safety is prioritised and urban tension is avoided. The integrated approach to reoccupation has health, spatial and regulatory elements. This plan is divided into three progressive phases;

Phase 1 (‘responding to the surge’) is an expansion of AeTs initial response and should involve provision of personal protective equipment (PPE); wide dissemination of health guidelines; deploying of hand-wash (‘geza izandla’) stations (described in more detail below); development of spatial guidelines; facilitation of communication between informal workers and local government and provision of legal advocacy.

Phase 2 (‘managing the peak’) includes monitoring, evaluating and documenting the implementation of phase 1; encouraging worker consciousness of urban health safety; further developing detailed spatial configurations and guidelines; continued social facilitation and legal advocacy work.

Phase 3 (‘achieving a functional “new normal”) builds on phase 1 and 2 and involves introducing a sustainable health plan; finalising and implementing the spatial guidelines; agreeing upon an urban framework for informal workers to operate in public space whilst still facing the realities of the pandemic; establishing legal frameworks applicable to the ‘new normal’ and the continuation of social facilitation and advocacy efforts.

Please note: Due to an unstable pandemic environment, AeT’s strategy has evolved but our approach remains unchanged. AeT believe that the informal economy is key to economic recovery, and therefore creating pandemic resistant public spaces is essential to shaping the future.

2.Health guidelines

These are the initial health guidelines developed for informal traders by WIEGO, public health experts from University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) Occupational and Environmental Health department (led by Professor Rajen Naidoo, Academic Leader & Chief Specialist) and AeT, in order for them to alleviate the risk of coronavirus infection. The guidelines are intended to protect informal traders and the people who they interact with on a regular basis. Informal traders often work in crowded spaces with a large amount of foot traffic which increases the risk of the spreading of viruses. The lack of running water and soap which is a reality in many informal places of work, further increases this risk. However, with proper implementation of guidelines such as these, there is no reason that informal trading can take place with a level of hygiene and an adherence to physical distancing rules comparable to those found in shopping malls. These guidelines are available also in isiZulu, Xhosa, Sotho and Afrikaans and French, and will be in a continual process of development and will be updated as new information is revealed.

Access updated guidelines here.

3.Sanitizer Friday

In June 2020, when the level 5 lockdown ended, AeT began distributing sanitizer (which was donated to the organization) to traders in a weekly “event” which became known as “Sanitizer Friday.” One year later, traders are still coming to AeT with empty 2 litre bottles to refill with sanitizer which they use to disinfect their workspaces.

4.Geza izandla wash stations

There is limited access to running water in Warwick Junction and regular handwashing is critical to limit the spread of COVID-19. Local government will be encouraged to improve and maintain existing public sanitation facilities but in addition to this (and as a more immediate response), AeT has designed and developed prototype Geza Izandla (which means ‘wash your hands’ in isiZulu) wash stations for street corners and tabletops (in order to accommodate both of these trading typologies). The design is based on existing knowledge of the informal economy in Durban, and international precedents for handwashing practices that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. Community trust and management of these interventions is vital in order to ensure sustainability.

Street corner and Tabletop wash station prototypes.

For more information read Geza izandla: handwashing interventions in Warwick Junction.

Guidelines to build a wash station:

5.Spatial plan

AeTs knowledge and long history with urban planning in the area positions them to provide immediate spatial guidelines to ensure safe physical distancing for traders, their customers and passing commuters. This immediate work will inform community agreement on detailed spatial configurations and guidelines that respect medical dictates and the practical inputs from informal workers, notwithstanding the pressure on public space. Particularly within highly congested public spaces, like Warwick Junction, these guidelines will not only protect informal workers and their customers from COVID-19 infection but will also aid the implementation of physical distancing to avoid harassment by local law enforcement.

6.Kanyenathi community meetings

The Kanyenathi action-research project, in which traders were trained to identify and prioritise their infrastructure needs, was carried out over 3 years and ended in 2017. Despite the research project coming to an end, this process enabled informal workers to use and hone their skills to interact constructively with the municipality on an ongoing basis.  Kanyenathi (which means ‘with us’ in isiZulu) is now an established platform which gives traders the opportunity to formally engage with the City regarding infrastructure and maintenance issues in their workplaces. Kanyenathi community meetings, facilitated by AeT, usually take place every 3 to 4 months and has become an established platform to hold the municipality to account. This platform played an influential role, in terms of initiating pandemic related interventions; such as health and spatial protocols, wash stations and the Health Champions programme.

For more information read Trader leaders engaging with street-based strategies in addressing COVID-19 challenges

7. Health Champions

An important contribution towards AeT’s strategy was to embed consciousness of occupational health and safety, which is key to the sustainability of good hygiene in urban public workplaces. In an unstable pandemic environment, AeT believed the most effective response was to recruit informal traders from Warwick Junction to become Health Champions, who were equipped with resources (such as wash stations and bibs) and knowledge (which included training workshops and a manual, developed with a panel of occupational medicine specialists and doctors from UKZN). This training on the prevention and transmission of COVID-19, which later evolved to include vaccines, aims to catalyse a shift from instruction-to-adoption of healthier workplace practices; whilst adapting this challenging workplace to address the inequities. Health Champions are ambassadors who encourage the adoption of occupational health standards in Warwick Junction (train-the-trainer model).

8.Facilitation

AeT is positioned to provide skilled and dedicated social facilitation services for stakeholder engagement and to act as a trusted bridge between informal workers and local government.

Simultaneously through AeT involvement with the regional task team, and discussions with provincial leaders, KZN Economic Development and COGTA, AeT will hold the local and provincial government to account where proclamations have been unclear, such as informal workers access to relief schemes, implications for informal work as restrictions are eased, expected health safety compliance etc.

A report prepared by one of the Task Team’s who specifically focused on the informal economy, in which AeT were involved, can be accessed here. Read Reoccupation of Public Spaces which summarises AeTs input into part of this engagement.

9.Childcare

Since 2016, AeT has been collaborating with organizations across the world in order to generate ideas around childcare for informal workers. AeTs focus has been on ‘creating safer spaces’ in informal workplaces. These spaces are intended as an alternative childcare option for informal workers who usually bring their children to work with them due to a lack of affordable, accessible childcare. A pilot facility for the Brook Street market in Warwick Junction has been designed by AeT, alongside the informally working mothers who, along with their children, will be the beneficiaries of the project. The need for a childcare facility that caters to informally working mothers and their children became apparent through research conducted by AeT in 2017 and 2019. A pilot facility was designed by AeT, with the aim of responding to the challenges that were highlighted through the research and through the knowledge that AeT has gained throughout the past 12 years of working alongside informal workers in Warwick Junction. In order to align with the processes that define the informal work environment of Brook Street, the facility was designed in such a way that it can be erected each morning and packed up (and stored securely) each afternoon (i.e. a ‘pop-up’). The operational procedures were developed with the informally working mothers, through weekly discussions facilitated by AeT team members. It was decided that 2 mothers would find other people to run their trading stalls for them and they would look after the 6-8 children who will attend the facility. The facility will be open between 7.30am and 4pm from Monday to Saturday. Two weeks prior to the planned opening of the ‘Silindokuhle’ (which means ‘we hope for the best’ in isiZulu – this was the name chosen by the mothers) childcare facility, the coronavirus made its way to Durban and the opening date was indefinitely postponed.

Childcare facilities across the country were forced to remain closed for 10 weeks and unfortunately many of them were unable to reopen, further reducing the already minimal childcare options. Towards the end of 2020, AeT conducted research (commissioned by Echidna Giving) to determine how informally working mothers were dealing with their work and childcare responsibilities during this time, the main issues they were experiencing, and what kind of help they required. The details of this research can be found here.

AeT is currently in the process of reigniting the ‘Silindokuhle’ childcare facility. The facility will adhere to strict hygiene protocols in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

10.Mobile communication and social media

AeT makes use of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram in order to disseminate information in order to keep the public up to date with our work. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began our social media has been focused on providing information regarding the impacts of the crisis on informal workers and the ways in which AeT is helping to alleviate the challenges they are experiencing. We are also using these platforms in order to secure donations which will be put towards procuring protective equipment (such as masks and sanitizer) for informal workers.

Our WhatsApp communication channel was established at the start of the lock-down period in order to communicate valuable information to our database of informal workers. The informal workers have also used this platform in order to keep us informed of their experiences during the pandemic.

11.Research [COVID-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy survey]

WIEGO is an international organization with a research and policy agenda aimed at ‘increasing the visibility of the working poor in the informal economy’ with a particular focus on women informal workers. WIEGO has been a partner of AeTs for many years.

The first round of the COVID-19 research project took place in June and July of 2020 and involved in-depth interview with informal workers in 12 cities around the world, with the intention of gaining a thorough understanding of the ways in which the pandemic has impacted their lives. AeT team members undertook 180 interviews in total; 60 with street vendors, 60 with market traders and 60 with informal recyclers. The interviews (which took approximately 45 minutes each) were conducted in isiZulu and the data was collated and analysed by the WIEGO team. Results from this research can be found here.

Findings from this study, reveals the negative socio-economic impact on informal workers during the initial months of restrictions in South Africa, however, a year later and the impact of the pandemic is still being felt by informal workers. Read ‘stories from street‘, which reveal the current realities faced by informal workers in Warwick Junction.

In June 2021, the second round of the COVID-19 research project will begin. AeT will be conducting interviews with the same 180 participants that took place in the first round. The intention of this second round is to find out if and how circumstances have changed for informal workers from last year until now.

Links to relevant resources

Links to articles relating to impacts of COVID-19 pandemic on informal trade in SA