Inclusive cities for the urban working poor: recognize and support informal workers

Publication date:
Marty Chen, Senior Advisor and co-Founder, WIEGO Network; Lecturer in Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

Nearly half of all urban workers worldwide – and well over half of all urban workers in the Global South– are informally employed. All indications suggest that informal employment is on the rise. It is associated variously with the gig economy, the informalisation of once-formal jobs, the displacement of workers by automation and robotics, and the persistent challenges of unemployment and underemployment. Most urban informal workers, especially the self-employed majority, remain poor. To a large degree, this is because the exclusionary policies and practices of cities make it hard for them to work their way out of poverty. For cities to be more equitable and to reduce poverty, they must be more inclusionary of informal workers by protecting and enhancing their livelihoods. This requires: reducing the negative policies and practices of cities towards urban informal workers (based on stigmatisation and resulting in penalisation and even criminalisation) and increasing the positive policies and practices towards urban informal workers (based on legal recognition and resulting in access to public services, public space and public procurement and representation in participatory city-level policymaking and rule-setting processes). Fortunately, a growing number of cities around the world are introducing promising policies and programmes in support of urban informal workers. These are largely the result of joint advocacy by organisations of informal workers and their allies in civil society, academia, the legal profession, development agencies and government.