Globally, 61% of workers earn their livings in the informal economy, which includes economic activities, enterprises, jobs, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state. In low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), informal employment represents 90% of total employment. ‘Informality’ must therefore be central in global discussions about safety in the workplace.
Without social protections or mechanisms to hold enterprises accountable for occupational health and safety, people working in the informal economy suffer disproportionately from work-related accidents. They are exposed to higher risks and consequences cascade through victims and their families’ lives, especially for the high proportion of informal workers who are poor. With lower wages, women are particularly vulnerable, as well as those who are exploited through the informal economy, such as children and people trapped in bonded labor.
Workplace accidents do not only affect workers. They affect businesses, communities, supply chains, and entire industries. Home-based workers living in informal settlements, for example, may increase the exposure of their entire community to environmental, chemical or fire hazards. Human lives and significant social issues are at stake, and with the informal economy valued at more than $10 trillion USD annually, there is a lot to lose by overlooking safety risks.
So, how can safety be improved in ‘informal’ workplaces?
An important question, but not an easy one.
Perhaps a starting point is acknowledging that safety in ‘formal’ workplaces is largely driven through regulation, and that related top-down mechanisms to drive safety are not viable for ‘informal’ workplaces. Without rules and threats of penalty at the disposal of safety advocates, we must consider how to motivate bottom-up investments in safety.
Entrepreneurs in the informal economy are motivated to secure their livelihoods and run successful businesses, so the most obvious way forward is to demonstrate the value of safety – show that safety is good for business.
After a series of tragic garment factory accidents in Bangladesh, public outrage motivated investments in factory and worker safety. Several international and national initiatives emerged, and facilitated inspections and identification of fire, structural, and electrical remediations for garment factories. Since 2013, safety improvements have been made through these initiatives, but also, worker retention and productivity increased as workers felt safer and more secure. This demonstrates that investments in occupational health and safety can benefit psychological wellbeing in the workplace and therefore productivity. Safety is good for business.
More evidence and insights are needed to demonstrate the direct and indirect value of safety investments for diverse informal enterprises operating in different contexts around the world (holistic cost benefit analyses). Investments in safety do not all look the same...purchasing safety equipment, providing time off for employees, and changing behaviors are just some examples of potential investments. But while businesses working in the formal sector often benefit from safety professionals assessing their specific risks and providing tailored advice, this option does not seem to be available to businesses operating in the informal sector. It makes me wonder, how can the global safety community support informal businesses with their specific safety challenges? Are there ways to stimulate growth of safety professions in LMICs so local people can solve local safety challenges?
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