Key drivers of asset erosion and accumulation in informal employment: findings from the Informal Economy Monitoring Study
Introduction: the role of assets in informal livelihoods and just cities In the past decade, two cross-cutting trends have placed urban employment at the centre of the development agenda. First, for the first time in history, the global population became predominantly urban (UN-HABITAT 2008). Second, the global economy experienced a financial crisis leading to sharp increases in unemployment and working poverty, both of which have persisted throughout the recovery period in many regions (ILO 2010; 2014). In that context, the ability of cities to generate quality employment1 has become a major concern and is now widely recognised as a key pathway out of poverty (World Bank 2013). A central part of the urban-employment challenge is the significant gender gap in access to, and quality of, remunerative work. In most regions of the developing world, informal employment – that is, employment arrangements that do not provide individuals with legal or social protection through their work (ILO and WIEGO 2013)2 – comprises more than half of total non-agricultural employment, and accounts for a larger share of women’s employment than men’s (Vanek et al. 2014, 7-8).3 The individual-and household-level constraints on earnings and productivity among women are well documented in studies of women’s economic empowerment: they include limited access to formal employment, low education levels, household and care responsibilities, patriarchal community and household relations, and constraints on women’s mobility (Folbre 2001; Kabeer 2011; 2013; Mahmud et al. 2012). The potential for women’s ownership and control of assets to lead to greater economic opportunity, increase their bargaining power, respond to shocks, manage risk, and cope with vulnerability is also well documented (Doss et al. 2008, 2-4). But placed in the context of urban planning and city government practices, assets alone are insufficient: without effective protection of property and livelihood rights, assets can easily be eroded. This chapter examines both the systemic constraints on the ability of informal workers in specific occupational groups to maintain and accumulate productive
assets through their work, and the opportunities for accumulating assets over time. It approaches informal employment through the lens of occupational groups because different income-generating activities require different types of productive asset, and because some constraints are specific to, or more intense for, particular activities. The focus is mainly on street and market vendors, but the analysis also makes reference to home-based workers and waste pickers.4 The chapter begins with an analysis of access to credit and start-up capital, a common (but not universal) starting point for informal livelihood activities. It shows that differences between occupational groups are more significant than differences between men and women. It then drills down into the street-vending sector, examining how gender-related constraints on sources of capital relate to the work process and can embed informal vendors, especially women, in dependent relationships. These constraints are then linked to the ability of street vendors to access and claim urban public space as a collective asset. The chapter then assesses the impact of city government practices on vendors’ most common asset – stock – in the context of their use of urban public space. The analysis concludes by examining the role of membership-based organisations (MBOs) as transformative collective assets for informal workers. It compares the ways in which both large-scale, formally constituted MBOs and smaller-scale, informally constituted MBOs may contribute to both asset accumulation and to transformation in ways that fundamentally challenge power relations underlying exclusionary practices. The chapter thus makes two key contributions to debates on gender, assets, and just cities: first, it argues that claimed livelihood assets5 such as urban public space are important to informal workers, particularly those with limited access to capital; and second, it demonstrates the role of community social capital6 as a collective asset in the context of informal livelihoods.