4 main ways technology impacted informal economy workers during the pandemic

By Irene Doda
March 24, 2023
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A recent webinar at CSW67 featuring worker leaders and experts uncovered the main ways informal economy workers were impacted by technology during COVID-19.

The period of lockdown and isolation during the COVID19 pandemic presented all workers with unprecedented challenges. Not only in their professional activities but also in their organizational and unionization strategies, in their political connections and relations to authorities. 

During the side event at the CSW67 (a prominent conference organized by UN Women) titled “Informal economy workers and their technological challenges during the pandemic” (held on March, 10th, 2023) several representatives of the international networks of informal economy workers had the chance to tell their experiences and share their reflections. Among them was also our leader Jescah Mwijuka, from UMAEU Uganda. 

The discussion was very dense and full of interesting points of reflections. We try here to summarize the main ones, attempting to give a first overview of both the challenges and opportunity that technology has offered informal economy workers during the pandemic years. 

The main challenge was access to technological resources and it was linked to different factors

For several categories of informal economy workers – home-based, domestic workers, street vendors and waste pickers – the first barrier was access to technological means. A lot of people did not possess computers or smartphones, and did not have access to good Internet connection. For a lot of them, this meant almost complete isolation. Domestic workers were often forced to move in with their employers, and could not go back home to their families. They had to work longer hours, since their employers were themselves working from home. 

The inequality of access deepened according to other factors: it was harder for women to access digital tools than for men, it was harder for elderly workers to get used to new means of communication. Workers from poorer neighborhoods and more isolated locations were cut off from communication due to lack of reliable Internet. In some countries, like in Uganda, online access was a way to request government support: lack of digital literacy or tools meant some workers were excluded from public protection programs. 

Digital tools were essential to get the correct information about the pandemic

During the pandemic a lot of fake news, inaccurate health information and outright lies were spread – sometimes by governments themselves. It’s the case of Brazil, for example, where the Bolsonaro administration has played a part in spreading misinformation about the Covid contagion and the vaccines. Sonia Dias, waste expert at WIEGO, explained that workers networks and trade unions were fundamental to gather accurate information to relay to people, a form of collective intelligence. This was particularly important for frontline workers, like waste pickers, who were relatively more exposed to contagion. You can see some slides StreetNet developed for street vendors to push back against desinformation.

Vendor in Phnom Phen, Cambodia, with her smartphone and her produce. Photo by Enric Catala. 

Online tools were used to foster solidarity

People had the chance to follow trainings online, connect with fellow workers in their regions or continents, exchange information, reflections and resources. Platforms like WhatsApp became a way of organizing and fostering solidarity between informal economy workers.

Vendors online faced harassment and bullying at times

Jescah Muijka, StreetNet leader from our Ugandan affiliate UMAEU, shared her experience as a vendor and trader on the online platforms and said that she faced instances of online harassment and cyberbullying, while she was trying to sell her goods. This was true in particular for women vendors. 

How can technology empower informal economy workers during emergency times?

A possible solution, identified by the participants of the workshop, is to include the workers’ organizations and the informal economy workers’ unions into the policy making processes, also in times of emergency. Digital tools, programs, trainings and information campaigns should be designed with the most vulnerable in mind. Only this way can we achieve a true recovery, leaving no one behind. 

See the full livestream of the webinar here