Defending the rights of informal economy workers with disabilities: the case of UGSEIN in Niger

By Irene Doda
December 3, 2023
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People with disabilities work in the informal economy, too. We were recently in Niger (West Africa) to discover the work of our affiliate UGSEIN who organizes over 500 workers with physical disabilities. 

People with physical disabilities and challenges struggle to enter the formal job market. So it is not uncommon for them to be working in the informal economy. According to the International Labour Organization: “A very large share of persons with disabilities in developing countries have informal jobs, which are generally characterized by a lack of security and benefits. In three quarters of countries with available data, persons with disabilities are more likely than those without to be in informal employment”. The same data shows that people with disabilities are 1 billion, the majority of which in working age. 

Street Vendors with disabilities in Niger

During the visit of our regional organizer for West and Central Africa Evelyn Benjamin-Sampson in Niamey, the capital of Niger, we met several members of UGSEIN, (Union Générale des Syndicats Economie Informelle Niger) selling products in the Rive Droite Market. Among them there are traditional market traders, hawkers, street vendors and rural workers, mainly women, who sell their products in the city.

UGSEIN has taken it upon itself to recruit and integrate artisans and traders who are physically challenged. In total, according to the secretariat, they are around 500, 63% of which are women. 

“They were so excited to see that they are indeed part of a bigger family” notes Evelyn. “According to many of the workers with disabilities  I interacted with, seeing a representative of SNI there made them hopeful and inspired to be part of UGSEIN”. UGSEIN undertakes capacity building programmes and skills development initiatives for workers with disabilities. 

“People with disabilities have particular challenges” explains comrade Zada Foumakoye, General Secretary of UGSEIN “the overwhelming majority are illiterate, we need a series of awareness-raising initiatives. Many of them also suffer the stigma by society. Their integration is generally very difficult”. Many workers with disabilities get their subsistence by the means of begging. “They need professional education, to learn a craft. In this way people with disabilities are able to provide for themselves and their families”. 

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Evelyn with members of UGSEIN. Photo of Evelyn Benjamin Sampson

The security challenges of the informal economy in Niger 

Niger is a country with serious challenges of political instability. A few weeks after our visit, there was a change of regime resulting in the closure of the borders, and this new situation is causing a slowdown in activities, especially trade. 

Another factor impacting the lives of informal economy workers is the spread of JIhadist violence in the country. At the Gaya post on the border with Benin, it can take several days for a vendor to cross the border. That’s where representatives of UGSEIN have conducted their negotiations with authorities to better the conditions of informal cross border traders. “The increase in crossings of people and vehicles in Gaya and newer and additional officers have triggered abuses and disorder” says Evelyn. “The situation there has worsened with heightened extortions, harassment, multiple taxation, undue delays causing perishable goods to rot – sometimes, it takes a week for one trader to cross with products”. 

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Disabled members of UGSEIN in Niamey. Photo of Evelyn Benjamin Sampson

The role of StreetNet and international solidarity

At the moment, the only support that UGSEIN has is international solidarity. The organization continues to make efforts to maintain links with all the members, despite the vastity of the territory of the country. According to the leadership, affiliation to StreetNet and the international solidarity of our global alliance has helped them a lot during dire times. At present, UGSEIN is working on the construction of premises to house the head office, thanks to the support of SNI.