Informal Economy

Informal Economy

The informal economy is the diversified set of economic activities, enterprises, and workers that are not regulated or protected by the state. Originally applied to self-employment in small unregistered enterprises, the concept of informality has been expanded to include wage employment in unprotected jobs1.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where the share of informal employment is the highest, it is estimated that informal employment comprises about 72 per cent of income generating activities. With the exclusion of South Africa, the share of informal employment in non-agriculture employment in sub-Saharan Africa rises to 78 per cent, making this region the leader in the growing global trend towards the in-formalisation of labour. The informal economy in Africa is dominated by retail trade related activities, to the extent that even formal distributors and manufacturers use informal workers to expand their markets to low income groups.

Informal workers are exposed to elevated occupational health and safety (OH&S) risks. They work under unfavourable conditions such as cramped and poorly ventilated spaces impacting on indoor air quality, or extreme weather conditions when working outdoors. In most instances there is a lack of access to potable water and ablution facilities leading to urinary tract infections, typhoid and hepatitis. Poor nutrition adds to their increased risk of illness. Furthermore, they are exposed to different types of biological and chemical risk factors related to occupational allergies and infectious disease. Biological and chemical risk factors related to occupational allergies and infectious diseases are numerous in various exposure groups in the informal sector. Inadequate safety and health standards and environmental hazards are particularly evident in the case of the informal sector. Poor working environment including inadequate premises and often very unsatisfactory welfare facilities, as well as practically non-existent occupational health services are causing large human and material losses, which burden the productivity of national economies, impair health and general well-being as well as the quality of life of informal workers and their families. Access to health care services is limited for informal workers who cannot afford the time during working hours to wait in a primary health care clinic.

Various Sections of the NIOH are currently involved in research in this sector:

Epidemiology section

The section conducts occupational health and safety surveys in informal industries. Assessments and measurements can be used to identify and quantify exposures. Currently an NIOH team (Epidemiology, Medicine and Hygiene) is conducting a survey into the health of landfill waste pickers in Johannesburg.

The Epidemiology section also conducts research to identify potential hazards and its association with occupational diseases in informal workers using literature and secondary data such as that available with collaboration with SAPRIN the INDEPTH NETWORK.

Occupational Hygiene section

PM4 exposure and respiratory symptoms in waste reclaimers at a Gauteng landfill site

Personal PM4 exposure measurement and respiratory symptom assessments were conducted over nine days in summer in 2016. The results indicated that PM4 exposures were lower than regulated limits. Older age, being female, smoking, increased daily working hours and the greater number of years working on a landfill increased the risk of acute respiratory symptoms.

In 2013 an occupational health and safety risk assessment (HRA) was conducted on the informal sector using a National Health Laboratory Services risk assessment tool and a checklist/questionnaire The results indicated that ergonomics, psychological hazards and general safety concerns were the main challenges faced by this group.  Publication: Mogane NM, Ntlailane MGL, Renton KA, Manganyi MJ, Mizan GE, Vuma CD, Madzivhandila T, Maloisane SA, Lekgetho KC, Sekobe GJ. 2013. Occupational health and safety in the informal sector – an observational report. Afr Newslett on Occup Health and Safety 2013;23:13–15.

HIV/TB Section

A KAPB (knowledge, attitudes, practices and behaviour) survey which will be a post intervention evaluation of HIV and TB services will be rendered to farm workers in Limpopo. The Section has developed partnerships with the all stakeholders involved, and have a draft protocol that will be finalized by early next year.

A pilot HIV workplace program model for the informal sector is being developed (targeting the street vendors). This is at initial phase; a concept note has been finalized. We are currently putting together stakeholders.

In 2016/ 2017 financial year an awareness campaign in the city deep market was conducted. This included educational material that was designed by the unit and circulated in the market, as well as provision of HIV and TB screening to the informal workers (which are vendors in the market).

Immunology and Microbiology Section

The Section will be looking into Microbial hazards and associated morbidities among street waste-pickers of Johannesburg, South Africa: a cross-sectional study.These workers are exposed to various hazards including biological stresses however, the risk of exposure and the associated health effects in South Africa is not well documented.  This study will focus on street waste pickers and will provide evidence based results to influence the guidelines on the integration of the street waste pickers into formalisation and more importantly advocate for segregation based on scientific evidence.  This study aims to look at the occupational health and safety challenges of the informal workers in four suburban communities with varying affluence status in Gauteng.

WHO Collaborating Centre (CC) for OH

There is global momentum to take evidence-based action to address health and wellbeing needs of workers in the informal economy, with a special focus on improving access to basic occupational and primary health services. The provision of health services for the prevention of occupational and work-related diseases among informal economy workers falls within the functions of the national health systems and WHO’s national counterparts, the ministries of health. Coordinated global action is needed to strengthen the evidence base, develop an effective global strategy, and support country implementation. The NIOH is coordinating centre of the WHO and aims to fulfil its mandate to improve the health of workers in the informal economy.  WHO and its network of collaborating centres for occupational health (CCs) have in their Global Master Plan (GMP) included as Priority 7 the “Knowledge networks on occupational health and safety for vulnerable groups and high risk sectors”. Under this priority, the Global Product 7.1 seeks to produce “Guidance and policy options for action by the health sector to improve health and safety of poor informal economy workers”.  The NIOH is coordinating a review on the above.


WIEGO | Empowering Informal Workers, Securing Informal Livelihoods

WHO Informal Economy Programme

WIEGO – Urban Informal Workers and the Green Economy