UNIFEM Report Calls for Increased Focus on Women's Informal Employment Efforts to Combat Poverty and Gender Inequality
Thursday, September 1, 2005 9:35 AM

United Nations, New York — A new report, released by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in anticipation of the 2005 World Summit, argues for closer attention to the role of women, particularly working poor women, in the informal economy, and the impact of this on efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

UNIFEM's report, Progress of the World's Women 2005: Women, Work and Poverty, is the third publication in a biennial series first introduced in 2000 to track and measure the world's commitments to gender equality. Taking its cue from the Millennium Declaration, adopted by world leaders in 2000, which recognizes the link between poverty and gender inequality, and notes the centrality of gender equality to efforts to combat poverty, hunger and to stimulate sustainable development, Progress 2005 makes the case that unless women's economic security is strengthened, progress towards these goals will be limited.

Within this context, the report looks at employment, especially informal employment, and the potential it has to either perpetuate or reduce poverty and gender inequality. It provides the latest data on the size and composition of the informal economy in different regions and compares official national data on average earnings and poverty risk across different segments of both the informal and formal workforces in several countries.

Informal employment, a widespread and persistent feature of today's global economy, accounts for 50 to 80 per cent of total non-agricultural employment in developing countries, with the percentage higher still if agriculture were included. In the developed world, self-employment, part-time and temporary work comprise about 20 to 30 per cent of total employment. Rather than informal work becoming formalized as economies grow, work is moving from formal to informal, from regulated to unregulated, with workers losing job security along with medical and other benefits, and working in conditions that are frequently unhealthy and unsafe.

Progress 2005 provides data which shows that informal employment is a significant source of employment for women in both developing and developed countries. In developing countries, 60 per cent or more of women workers are in informal employment (outside of agriculture). In developed countries, part-time and temporary wage employment and own account self-employment are a more important source of employment for women than for men.

Women also tend to be concentrated in the more precarious types of informal employment, where earnings are not only meagre but highly unreliable. The average earnings from these types of informal employment are too low, in the absence of other sources of income, to raise households out of poverty.

"The working poor, both men and women, make up a significant number of those in informal employment. However, the further down the chain of quality and security you go, the more women you find," said Noeleen Heyzer, executive director of UNIFEM. "Women generally earn less than men, have less access to quality jobs, and fewer opportunities for the education that could help them find better, safer means of income."

"Furthermore, the totality of women's work remains poorly understood and measured," she added. "In virtually all countries and traditions of the world, women still bear the primary responsibility for providing care, which impacts their ability to participate in the labour market. Unpaid care work in the household and community puts demands on women's time, posing constraints on the kind of employment they can take up, especially in the context of HIV/AIDS."

"Progress 2005 is based on the premise that decent work is fundamental to economic security and poverty reduction," said Martha Chen, coordinator of the global research-policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), and one of the co-authors of the report. "We have provided a cost-benefit analysis of informal work and a strategic framework for promoting decent work for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy."

Four strategic priorities are recommended: increasing the assets, access and competitiveness of the working poor, both self-employed and wage-employed, in the informal economy; improving the terms of trade for the working poor, especially women, so they can compete more effectively in the global marketplace; securing appropriate legal and social protection and rights of informal workers; and ensuring that informal workers are visible and that the totality of their work — especially in the case of women — is valued and supported in policy-making. The starting point for meaningful policy decisions is to make women's informal work visible through gender-sensitive, disaggregated statistics on national labour forces for use in developing policy that focuses firmly on economic security and rights.

"There is a need to strengthen strategies to transform basic structures that perpetuate gender inequality, aligning the policies and rule-setting of international economic institutions with international women's human rights standards," stressed Heyzer. "Closing gender income gaps and ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for all must be a priority. Socially responsible corporations can lead the way in this."

Published in: "UNIFEM Report Calls for Increased Focus on Women's Informal Employment Efforts to Combat Poverty and Gender Inequality," UNIFEM, 31 August 2005.