On September 8 2022, the informal economy fraternity woke up to the devastating news of yet another fire outbreak at the Glen View Area 8 Complex in Harare. The complex houses over 500 informal economy enterprises who specialise in the production and selling of furniture. This is the second time this year, fortunately in the first case, the fire was quickly doused by alert traders.
It is estimated that over 1 500 young people and women are either directly or indirectly employed at the complex, providing a much needed relief to a population that has found it hard to be employed in the formal job market.
The fire, which has now become an annual occurrence, came at a time when a lot of informal economy entities stationed at Glen View Area 8 Complex, were beginning to find their footing after the ravaging effects of Covid-19 to their businesses. A snap survey instituted by the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation VISET, revealed that over US$1,5 million worth of property was destroyed by the fire.
What makes the situation ghastly and unacceptable is that two weeks down the line, no one seems to care to explain or give answers as to what really transpired on the day. This cannot be allowed to continue without anyone being held accountable!
The situation at Glen View Area 8 Complex basically manifests as a microcosm of what is happening at the national level when it comes to the security of jobs and work spaces in the informal economy. We continue to work under very precarious conditions despite the calls by various stakeholders in the informal economy ecosystem for a national government-led acceptance of informal economy workers as WORKERS!
The Glen View Area 8 case clearly demonstrates the lack of enthusiasm and eagerness by the government and all its agencies to embrace informal economy workers at all levels of governance, economic planning and empowerment.
As has already been stated, it is not the first time that such a calamity has befallen informal workers at Area 8 and the million-dollar questions remain: What has been done by the authorities to prevent this from happening again? Why are the responsible local authorities and government departments failing to prioritise this important issue? Or is it that someone in the higher offices is benefiting from the chaos and precarious conditions of informal economy workers at Glen View Area 8 Complex? As players in the informal economy, we need genuine and sustainable answers to these questions. Time for piecemeal interventions is over!
Perhaps and necessarily so, it is also time to interrogate our social dialogue mechanisms as a country. I posit that our Social Dialogue Platform as a country needs to be redefined and restructured so that it embraces our germane socioeconomic realities as a country.
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How do we continue to have only three players (organised labour, government and business) constituting the platform when statistics indicate that, even when combined, the three fail to account for 10% of the population they purport to represent. According to the latest labour force statistics provided by the Zimstat, the informal economy accounts for more than 90% of the active labour force in Zimbabwe.
To that end, the blatant misrepresentation or is it misconfiguration of the Social Dialogue Platform can be viewed as one of the major reasons why issues of the informal economy continue to be trivialised at the national level. I will argue that the Zimbabwean social dialogue platform needs to be broadened and enlarged to include players in the informal economy. We know our issues and we are better placed to articulate them as informal workers!
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel because other countries like South Africa have managed to do it under their National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC), which comprises representatives from the informal economy in that country.
The Glen View Area 8 cases must help galvanise and spur stakeholders in the informal economy ecosystem to call for a robust reconfiguration of our social protection systems in Zimbabwe. Social protection covers the range of policies and programmes needed to reduce the lifelong consequences of poverty and exclusion.
Programmes like cash transfers — including child grants, school meals, skills development and more — help connect families with health care, nutritious food and quality education to give all children, no matter what circumstances they are born into, a fair chance in life.
Yet, almost three out of four informal businesses are not covered by any form of social protection, leaving them vulnerable to economic hardship and social exclusion.
We acknowledge the processes that have commenced to broaden the scope of our National Social Security Authority (NSSA), but are still not happy with the pace. In its current form, NSSA is both organisationally and technically incapacitated to cope with the huge proliferation of the informal economy in Zimbabwe. We all saw what happened when Covid-19 pandemic struck.
The government simply had no clue in terms of how to assist the vulnerable of our communities, the majority of who are domiciled in the informal economy.
What can the government do?
Zimbabwe cannot afford to continue behaving and deport herself like nothing has changed in her social and economic landscape.
There is a need to embrace the economic transformation which the world has been experiencing for a number of decades now. Some of the changes have since become best practices that have been embraced by a lot of countries that are currently enjoying remarkable social and economic development.
Women account for the greatest number of workers in the informal economy, therefore there is a need for the Government and Local Authorities to expand and invest in universal gender-responsive social protection.
These will include income support, as well as contributory and non-contributory social protection systems to increase women’s resilience to future shocks.
Deliberate and tailor-made programmes must be put in place to support a robust care economy by providing universal healthcare and expanded affordable care services for children and older persons.
At all costs, the authorities must strive to avoid austerity cuts (such as to welfare programs) that disproportionately target women and marginalised groups including persons with disabilities.
The government must prioritise the strengthening of social protection systems to cover all workers in formal and informal employment.
Such protections should include paid sick and maternity leave, pensions and unemployment compensation.
Such systems must be anchored on a solid transparency and accountability structure. Wobbly and undefined social protection systems tend to be susceptible and vulnerable to corruption and underhand dealings.
Furthermore, the system needs to be protected from deceitful politicians who may view the programs as an opportunity to gain illicit political advantage
Despite the fact that, Glenview Area 8 fires have now become a yearly occurrence, there has never been a recorded situation where the Government came in to assist the affected by employing any of the above mentioned social protection systems.
Organised informal economy associations such as VISET, can play a crucial role in ensuring that solid systems are put in place to support the vulnerable during times of crises and disasters.
With a national membership database of close to hundred thousand active members including in rural areas,
VISET can help authorities reach out to all potential beneficiaries of social protection interventions by the central government, local authorities and all the important government agencies in the informal economy ecosystem.
- Wadzai is the executive director of the Vendors Initiative for Social & Economic Transformation (VISET). These weekly New Perspectives articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics society (ZES) and past president of the Chartered Governance & Accountancy Institute in Zimbabwe (CGI Zimbabwe). Email- email@example.com and Mobile No. +263 772 382 852