Limited Recognition of Workplace Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) for Informal Labourers
Past WASH research typically focuses on residents’ access, including yard taps or public toilets, but these studies usually overlook the vital need for WASH in workplaces. Although it is often assumed that employers are responsible for providing WASH to employees, many workers in the ‘informal economy’ are self-employed and lack access to basic infrastructure, healthcare, or other social protection (ILO 2013, Lund, Alfers, and Santana 2016). ‘Informal employment’ encompasses all livelihoods lacking in legal or social protection, whether in informal enterprises, formal enterprises, or households (ILO 2013). Informal street vending is a common livelihood strategy in the Global South; in sub-Saharan African cities, it often represents 12% to 24% of total urban informal employment (Roever 2014, p. 5). As this report will argue, inadequate workplace WASH not only curtails informal vendors’ livelihoods, but it can also negatively affect their health while reinforcing social and economic exclusion.
Study Findings from Durban (South Africa) and Nakuru (Kenya)
Multiple Burdens and Inequitable Impacts of Inadequate WASH
Using research from Durban and Nakuru, this paper will demonstrate that informal vendors’ access to WASH is often highly inadequate and can impose a range of burdens. The study conducted focus group discussions with market traders and mobile vendors to analyse how they access WASH, the associated costs and waiting times, coping strategies, and priorities for future interventions. These traders must often travel lengthy distances and endure long queues to access WASH (thereby losing vital incomes) and pay unaffordable prices for low-quality toilets or water.
In Durban, the costs of water and toilet access represented 8% to 12% of monthly earnings while in Nakuru, vendors usually spent about 20% of their incomes on water and toilets. Vendors repeatedly noted that inaccessible or unreliable WASH can threaten their relations with their customers because they cannot sell whilst seeking to access WASH. Furthermore, the impacts of poor WASH may be gender-inequitable, as women are overrepresented in vending sectors that rely heavily upon adequate WASH, such as food sales or hairdressing. Many vendors criticised local authorities for failing to provide adequate WASH at their worksites and relied upon coping strategies that may only deepen their poverty, time burdens, or marginalisation.
Unlocking the benefits of adequate WASH for workers
These findings also suggest several potential benefits of adequate WASH, which can 1) improve workers’ health, 2) reduce the time burdens of accessing water or sanitation, and thereby 3) bolster productivity. Further gains may include 4) enhanced food safety and 5) improved environmental and public health for traders and customers alike, rather than contaminated foods or unclean vending sites linked to inadequate WASH.
Adequate WASH can also promote 6) significant psychosocial gains for vendors, such as enhanced self-esteem or reduced levels of stress. Potential benefits for 7) gender equity can again be considerable, and adequate WASH for informal workers can 8) promote productivity of formal firms and formal workers, given the close linkages between formal/informal enterprises in the Global South (Meagher 2013).
Key Recommendations for Future Interventions
- Workers require affordable, clean WASH facilities located near their trading sites
- The timeliness of WASH provision and predictable maintenance schedules are crucial
- Labourers may need complementary interventions, such as rubbish collection and adequate lighting
Recommendations to Promote Gender Equity and Inclusion
- Municipal officials, public utilities, and donor agencies can collaborate with workers to develop inclusive, gender-sensitive WASH provision (e.g., menstrual hygiene facilities, support for workers who are breastfeeding, accessible facilities for labourers with disabilities)
- More broadly, policymakers can partner with worker groups to enhance their voice in city planning
Implications for Formal Workers and Firms
- Providing WASH to informal workers can enhance not only their productivity, but also strengthen the enterprises of formal workers and firms
- Informal workers in the Global South often source their inputs from formal firms
- Informal workers also regularly provide formal workers and enterprises with affordable, accessible items
- Adequate WASH can enhance food safety, thereby supporting the health of food vendors’ customers in the formal or informal economy
Policy prioritisation and additional data needed on workplace WASH
- WASH is not recognised as a key input to support workers’ livelihoods and productivity
- Very limited data is currently available on workplace WASH
- Additional data-collection is particularly needed on the following topics:
- Affordability, quality, proximity, and waiting times for WASH at informal worksites
- Impacts of deficient workplace WASH, such as a) lower productivity, b) gender-inequitable burdens, and c) effects upon workers with disabilities or other vulnerable labourers
- Further attention to climate change, WASH, and well-being (particularly for outdoor informal workers at elevated risk of dehydration and ill-health)