Interview by Wiener Zeitung

Most of the Africans work without employment. What does that mean for those affected? Zwie reports from Zimbabwe and Kenya

They are indispensable to any African city: street vendors selling small goods such as lighters or water bottles at intersections through the open car windows, traders spreading their fruit and vegetables on blankets on the sidewalk, or hairdressers whose jobs consist of nothing more than one quickly set up table, on which a few scissors, razor blades and a small mirror lie. What unites these people is that they are all part of the informal economy.

Informal work is more the rule in Africa than the exception. It is estimated that at least two-thirds of working people do not have a paid employment relationship, in some states it is more than 80 percent. Street vendors, domestic workers, market stallers, tailors, taxi drivers – there is hardly any activity that is not also carried out in the informal sector.

But what varies from country to country are the circumstances in which people work in this area, how much money they earn and how they treat them. This became clear in two conversations that the “Wiener Zeitung” conducted with Lorraine Sibanda from Zimbabwe and Teresa Wabuko from Kenya. They both advocate for the rights of informal employees and were invited to Vienna by the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Development (VIDC) and the Austrian Trade Union Confederation (ÖGB).

“The people of Zimbabwe are not doing these activities because they have chosen them for themselves,” says Sibanda. “They are acting out of necessity.”

The already drab country is experiencing a severe economic crisis, with August alone accounting for 300 percent of annual inflation. This misery is also reflected in the informal work sector. “People work day after day to give their families enough to eat and somehow pay for their children,” says Zimbabwe’s Chamber of Informal Economy Association president, which gathers and organizes informal workers.

With the exception of a small upper class, it could strike anyone, among the street vendors even college graduates would find themselves. It is noticeable, however, that 60 percent of women work in the informal sector. How does Sibanda explain that? “It’s much more their job to look after the family,” she says. Because of this, women would always take on more than men, who would often see a slipping into the informal sector as a loss of their dignity and would respond to emergencies sooner than women with depression.

In Kenya, the environment is different because the economy is stronger

In Kenya too, more women than men work in the informal sector. And also there often happens due to an emergency. But that’s not entirely the case, reports Teresa Wabuko, deputy general secretary of the Kudheira service union. “Sometimes an informal activity for graduate students is simply a temporary solution until they find a job.” Or it could also be that someone is employed as a taxi driver during the day and in the evenings creates additional earnings as a moped taxi driver on his own. The economic environment is also quite different than in Zimbabwe: Kenya is one of the most prosperous countries in Africa with high growth rates.

The handling of informal employees is also different in the two countries. “In Kenya, it is accepted by the state, after all, they are citizens of that country,” says Wabuko. This pragmatic approach is reflected, for example, in the fact that street vendors can offer their goods on the shopping streets in the early morning and in the evening, whereas this is not possible during the day.

The situation is different in Zimbabwe. “Street vendors are often arrested and expelled, their goods confiscated,” reports Sibanda. Their organization seeks to help those affected, such as in litigation, and to raise awareness amongst the authorities about the situation of informal workers.

As different as their environment and their countries are, Sibanda and Wabuko agree on one thing: they both argue that more work is to be formalized. This would benefit both sides. The state would take more taxes while the employees would have better coverage. For example, in Kenya and Zimbabwe employees are entitled to parental leave – while street vendors have to go back to work immediately after the birth of a child and earn money.