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Lorraine Sibanda

Lorraine Sibanda: Women in Africa’s informal economy – the informal economy is not a free choice

an interview by Franz Schmidjell (Vienna Institute for International Dialogue Cooperation)

Lorraine Sibanda from Zimbabwe talks about her engagement for women in the informal economy. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s labour force works informally, meaning that their income generation is not regulated by the state, and the majority are women. These women often face poor working conditions, harassment and criminalisation. But there are success stories, too. Lorraine Sibanda will speak at the panel discussion Silenced? Women’s struggles in Africa’s informal economy on 7 October 2019 in Vienna.

Franz Schmidjell: How did your personal involvement in the struggle for women in the informal economy start?

Lorraine Sibanda: I grew up in an informal economy-supported home. My mother was a multi- talented, industrious trader, tailor, florist, baker and craftsperson. My father was a skilled, self- employed bricklayer of note. For me, informal economy issues are lived realities.

As a teacher, I supplemented my salary by buying and selling different commodities, tailoring and home decor. In 2007, I started voluntary work with the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe as the Gwanda Chapter Chairperson until 2016. I worked with women from different backgrounds and learnt a lot about women and human rights issues. Many women were struggling to make a living under harsh economic conditions. On a personal level, I shared skills, ideas and resources to support other women with livelihood projects, no matter how small. I also worked with women on constitutional literacy to help them understand and utilise the national constitution to claim their rights. In 2015, I was elected ZCIEA National President for a five years term, from 2015 to 2020.

Franz Schmidjell: How does your typical work day look like?

Lorraine Sibanda: The organisational business of both the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA) and StreetNet International involves a lot of consultations on different processes and programs, decision-making, interface with members and partners, and chair meetings. On topical issues, I have to draft and issue statements. Besides organisational business, I have to attend to my family’s needs, perform house chores, maintain my livelihood projects which include goat farming, buying and selling different commodities and tailoring. The work that I do for both ZCIEA and StreetNet International is voluntary and has no salary perks or benefits.

Franz Schmidjell: What are the main features of the informal economy in the Zimbabwean context and how big is it?

© iStock/sanjeri

Lorraine Sibanda: The ILO Recommendation 204 says that the informal economy is in law or practice not covered or insufficiently covered by any formal arrangements. The informal economy refers to all income generating activities that are not regulated by the state. Local authority by-laws are archaic, outdated and irrelevant to the current informal economy levels in Zimbabwe. The economy is characterized by small-scale operations, the inadequacy or absence of social protection, huge decent work deficits and harassment, and criminalisation by law enforcement agents. I want to emphasize that most workers do not enter the informal economy by free choice but are forced to do so because of a lack of job opportunities or retrenchment. The informal economy offers a means of survival. According to the Labour Force Survey of 2014, 94.5% of the Zimbabwean working population is in the informal economy. More than 65% of informal economy workers are women. The main sectors are general trading, cross-border trading, vending, carpentry and welding, farming, transport and services which include hairdressing.

Women are more affected by informal economy working conditions. They have no maternity cover or benefits, so they work through their terms of pregnancy and take their newborns to work with them. Women with children have difficulties to access affordable childcare facilities. They have the extra burden of caring for and ensuring the safety of their children as they play their trade in public spaces. This exposes children to high levels of vulnerability and abuse, and women are affected by violence and harassment.

Franz Schmidjell: How does ZCIEA react to the needs of female workers? Have local struggles been successful?

Lorraine Sibanda: ZCIEA coordinated women members from Chitungwiza territory to set up “Savings and Credit Cooperative Societies” (SACCO). The objectives of these SACCOs were to 1) support each other socially, 2) to use SACCOs as affordable loan facilities so that members could boost their businesses and 3) to empower each other. Different small-scale business groups with 10 to 60 members each were established, like tailoring and fashion designing, peanut and sunshine butter making, fish drying, mushroom production and family food service. In 2015, ZCIEA Chitungwiza territory was given permission to use a community hall, the garment factory. All Sacco groups operated from the garment factory. In 2016, the Ministry of Small to Medium Enterprise took over the garment factory, saying that the Ministry wanted to use it as a training centre for tailors. The SACCO groups were left stranded without a conducive operation space. However, the groups continued with their savings and credit schemes. The same members, with the assistance of the ZCIEA office, successfully challenged the eviction of traders from the Njambanja market early in 2019. They have since engaged with the local authority and have secured permission to build a modern market on the market site. ZCIEA is working to assist these members to mobilise resources and funds to commence the construction of the market.

Franz Schmidjell: You are also President of StreetNet International, a global alliance of street vendors. Why did the last StreetNet International Congress in April 2019 focus on the Elimination of Violence and harassment in the world of work?

Lorraine Sibanda: The issue of violence and harassment against informal economy workers, particularly street vendors  and informal traders, is a daily phenomenon. StreetNet International had to develop a strategy and position to meaningfully contribute to the available International Labour Conference sessions on the topic.

Street vendors suffer physical, moral and sexual violence and harassment, including brutal evictions from their workplaces which are public spaces and the streets. Confiscation of goods, arrest, multiple and burdensome taxes and levies, extortion or bribes impact negatively on the opportunity to work. Informal economy workers also have to contend with planned fires on markets, “ beautification” policies of local governments which do not contain alternatives for the street and market vendors. Furthermore they have to cope with persecutions by the police and local authorities as well as lack of proper sanitation and daycare centres.

The vulnerability of women informal economy workers in public spaces, their workplaces, needs to be addressed. Measures of effective protection need to be worked out!

Franz Schmidjell: The ILO is celebrating its 100 years anniversary these days. Does the labour organisation address your issues?

Lorraine Sibanda: There is an ILO Convention on this topic. The June 2019 International Labour Conference developed and adopted Convention 190, supplemented by Recommendation 205 on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the world of work. It now applies to all workers, including workers in the informal economy. However, a strategy to campaign for the ratification of the Convention at national level needs to be developed first. StreetNet International is already working on the strategy. Africa is also experiencing xenophobic attacks which bring a lot of violence that affects crossborder traders and immigrant workers. There is a desperate need for governments to revise their approaches and to develop and take decisive moral action as an immediate intervention.

Franz Schmidjell: What does international solidarity mean in this context?

Lorraine Sibanda: International solidarity is always effective and influential towards any global issues and challenges. StreetNet International is committed to any progressive joint efforts, actions and campaigns which are in compliance with StreetNet International’s values, goals and members’ concerns.

About Lorraine Sibanda

She is the President of Streetnet International – Alliance of Street Vendors in Gwanda, Zimbabwe whose members are street vendors, construction workers, waste collectors and other informal workers. Since 2016 she is also President of StreetNet International with its 52 member organisations in 48 countries in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.




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