Safety & Health in the Informal Sector

Manila Bulletin, September 30, 2007 | Go to article overview

Safety & Health in the Informal Sector

Byline: THERESITA V. ATIENZA Senior Lecturer, UP School of Labor and Industrial Relations

DELINEATING the informal sector of the economy has been a constant challenge. Consisting of ambulant peddlers, semi-permanent vendors along the perimeters of churches and business establishments, daily wage earner construction workers and handymen, home-based working wives and children among others, the informal sector has received numerous definitions to characterize this seemingly indefinable segment. While definitions vary, the ILO definition has been consistently adopted:

"...very small-scale units producing and distributing goods and services, and consisting largely of independent, self-employed producers in urban areas of developing countries, some of whom also employ family labour and/or few hired workers or apprentices; which operate with very little capital, or none at all: Which generally provide very low and irregular incomes and highly unstable employment to those who work in it. They are informal in the sense that they are for the most part unregistered and unrecorded in official statistics; they tend to have little or no access to organized market, to credit institutions, or to many public services and amenities; they are not recognized, supported or regulated by the government, they are often compelled by circumstances to operate outside the framework of the law, and even where they are registered and respect certain aspects of the law, they are almost invariably beyond the pale of social protection, labour legislation and protective measures of the workplace." (ILO, 1972)

As of July 2006, from a total of 800,000 establishments in the Philippines, about 3,000 firms employ more than 200 workers while approximately 70,000 medium and small establishments employ between 10-199 workers. Nearly 750,000 firms utilize less than 10 workers and are mostly own-account workers as well as employees and family members with low skills working under perilous employment conditions. While some of these micro-enterprises match the standards of the formal sector, most of them would qualify as livelihood activities of the informal economy. Hence, a modest estimate indicates that about 65 percent of the workforce is found in the informal sector with 1.9 million workers in Metro Manila alone. A total of 6.3 million home-based workers are mostly doing informal work in the Philippines.

Most of these enterprises perform a variety of operations including food vending, wholesale and retail sale of market products, conveying passengers, cargo handling, rendering personal services such as shoe shining, car washing, domestic help, etc. Children are frequently found in the workplace accompanying their mothers, mostly among catering and vending operations. Young workers, particularly those out of school, represent a large part of the labor force in the informal sector. Few of these small scale groups work as part of an organization or association. Even when organized in associations they work individually for their earnings and they have limited financial resources and organizational capacity, thus becoming unable to generate income and invest capital to the optimum.

Globalization has induced countries, including the Philippines, towards a rapid informalization of the formal sector so that, currently, the informal economy is no longer the sole domain of informal work. Developing economies that have embraced free market policies and practices of export-led growth have caused massive lay-offs among formal sector workers. They then join the pool of workers ready to take on precarious employment and thus exacerbate the scenario.

Hazards to health and safety of informal workers

An array of hazards, including long working hours, poor housekeeping, inadequate welfare facilities, ventilation and lighting, poor work postures and work methods, chemical exposure and inadequate provision of personnel protective equipment (PPE) was noted in a study conducted among automotive and machinery repair and metalworking in the urban informal sector in the Philippines.

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