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Economics

Through the Lens of Informal Workers

informal workers
Reading time: 3 minutes

As the world moves through waves of COVID-19 cases, most developed economies have allowed their employees the option to work-from-home. In the case of Latin America, where many are informal workers, staying home is not an option. While this poses a detrimental health risk to the lives of millions of Latin Americans, the pandemic has surfaced socio-economic inequalities that are buried deep within the heart of Latin American society.

A global pandemic has modified our lifestyle. Coronavirus revealed that we are not invincible; mother nature is above us all indeed. Even though we are the most technologically developed generation, we are still susceptible to microscopic parasites. In other words, we are being reminded that we are vulnerable. COVID-19 has transformed the habits we once considered mundane into what is now seen as threatening, or even fatal. Going to school or going to the supermarket is now a tiresome and fastidious process. You now have to follow a protocol where you need to maintain social distancing. What was once considered routine activities, like leaving your house is now considered acceptable only if it’s indispensable. Those who remain home, stay safe. But what happens when staying home is a luxury and not an option? This is the situation in Latin America, where the virus has demonstrated that, once again, your socio-economic status affects your health and safety.

Let’s take Colombia as an example According to a study conducted by the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), on February 2020, 47.6% of Colombian workers are informal workers, meaning that 5.7 million Colombians earn their income through informal work. . They are streetworkers who sell products or exchange services on the streets in order to bring food to their homes. They are tied to the expenditure of their consumers. If no one leaves their house and buys their products, they don’t earn. They have no knowledge or capacity to generate savings. In other words, they don’t work in order to create or maintain a certain living standard, they work in order to stay alive.

Like Colombia, almost all Latin-American countries have a significant percentage of informal workers. México, 2019: 56.7%; Perú, 2019: 65.7%; Chile 2020: 30,4%; Ecuador 2020: 46.7%; Costa Rica 2019: 46,1%. This informal working system has been present through almost all of Latin-American history, yet we have conveniently ignored it. Now that the economy has been forced to shift online, and social interactions have been restricted, we have been compelled to unveil and address these huge inequalities generated by informality. We had been using informality as a comfortable and advantageous tool to sustain  lower unemployment rates, however we are now paying the consequences. Coronavirus is exposing the truth about social and economic inequalities in Latin America. Informal workers are being faced with a dilemma: either go out and get infected with the virus, or stay home and die of hunger. How do you expect to flatten the infection curve by asking your population to remain home, if families are starving and governments are unable to subsidize them? Violence is rising, and inequalities are becoming even more evident and indisputable. And once again, when your safety depends on staying home and limiting social interaction, the ones already in disadvantage are the most affected. When you have a house full of children waiting for you to feed them, it doesn’t seem like one has much of a choice.

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We have been privileged to live through a pandemic with a roof over our heads, food at our table and education. The real virus has been present for years in Latin America. It lies behind what we consider our reality: corruption, violence and social economic imbalance. But this is not our reality, we are a land full of magical realism, diversity and folklore. Latin America’s breath-taking culture is the result of its people, and they currently have their lives on the line. Now more than ever, it is time for everyone to finally take their blindfolds off and take responsibility for what has been neglected for so long. Latin America has always been undermined for its capability to generate change and address its core problems, but it is time we prove the world wrong. Silence is no longer acceptable. We are the generation of change.

Author profile
Emma Velasquez Mariucci
Emma Velasquez Mariucci

My name is Emma Velásquez Mariucci and I was born and raised in Cali, Colombia. I studied in an international American High School in Colombia. After graduating in 2019, I attended East China Normal University's intensive Chinese program in Shanghai for a year. I am currently in my first year at Bocconi's bachelor's in international politics and government. All these experiences have shaped me into who I am: an innovative, conscientious brave woman who is eager to explore the world and its surroundings.

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