Chapter 9: Essential and disposable? Or just disposable? Informal workers during COVID-19
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During the Covid-19 crisis, the phrase "essential but disposable" became a rallying critique in global North countries against an economic system that demanded risk and sacrifices for wage workers, without commensurate protections or compensation. This chapter explores whether and how the policy label of "essential" - and its corollary of "disposable" - had any meaning for the majority of the world's workforce who work informally, using results from the WIEGO-led Covid-19 Crisis and the Informal Economy Study in 11 cities. This examination reveals how the punitive arm of the state acted in ways that undermined its more protective functions: facilitating essential services and providing cash and food assistance. It finds that the process of designating "essential workers" or granting other forms of work permission involved contestation and claim-making by informal worker organizations, in some cases successfully. "Essential" designation nevertheless reflected existing biases and prejudices against informal workers in general, and stratifications within occupations of informal work. Where recognition was achieved, in most places it came through a weak national mandate, and had little practical value in allowing essential workers to continue working, due to the historical hostility of local government towards informal workers and the crisis in markets. The contradiction between national policy and local implementation ("two faces of the state") was reflected as well in how patchy and inadequate relief efforts were undermined by exclusionary policies and punitive enforcement locally, including through processes of accumulation by dispossession that will impact workers' access to livelihoods in the long-term. Concluding that the phrase "essential but disposable" strongly depicts the experience of informal workers (particularly the self-employed) during Covid, the chapter reinforces the importance of (re)constituting social contracts that actively include and protect these workers and their livelihoods.