Images of Southern Africa - Informal sector
The informal sector
Geographers use the term â€˜informal sectorâ€™ to refer to work carried out outside the â€˜formalâ€™ sector. It includes work such as petty (small-scale) trading, self-employment, casual and irregular work. It is unregulated, relatively labour intensive, exists outside the tax system and is often illegal. Such work is increasing throughout the world.
There are problems associated with using this term: it suggests that all work can be neatly subdivided into either â€˜formalâ€™ or â€˜informalâ€™, and its use has also encouraged governments and planners to look down on the informal sector thus undervaluing its contribution to a nationâ€™s economy. A less value-laden term, such as parallel traders, is preferred when referring to activities such as that carried out by the woman in the photograph.
Three aspects of the informal sector in South Africa make it unusual. Firstly, it is relatively small when compared with many other developing countries; estimates by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation suggest that globally percentages vary from 20% to 70%. For example, in Kumasi, Ghana, the sector is estimated to be as high as 70% of the workforce; in Lagos, Nigeria, 50% and in Nairobi, Kenya, 44%. The figure for South Africa is around 12%.
Secondly, the South African informal sector is predominantly made up of women. This is a direct consequence of the migration of males into the formal sector, which includes mining. There is also marked gender division in informal activity; with women concentrated in low-profit activities (such as street trading, food preparation, childcare and dressmaking) while more profitable work (such as metal production, wood processing and transport enterprises) tends to have male proprietors.
Thirdly, with the rapid increase in unemployment in South Africa (now estimated to be around 40% of the workforce), informal sector work is increasing as individuals and families struggle to survive.
This woman is selling a variety of fruit in a street in Umtata. She has either obtained the fruit from a market trader or brought it from her village in the early morning. While her returns will be low, the income from the fruit will have a significant value to her. The woman will have carefully chosen this location in order to maximise her sales, perhaps siting herself near a bus or railway station.
The photograph also illustrates an interesting set of graffiti on the wall behind the woman. ‘Save It’ in large letters obviously refers to water and, further along the wall, is the additional exhortation ‘To have H2O is your right but to save water it’s your responsibility’ (see Collecting Water 1 and Collecting Water 2).
Ideas for further exploration:
- An informal sector exists in every country. Make a list of examples of possible informal sector employment in the UK and compare it with those described above.
- Arguments can be made both for and against informal sector employment. In a group, set up a role play in which two of you play the woman in the photograph and two others take the role of the Chief of Urban Planning for a city. Argue the case from your own viewpoints and reach a decision as to the value or otherwise of the informal sector to the economy of the city.
Free access to subscribers