Kenya's labour market not made for pandemic

Traders go about their business at Gikomba Market, Nairobi on March 18, 2020. Covid-19 fears have seen number of clients drop significantly, negatively impacting the sellers' income. PHOTO | LUCY WANJIRU | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Public health measures to curb spread of  coronavirus have decimated the livelihoods of informal workers who are mostly women.
  • Kenya’s informal sector employs nearly 15 million. 
  • Open-air markets increasingly being closed to stop the spread of coronavirus, leaving hundreds of thousands jobless. 
  • KHRC calls on government to consider expanding the Inua Jamii cash transfer program to include the self-employed, informal sector workers, and those unemployed.

For the past week, every morning, Akonya Shimeseru wakes up in her single-room home that she shares with her two children in Ongata Rongai, on the outskirts of Nairobi. She makes black tea (sturungi) and takes it with bread. Then she sets out and roams for hours.

Ms Shimeseru looks for work — washing clothes, manual labour, anything that might bring in a few shillings. After a long day of circling, she returns home and fixes dinner, which is always sukuma wiki and ugali.

“People are afraid that if you’ve come from outside, you could be bringing in new problems,” she said one evening last week after one of her daily, futile walks. She and her children listen to the radio; no matter the hour, the news is always about the coronavirus.

A week ago, she worked as a cleaner — a domestic worker — before abruptly losing her job amid the global pandemic. Now, she doesn’t know how she’ll continue feeding her family.

But Ms Shimeseru is hardly alone.

Currently, the official number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kenya is 216. Limited testing and test kits may mean the number is far higher. The public health measures being taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus — and the economic depression that accompanied them — have decimated the livelihoods of informal workers like Ms Shimeseru who make up 83.6 per cent of Kenya’s total workforce, according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.

“People are doing what they need to do to survive, but this [often] means they’re not safe,” explains Jacqueline Wamai, a legal advisor at Kudheiha, a trade union that advocates for the Kenyan domestic workers’ rights. 

The issue isn’t unique to Kenya. Across the African continent, informal work is the main source of employment, accounting for 85.8 per cent. (The figure stands at 40 per cent across the Americas.)

Informal employment

And across East Africa, women make up the majority of the share of informal employment in total (92.8 per cent), while men aren’t too far behind (74.8 per cent), according to the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The reasons why informal employment so dominates in Africa, writes Ahmadou Aly Mbaye, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, lie on both the supply and demand sides: A growing, young population faces a dearth of training and employment opportunities, while at the same time commodities-based industries — such as agriculture, mining, and oil — do little to cultivate high-quality formal employment.

Kenya’s informal sector employs nearly 15 million, according to 2018 estimates, compared to the 2.9 million who work in the formal sector. These 15 million Kenyans are the domestic workers, cleaners, beauticians, mechanics, and street vendors, among many more, who prop up the country, and yet they have few legal protections — no unemployment benefits, safety regulations, or social security.

Those vulnerabilities have been brutally exposed by the pandemic. Kenya confirmed its first positive case of Covid-19 on March 13. Days later, the government shut down schools, banned religious gatherings, and suspended most international flights. Kenyan citizens and residents entering the country are required to quarantine in government-designated facilities at their own cost. The government also asked businesses to allow staff to work from home, “with the exception of employees working in critical or essential services.”

Around the country, open-air markets, where most people buy their food, are increasingly being closed by the government to stop the spread of the coronavirus, leaving hundreds of thousands of Kenyans jobless. Others are going to work in defiance of government orders, despite the risk to public health and their own, because they feel they have no choice.

While the number of Kenyans working in the informal sector is high, it is women who are usually trapped in the most vulnerable segments, such as cleaning and street selling, says Frédéric Lapeyre, a senior coordinator at the ILO.

“They will suffer the most,” he says.

Ms Shimeseru worked for a family in Karen, Nairobi, where she would board for the week while cleaning and cooking. Since she lived in Ongata Rongai, where the first confirmed COVID-19 patient was located, her employers thought she might contract the coronavirus and bring it into their home. They told her to take two months “unpaid leave.” Now, she has nearly no alternatives for earning income in a deflating economy approaching standstill.

Matatu fare

If the loss of income wasn’t enough, social distancing measures also compound costs for the poor who work in the informal sector. When matatus, for example, were ordered to only fill half of their seats to maintain distance between passengers, operators doubled the fares.

Two-thirds of the city’s residents live in informal settlements, where poverty, cramped conditions, and billowing fumes from charcoal fires make life hard. Social distancing measures have only compounded this.

Without tap water, residents pay a premium for water in a market controlled by cartels. Many live hand to mouth, without adequate safety nets or significant savings. They lack disposable cash, cannot stockpile food, and need a sustained income to meet basic needs.

Even though domestic workers are viewed as informal workers, Ms Wamai says they are entitled to the same labour rights as other workers, including earning minimum wage, approximately Sh13,000 a month — but many aren’t. And while, in theory, employers and employees should mutually agree to “unpaid leave,” imbalanced power dynamics often means this isn’t the case.

The harmful effects of policies meant to protect people from COVID-19, says Ms Shimeseru, are almost as bad as actually falling ill: “You see now, I have children. Even if I stay at home, what good will this ‘leave’ do me? My children need to eat, and I’m a single mother. I still have to pay rent.”

In Nigeria and South Africa, the country’s leaders recently announced two- and three-week lockdowns, subsequently impacting millions of people working as food vendors, cleaners, and mechanics in the informal sector.

The measures are further highlighting the gulf between the haves and have-nots. In Nigeria, which has the largest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world, panic ensued in the lead-up to the lockdown.

“It’s crazy,” Abiodun Gaji, a Lagos resident, told CNN. “People are hungry, some people, millions of people depend on daily sales. They don’t make sales, they don’t eat.”

The Nigerian government confirmed it would be distributing food packs—including rice, beans, bread, drinking water, and vitamins — to 200,000 vulnerable households in the country, while cash transfers are being made to the poorest households. In South Africa, a campaign to raise money for laid-off domestic workers had reached $8,722 (Sh923,000) at the time of writing and has so far paid the salaries of 48 workers.

World Bank loan

The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has introduced a series of measures, including tax cuts, subsidies, and a Sh40 billion package to help vulnerable households, especially those in urban areas, though the latter is yet to be implemented.

On April 2, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe confirmed Kenya is set for an additional $50 million (Sh5.2 billion) credit from the World Bank to fund production of sanitizers, protective gear for medics and to scale up bed capacity for patients.

Still, the government has faced criticism for failing to provide support for informal workers most in need.

“I’m shocked,” Ms Wamai says. “Our economy relies on the informal economy … and for the ministry to not have any guidelines on how those workers are going to be taken care of, or even highlight the effect coronavirus is having on them…”

“If we go into total lockdown, what does it mean for workers?” she continues. “How are we going to ensure they have access to housing? To sanitation? Food? Many lack the most basic needs.”

Various solutions have been batted around, including expanding Kenya’s existing infrastructure for cash transfers. Two in five Kenyans use M-Pesa, and more than 80 per cent  have access to financial services. These digital channels could be used to deliver government or private relief such as direct cash transfers, according to FSD Kenya, an organization that campaigns for financial inclusion.

Last week, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC), a non-governmental organization, called on the government to consider expanding the Inua Jamii cash transfer program, a bimonthly cash injection for older people, orphans, vulnerable children, and those with disabilities. To help soothe the economic blow of the coronavirus pandemic, the program could extend to include the self-employed, informal sector workers, and those unemployed.

“This would cushion them from financial anxiety in difficult times such as this,” says Mary Kambo, a program advisor at the KHRC, on Twitter.

But again, it’s tricky, explains Ms Wamai: “How will they know who to give and not to give? If you work in the informal economy, you’re [likely] not even registered. And are we in a position to do that? The government cannot possibly afford it.”

In an open letter to President Uhuru Kenyatta, economist David Ndii highlights that, because Kenya’s economy is predominantly informal, lifeline and stimulus measures in other countries would not be copy-pasted here. Other countries, he argues, have more liquidity, and Kenya already has too big a budget deficit for a large-scale cash stimulus to work.

US commitment

According to Mr Ndii, the country is currently projected to spend 46 per cent more than its income. The country’s request for Sh150 billion ($1.4 billion) from the International Monetary Fund will be “determined” later this month.

The pandemic has hit Africa during a period of modest economic growth. The biggest fear among African governments, according to the ILO, is losing this momentum as they continue to navigate COVID-19.  

Last year, the United States committed $63 million (Sh6.6 billion) to Kenyan agricultural programs (farming predominantly falls under informal work), which made up 11 per cent of the U.S. aid budget to Kenya, and $3 million (315 million) to support economic growth, which made up 0.5 per cent. This included $480,000 (Sh50 million) to small and medium-sized enterprises, the majority of which are within the informal sector.

Still, says Mr Lapeyre of the ILO, more needs to be done: “Most of the time informal workers are not main actors in huge aid programs but, as we’ve seen, they are key [to the economy]. This crisis shows we can’t design or implement policies without thinking about the informal sector in Africa.”

Back in Nairobi’s Ongata Rongai, Ms Shimeseru continues her search for work. For an indefinite future, she and many other informally employed Kenyans will inhabit a liminal space, somewhere between boredom and terror, with the days running into each other, but the rent deadline still fast approaching.

“As for the disease,” she says, “we pray to God that it doesn’t find us.”

This article is a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Fuller Project, and was originally published by Foreign Policy. 

Louise Donovan is a Nairobi-based correspondent with the Fuller Project.

April Zhu is a Nairobi-based journalist and Fuller Project contributing reporter.