COVID 19 deepens the human tragedy of Latin American informal workers

Antonio Castillo, PhD
10 min readMar 1, 2021

From street vendors to domestic workers, the Latin American economy is largely informal. In the midst of the devastating pandemic, the human suffering of informal workers has been dramatically exposed. Antonio Castillo writes.

The market of Valparaiso, Chile, a source of food security for the poor. Photograph: Andrés García Olivares

Silvana told me she couldn’t remember when she began selling pineapple juice on Miguel Grau Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares of the Peruvian capital, Lima. “I was perhaps 15,” she told me. While writing this story, I found Silvana’s mobile number in one of my notebooks. I called her. I wanted to know how she was coping with the pandemic. I wanted to know that she was safe.

The call didn’t go through, though. Perhaps she changed her phone number — I considered. Next to Silvana’s name — in my notebook — I had scribbled, “I tried to do something else, but this is the only thing I can do.” For her, the informal street economy was the only “thing” she could do — to “get ahead,” as Silvana told me. That was two years ago, on a sweltering day in the Peruvian capital.

If the phone call had gone through, she would likely have told me of her days of hardships in the time of COVID-19. The pandemic has been disastrous for workers in the informal economy — from the bread sellers on the streets in La Paz to cardboard collectors in Buenos Aires; from fruit sellers on Lima's streets to domestic workers in Santiago.

The coronavirus arrived in Latin America on February 26, 2020, when Brazil confirmed the first case in Sao Paulo — a 61-year man. At the time of writing, the region is a global epicentre of COVID 19.

With more than 652 million people, including the Caribbean, the pandemic caught Latin America in an uncomfortable economic situation — low economic growth and a high informality level. And it will get worse. “The decline in economic growth in 2020 is expected to exacerbate income inequality and poverty throughout the region,” said a recent report from the US think tank Congressional Research Service, CRS.

Across the region, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, projects a 9.1percent drop in GDP's gross domestic product. “Preliminary estimates so far indicate that we are experiencing the worst economic recession since we started recording it,” told me Fabio Bertranou, Director of the International Labor Organization for the Latin American Southern Cone, ILO.

The pandemic has shattered the entire Latin American economy — including its largest sector, the informal work. In Latin America and the Caribbean, nearly 140 million people– about 55 per cent of the working population — make up the informal economy.

Informal workers are “a huge structural labour challenge,” said Fabio Bertranou. “One in two workers was in the informal sector with low or no labour rights.” These workers, he said, “lack social security, occupational safety as well as health and unemployment protection.”

And with 47 million full-time positions lost so far, the informal economy will only grow bigger. “We can speculate that by relaxing confinement measures and opening up economic activities, informal employment will increase considerably again,” said Fabio Bertranou.

Street Workers display their merchandise on blankets while keeping an eye wide open for the police. Photograph: Andrés García Olivares

Worldwide two billion people — more than 61 per cent of the global workforce — work in the informal economy, according to a 2018 report from the ILO. In May, the ILO said that 89 per cent of workers in the informal economy would be severely affected by the pandemic.

Among the hardest hit are those who trade in non-essential goods. And they are the majority. “Large sectors of the informal economy sell products that are not a primary necessity,” told me Carolina Naranjo — from Chile’s Minister of Social Development. And herein lies the problem — only those who sell essential products, food, for example, can work on the streets.

This is precisely the crisis the “coleros” are enduring. Literally translated as “those in the queue”, “coleros” are street vendors found around the margins of the established city markets in Chile’s capital Santiago. They’re on the streets without official permits. They display their merchandise on blankets while keeping an eye wide open for the police.

Jorge Vitta is the president of the Independent Workers’ Union of Santiago. “We sell products that are not essential,” he told me on the phone. “We sell whatever.” One day, he said, he would sell socks; the other would sell body cream, stationary or hats. “Yes, I know, we disobey orders, yes, we don’t have permission,” he said. “But what else can I do?”

Peru, home to approximately 33 million people, has one of the largest informal economies in Latin America. According to Johns Hopkins University, the country has one of the highest COVID -19 mortality rate of the 20 countries most affected by the virus at the time of writing.

“Plague has been throughout history one of humanity’s worst nightmares,” Peruvian writer and 2010 Nobel Prize winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, wrote in March. And in his own country, the pandemic has sparked off a nightmarish human and economic scenario.

The Peruvian formal economy has lost over 6 million jobs, according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Informatics. At the same time, the informal economy has bloated. “Millions of Peruvians, who have lost their jobs, have been forced to work on the streets,” told me Armando Chunga, president of the Association Front of Street Vendors of Metropolitan Lima.

There were approximately 300.000 street workers, only in metropolitan Lima, before the pandemic hit, according to Peru’s National Institute of Statistics and Informatics. “Now there are more than 900.000,” Armando Chunga said. “And around ten per cent of them are infected.”

Born and bred in this city of 9 million, Chunga fears the virus. In the streets of Lima’s historic centre, he sells “clothing, leggings, track pants, and t-shirts.” He fears for his life every time he hit the streets, he told me. When we spoke on the phone on a Saturday evening, he was coming back from 14 hours of street work. “In this pandemic, when we go to the street, we are risking our lives,” he said. “My family depends on me.”

Street & market workers, surviving the pandemic. Photograph: Andrés García Olivares

In the fruit markets, humble farmers sell their produce and the poor search for affordable food. “All the evidence suggests that informal food sellers are playing a key role in food security in general and for the urban poor in particular,” told me Caroline Skinner, Urban Research Director of Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, WIEGO. The closure of the markets, she said, “might lead to increased food insecurity, poverty and exclusion.”

Lima’s Central Market has been a source of affordable food since its foundation in 1850. But in May last year, the Municipality of Lima closed it after 59 traders, out of 201tested positive for coronavirus. This came after former President Martín Vizcarra described Lima’s food markets as one of the primary sources of contagion. However, due to the enormous public pressure, the Central Market opened up again only a few days later.

In the Chilean city of Ovalle, 400 kilometres north of Santiago, “La Feria” — as it is commonly called — has been a source of food security and affordable products since 1986. Ovalle is situated in one of the most impoverished regional zones of Chile. “To close the fair, where a large number of farmers sell their products, would have caused a major problem,” Pia López Eccher, media officer at the city’s council, told me on the phone.

Ovalle, the birthplace of internationally celebrated writer Luis Sepúlveda — who died of COVID-19 in April — is among the Chilean cities worst affected by the virus. Many residents blame street vendors for the sharp spike in cases registered in mid-August 2020. Ovalle was flooded by street vendors from the neighbouring La Serena and Coquimbo after these two cities entered into quarantine at the end of last July.

Street vendors feel stigmatised — blamed as the spreaders of the virus. “There is no medical evidence that the visiting street vendors caused the surge of cases in the city,” Dr Carlos Flores, a respected epidemiologist from Ovalle, told me on the phone. “My study shows that most cases emerged from inside the city.”

Street vendors feel stigmatised. Photograph: Andrés García Olivares

There are concern and anger among street-vendor organisations across Chile — and in the rest of Latin America, authorities are using the pandemic to stigmatise and bully an already marginalised group of workers. “To demonise us is not new,” Jorge Vitta, president of the Independent Workers’ Union of Santiago, told me. “We have always been associated with delinquency, with drug trafficking; now, we have been accused of spreading the virus.”

Street vendors, and other informal workers, are also concerned with the rising level of violence they are suffering at the police's hands. “They are using the pandemic as an excuse to harass us,” Armando Chunga, president of the Association Front of Street Vendors of Metropolitan Lima, told me. “The police brutality against us is on the rise.”

Members of the organisation have denounced the systematic abuse many vendors endure, such as unwarranted arrests and merchandise confiscation. “According to the information, we have more than 21,000 people, including street vendors and other workers in the informal economy, that have been arrested,” told me Armando Chunga. “They have been arrested for not staying at home, but if we stay at home, where our food will come from?”

Out of the two billion informal workers worldwide — just over 740 million are women, according to an April 2020 UN Policy Brief. The pandemic has hit them badly. Women are particularly vulnerable to job and income losses.

Most of them don’t have sufficient savings to deal with the crisis and lack access to social protection, said the ILO. And a survey from UN Women, a United Nations entity, said that 54 per cent of women in the region were informal workers, compared to 52 per cent of men.

In the informal economy, domestic workers comprise a significant part of the global workforce. They are among the most vulnerable group of workers. “They work for private households, often without clear terms of employment, unregistered in any book, and excluded from the scope of labour legislation,” said ILO. In their endless days, they cook, clean the house, look after children, look after the garden, do the washing, go to the market. Endless days. Exhausting days.

In Latin America, domestic work is one of the largest employers of women — between 11 and 18 million, according to a 202O report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, ECLAC, UN Women and ILO. The report noted that more than 77.5 per cent of domestic workers are informal — this means they work in precarious conditions and without social protection access.

Fabio Bertranou, the Director of the ILO for the Latin American Southern Cone, told me that the impact of the pandemic had “been particularly visible in the domestic work.” This sector is, he said, “mostly informal, and it is an occupation that is performed mainly by women.” It is an activity badly affected, he said, due to “the restrictions to mobility.”

Frequently, domestic workers must travel long distances and long hours to reach the home of their employers. “When I was working, it took me around one and a half hour to get to work,” Cristina Quintanilla told me. Quintanilla lives in La Pintana — an impoverished suburb of Santiago. “I had to leave home at 4:00 am and take two buses to get to my employers’ home at 5:30 am.” Her employers live a world apart from La Pintana — they live in Las Condes, one of Santiago’s wealthiest suburbs.

Chile is also amongst the twenty countries most affected by COVID-19 worldwide. And since March 2020, Santiago has been in and out of different stages of confinement and quarantine. “I can’t go to work now, but la señora told me she would employ me back after the pandemic,” Quintanilla told me.

Only time will tell if “the madam” — as domestic workers usually refer to their employers — will honour her promise to Cristina Quintanilla. After all, thousands of domestic workers have already been dumped by their employers during the pandemic. A considerable number of them were fired because their employers saw them as a possible source of contagion.

Approximately 300,000 women work as domestic servants in Chile, according to the country’s Private House Workers’ Union. “And, as a product of the crisis, there are more than 120,000 out of a job,” a spokesperson from Chile’s National Coordinator of Private Home Workers’ Organizations told me on the phone.

The spokesperson went on to say that “the employment crisis was sparked by the quarantine and confinement measures. Measures that have increased the level of unemployment.” And this has worsened, I was told, by the lack of state social protection towards domestic workers. “They have been left in a state of total vulnerability and without the support of the state.”

To die from hunger or from the virus. Photograph: Andrés García Olivares

The ILO has warned that the pandemic has put at an imminent risk the livelihood of two billion informal workers worldwide — nearly half of the total workforce. “Not working and staying home means losing their jobs and their livelihoods,” said the ILO. “To die from hunger or the virus is the all-too-real dilemma faced by many informal economy workers.”

For the158 million who work in the Latin American and Caribbean vast informal economy, the pandemic has not only exposed once again their daily human drama. It has also revealed their abandonment, marginalisation, and discrimination.

“From the crack of dawn to the end of the day — every single day — we roam the streets selling what we can sell,” Armando Chunga, the president of the Association Front of Street Vendors of Metropolitan Lima told me in an exhausted voice. “You know, sir — we are fathers, mothers and children, like anybody else — we just need to work.”



Antonio Castillo, PhD

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia