By Edmundo Werna
“Gated communities are a sign of bad urbanization”.
Joan Clos is the former head of UN-Habitat and the Secretary-General of Habitat III, which produced the New Urban Agenda. When referring to affluent communities, he adamantly emphasized the aforementioned statement. But there is a more disturbing phenomenon to which he did not pay attention: compulsory gated communities of poor construction workers, bonded to their contracts. Migrant workers who are not allowed to leave their dormitories except for going to the worksites. If only Clos knew; there are also cases in which the extremes meet: gated rich communities built by workers who live in gated/bonded poor communities (Kumar & Fernandes, 2017). The silence of Habitat III’s Secretary-General regarding the bonded communities is an illustration that the urban workers and their rights need more attention (Werna & Klink, forthcoming).
Cities and towns will not be sustainable if the livelihood of its inhabitants is not addressed. At the same time that poverty is a toll on the living conditions of large numbers of urban dwellers, it limits the capacity of the workers to fully contribute to the development of their cities. Initiatives such as upgrading of low-income neigbourhoods, inner-city regeneration, infrastructure provision and others will be viable and lead to inclusive growth when employment-generation and working conditions are properly addressed. This will only happen if the rights of urban workers are respected.
Examples from the urban front
Many urban workers still face challenges related to their rights, with implications for their living and working conditions and productivity. Examples include bonded labour, wages below the legal minimum, poor working conditions, child labour, discrimination against female workers, lack of social protection (Lawrence & Werna, 2009; Lawrence, Gil, Fluckiger, Lambert & Werna, 2008).
The illustration given in the beginning of this piece falls into the category of bonded labour, which is particularly found in construction, garment factories and domestic work.
Regarding wages and working conditions: in a context of expanding supply of urban labour, employers many times offer low wages and do not comply with work quality regulations. Casual and informal workers are particularly at risk. Nowadays the ‘triangular employment relationship’ (contractors – subcontractors and labour agents – workers) is usual, and leads to casualization. Under such conditions, workers’ rights are often unclear and they enjoy less protection from the law than those who are directly employed. Even workers who are directly employed often accept unfavourable conditions, because the alternative is no work at all. Informal workers, by definition, are outside the boundaries of the law, making it challenging for them to demand their rights. Migrant workers, who abound in urban areas, are also at risk as they often have to accept precarious working conditions in order to survive in their host cities. This is particularly frequent for sectors such as construction, domestic services and commerce but is also encountered in others (Habitat International, 2008.) . Finally, the large numbers of self-employed workers who do not have a direct employer also suffer from inappropriate working conditions (e.g. street vendors).
Child labour is another issue that deserves special attention because of the moral imperative and an adverse effect that is has on education, which makes it difficult to find decent work later in life. In addition, the existence of child labour diminishes the opportunities for adult workers to find employment. A large number of urban children do not have proper care from their families and many are orphans of the HIV-AIDS epidemic. This trend renders young people increasingly vulnerable to exploitation, illegal, underground, and hazardous activities (ILO, 2010 & 2011). This is particularly notable in commerce, domestic services, waste picking and recycling, and peri-urban activities related to production of building materials, low-income housing construction, water collection and support to different types of home-based enterprises.
There is also substantial evidence of deficits in the rights of female workers, which points to the lack of equal treatment compared to their male counterparts and the existence of harassment (Habitat International, 2008; ILO, 2021; Gil & Werna, 2009; Kumar and Fernandes, 2017).
Lack of social protection of workers is a major cause of poverty. Numerous urban workers and small-scale entrepreneurs in different sectors of the urban economy do not have access to an adequate system of healthcare, paid leave, protection against loss of pay when laid off, ill health, accidents or old age. Without adequate social protection, the smallest of the crises can ruin their livelihoods. Should one income earner in the household be injured or fall sick, the family risks falling into absolute despair, poverty, child labour, or debt (Habitat International, 2008; Lawrence and Werna, 2009).
More and more people resort to working from home, to cut costs. Home-based work entails not only the upper end of the market (those who work via the internet), but also a large number of low- and middle-income workers providing goods and services such as pre-cooked food, textiles and garments, repairs of equipment and other services. There are important issues related to rights, such as how urban zoning, land use planning and building codes can and should address work inside housing units.
If a given large portion of workers are going home to make a living, another good number works from public spaces as they do not have another option. This requires a discussion on public policies related to the built environment, plus work licenses. For example, the use of public markets, access to hygienic facilities, building up shops in public land (the workplace equivalent of building slum accommodation in public land). Cases of harassment and eviction of street workers and their facilities have been reported in many countries.