A woman buys bananas in bulk for resale. Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. Licensed CC BY-NC 2.0.

While there may be a middle-class bias in policies such as “social distancing” in the U.S., countries around the world that rely on cash-based commerce and thriving informal economies are facing a different kind of hardship.  

A recent news article published by Quartz Africa depicts the current situation for informal workers in African countries under lockdown: informal workers, particularly street vendors, small-scale business owners, and traders, are attempting to do business despite the dual threats posed to their health and physical safety. In addition to the health risks that accompany continued contact with customers, these workers are also facing incidents of police brutality as patrolling officers harshly enforce lockdowns and curfews in various countries. 

The article also highlights a different reality that can only be imagined by people who rely on digital and credit-based currencies: millions of Africans are not able to survive without day-to-day, cash-based commerce. As the article recounts, they don’t have “the luxury of bank savings, credit cards and online commerce to be able to stay indoors or ‘social distance’ for extended periods.”  

Informal economy workers in Africa who continue to work are doing so out of economic necessity, not only for their own subsistence but also because their neighbors depend on their trade. Their defiance of laws that limit their movement are underlining a reality that lockdown policies seem to have ignored: Africa’s economies rely on their informal sectors, which comprise between 30 and 90% of non-agricultural jobs and more than 40% of many countries’ GDP.  

This situation sheds light on a dilemma confronted by informal economy workers around the world who are similarly forced to choose between protecting their health and maintaining their livelihoods. Often these workers have already experienced various forms of discrimination. Today, lockdowns during COVID-19 impose additional hardships on their work. 

What are the human rights issues at stake in all of this? According to international human rights law, the right of freedom of movement, which is curtailed by travel bans, curfews and lockdowns, can be restricted in order to protect public health. However, even in such cases, governments should account for the potentially discriminatory effects of their policies and pair these policies with adequate remedial assistance. In addition, emergency measures must be scrutinized to ensure they are proportionate to their aim, in line with the Siracusa Principles, which provide guidance on justifiably limiting rights in emergency circumstances.  

Law enforcement officers should resort to the use of force only when no other means will enable the enforcement of lockdowns. Even in such cases, the amount of force used must be lawful and proportionate. Otherwise, excessive or arbitrary force threatens the rights to life and bodily integrity of informal economy workers and those around them. 

Finally, the urgent nature of the crisis has provoked immediate action, likely in the absence of meaningful discussion with affected groups regarding the advisability of lockdowns. The exclusion of these voices in decision-making processes that preceded government measures also implicates the right to participate in public affairs. 

While the global nature of the pandemic encourages and pressures governments to learn from each other’s experience, governments should also pay attention to the lived reality of their citizens. They must ensure that quarantines, lockdowns, and travel bans comply with international human rights norms, and take measures, such as cash relief, to alleviate any inflicted hardship on informal economy workers and the communities they serve. 

This is one in a series of blog posts authored by International Human Rights Clinic students who have focused on workers’ rights during the pandemic. View the introduction to the series here.