The Full Story

Kenya’s Labor Market Wasn’t Made for a Pandemic

Informal workers propped up the country’s economy—until they were suddenly struggling to survive.

Workers line up to have their temperature taken in front of a factory in Kenya during the coronavirus pandemic
Workers line up while waiting for their temperature to be measured before the beginning of the evening shift as a way to avoid the spread of the coronavirus at a garment factory in Kitui, Kenya, on April 7. LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

NAIROBI—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, a town on the outskirts of Nairobi. She makes tea, with sugar but no milk, and takes it with white bread. Then she sets out and roams for hours.

Shimeseru looks for work—washing clothes, manual labor, anything that might bring in a couple hundred Kenyan shillings ($1 to $2). After a long day of circling, she returns home and fixes dinner, which is always sukuma wiki and ugali, greens and maize. “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.

Seven days 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 Shimeseru is hardly alone. Currently, the official number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Kenya is 184. 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 Shimeseru who make up 83.6 percent 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,” explained Jacqueline Wamai, a legal advisor at Kudheiha, a trade union that advocates for the Kenyan domestic workers’ rights. “It’s everybody for themselves right now.”

The issue isn’t unique to Kenya. Across the African continent, informal work is the main source of employment, accounting for 85.8 percent. (The figure stands at 40 percent across the Americas.) And across East Africa, women make up the majority of the share of informal employment in total (92.8 percent), while men aren’t too far behind (74.8 percent), 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 Kenyans, 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 the new coronavirus 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, said Frédéric Lapeyre, a senior coordinator at the ILO. “They will suffer the most,” he said.

Shimeseru worked for a family in Karen, a wealthy Nairobi suburb 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 of “unpaid leave.” Now, she has nearly no alternatives for earning income in a deflating economy approaching standstill.

If the loss of income wasn’t enough, social distancing measures also compound costs for the poor who work in the informal sector. For example, once matatus—privately operated minibuses that are the closest thing in Kenya to public transportation—were ordered to only fill half of their seats to maintain distance between passengers, operators doubled the fares.

Two-thirds of the capital’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 public piped 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, says the legal advisor Wamai, they’re entitled to the same labor rights as other workers, such as getting paid a minimum wage, approximately $130 a month in a major city—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 that are meant to protect people from COVID-19, said 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 at the time of writing and has so far paid the salaries of 48 workers.

The Kenyan government, meanwhile, has introduced a series of measures, including tax cuts, subsidies, and a 40 billion Kenyan shillings package (nearly $400 million) to help vulnerable households, especially those in urban areas, though the latter is yet to be implemented. On April 2, Health Secretary Mutahi Kagwe confirmed Kenya is set for an additional $50 million credit from the World Bank to help fund production of sanitizers and 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,” Wamai said. “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 continued. “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 the revolutionary mobile money system M-Pesa, and more than 80 percent of Kenyans now 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, a nongovernmental organization, called for the government to consider an expansion of 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,” said Mary Kambo, a program advisor at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, on Twitter.

But again, it’s tricky, explained 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 Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kenyan economist David Ndii highlighted that, because Kenya’s economy is predominantly informal, lifeline and stimulus measures in other countries would not be able to be copy-pasted here. Other countries, he argued, have more liquidity, and the Kenyan government already has too big a budget deficit for a large-scale cash stimulus to work. According to Ndii, the country is currently projected to spend 46 percent more than its income. The country’s request for 150 billion Kenyan shillings ($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 to Kenyan agricultural programs (farming predominantly falls under informal work), which made up 11 percent of the U.S. aid budget to Kenya, and $3 million to support economic growth, which made up 0.5 percent. This included $480,000 to small and medium-sized enterprises, the majority of which can also be categorized within the informal sector.

Still, said 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, 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 said, “we pray to God that it doesn’t find us.”

This article is a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the Fuller Project.

Update, April 14: A conversion of Kenyan shillings to U.S. dollars was corrected.

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


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

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