BACK-BREAKING. A street vendor sells vegetables along Tandang Sora Avenue, named after the Mother of the Philippine Revolution. Informal workers, and women in particular, were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 lockdowns. Quezon City, Philippines. 2022 February 24. Photo by Alice Grospe.

Last month, on January 27, the Duterte administration’s economic managers released a joint statement declaring, “The door to our economic recovery is now fully open (…) the strong 2021 performance shows us that we are on the correct path to a resilient recovery (…) the stage is now set for growth to accelerate in 2022.” They ended the statement by thanking Congress for passing the Amendments to the Retail Trade Liberalization Act and the Foreign Investments Act and reiterating the call for the approval of the Amendments to the Public Service Act (which eventually was passed and is currently awaiting the President’s signature).

It begs the question: In all this rhetoric on economic recovery and the mad dash for the completion of economic liberalization reforms, where do informal women workers figure in?

Invisible workers, visible contributions 

The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines informal economy workers as “independent, self-employed, small-scale producers and distributors of goods and services.” Globally, from the 3.3 billion total work force aged 15 years and over, about 2 billion or 62% individuals make their living in the informal economy. From this number, 740 million are women and they comprise a majority in developing regions, for instance in Southeast Asia, where 75.4% of informal workers are women.

In the Philippines, the latest available data on the number of workers in the informal economy is the Informal Sector Survey (ISS) conducted by the Philippines Statistics Authority (PSA) in 2018. The PSA uses the operational definition of the informal sector as “household unincorporated enterprises which consists of both informal own-account enterprises and enterprises of informal employers.” The ISS roughly estimated the number to be at 15.68 million or roughly 38% of the total working population, with the PSA using the proxy indicator on self-employed and unpaid family workers of the Labour Force Survey (LFS) to provide an admittedly incomplete statistical picture of informal employment in the Philippines. Other estimates put the number of Filipino informal workers at 63%, contributing around ₱5.013 trillion (~US$98 billion) to the economy or a third of the country’s economy.

Because of the varying interpretations among public authorities on who comprises the informal economy, it is difficult to accurately capture their number, especially that many in the informal sector remain undocumented. In the Philippines, they may include ambulant vendors and street hawkers, small transport operators such as tricycle and pedicab drivers, temporary construction workers, small-scale miners and quarry workers, unpaid family workers, and those engaged in home-based work. They also include subsistence and landless farmers, seasonal agriculture workers, artisanal fisherfolk, as well as tour guides, “on-call” entertainment workers, and hairdressers. Individuals engaged in essential day-to-day tasks such as waste pickers and recyclers, barangay health workers, domestic cleaners, and food delivery riders and other gig workers—whose valuable contributions to society was made stark by the COVID-19 pandemic—also work in the informal economy.

However, the lack of updated, comprehensive, and gender-disaggregated data on the informal economy contributes to the invisibility of informal workers and in particular of informal women workers in official statistics. As a result, they also remain underrepresented in government policymaking and program designs.

Informal economy and gender inequality

According to the database of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, there is an estimated 6.6 million Filipino women who work in the informal sector. While they are great in number, most informal women workers earn substandard wages and are paid less compared to their male counterparts but are also in the most precarious categories of informal work, exposed to occupational health and safety hazards including sexual harassment. They also do not have guaranteed access to social services including healthcare and have little to no savings, making them more vulnerable to economic crises and shocks such as the differentiated impacts of climate-induced disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ILO monitored in 2020 a combined total of 1.6 billion informal workers who were heavily affected by restrictive lockdowns and border closures globally. However, even before the pandemic, social protection and safety nets were already weak or totally non-existent in many countries including the Philippines, and government support measures proved wanting for informal workers. Emergency cash subsidies and social assistance were limited and required burdensome documentary requirements for roll out, which majority of unregistered informal workers continue to grapple with up to now, more than two years into the pandemic.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) reported in December 2021 the unprecedented situation of displaced workers in the Philippines who were unable to find work in other sectors, even in those with historically high informality rates that usually absorbed “reallocated labour” like agriculture, services, and wholesale and retail trade where most women work. In the same report, the ADB noted the distinct impact of job losses to women: “The massive labour force exits among women are largely a consequence of their greater involvement in the care burden (such as childcare and home schooling and caring for ill relatives).

According to the Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020 Report, a greater responsibility for unpaid care and domestic work is placed upon women globally, with women doing three times as much as men do according to the UN Women. This situation forces women in informal economy to work longer hours in the sense that they are doubly burdened by the necessity to earn a living and by the expectations placed upon them to do unpaid care work.


Table 1. Non-exhaustive comparison of employed persons by major industry group and sex based on latest available data in 2017 (grey colour denotes higher number).

Industries Men Women
Agriculture, Hunting, and Forestry 6,815,000 2,251,000
Fishing 1,114,000 81,000
Construction 3,474,000 63,000
Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation 195,000 131,000
Human Health and Social Work Activities 161,000 324,000
Wholesale & Retail Trade, Repair of Motor Vehicles & Motorcycles 3,139,000 4,761,000
Other Service Activities 668,000 2,033,000
Source: Gender Statistics on Labour and Employment, PSA, 2018


According to the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW) in its policy brief for a Magna Carta of Workers in the Informal Economy, women in the informal economy “are mostly confined in low income activities, such as unpaid family work, industrial homework and street vending (…) they have limited opportunities for organization and representation and are inadequately covered by social protection especially in times of illness, disability, work injury, maternity, unemployment, and old age.”

In official government data, a significant number of women (about 2 million) are counted among those employed in “Other Service Activities”, a catch-all category that lumps together such economic activities as “activities of households as employers and undifferentiated goods- and services-producing activities of households for their own use.”

Women’s work in agriculture are often considered to be “extensions of their household tasks” and therefore not reported as “work” and tallied in labour force surveys. Thus, women continue to be under-accounted in agriculture work even as they engage more in unpaid family work in the sector as compared to men.

In the Gender Statistics on Labour and Employment 2018, the PSA reported the higher number of men employed in agriculture, hunting, and forestry compared to women (a difference of 4,564,000). However, in the same report, it also noted that more women are engaged in unpaid family work (worked without pay in family-operated farm or business) at 1,433,000 compared to men at 1,004,000. Most recently, according to the Women and Men Fact Sheet 2021 of PSA, the proportion of unpaid family workers is greater among women in the labour force at 9.7% than men at 6.3%.

Another challenge faced by most informal workers is the lack of information on their rights, scant seed money to start their own small business, as well as inadequate support services and productive resources for their entrepreneurial activities.

Women informal workers, in particular, do not have representation and voice in structures and processes where policies affecting their rights are decided, most glaringly on the issue of land. Many rural women continue to face barriers to land ownership. In the same PSA fact sheet, December 2020 data from the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR) showed the stark difference in the number of holders of Emancipation Patent or EP between women (94,874) and men (417,689); as well as in the number of holders of Certificate of Land Ownership Award or CLOA between women (622,841) and men (1,385,350).

It cannot be denied, therefore, that informal women workers play a crucial part in the upkeep, management, and sustenance of households, communities, societies, and economies. But although their central role and importance as a key sector in steering the country’s direction toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be over-emphasized, the inequality and informality they are in has exacerbated the gendered-impacts of the pandemic.

What response, whose recovery?

The 2022 national budget allotted ₱51.3 billion (~US$994 million) to the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE). Among the agency’s socioeconomic measures for displaced workers is the Reintegration Services Program and the Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD).

Launched in 2020, TUPAD is DOLE’s flagship program that provides emergency short-term employment for informal workers in exchange for community services amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the program, displaced workers were provided with minimum wage for 10-30 days to perform different tasks such as repair, maintenance, disinfection, and other improvement work for: 1) social community: common public facilities and infrastructure; 2) economic community: farm-to-market roads, bridges, post-harvest facilities, public markets, and common service facilities; and 3) agro-forestry community: tree planting, seedling preparation, and reforestation. In addition, they undergo basic orientation on occupational health and safety and are enrolled in group micro-insurance.

In 2021, TUPAD was expanded to provide work up to 90 days and to cover other activities such as providing assistance to local government units (LGUs) through the delivery of essential goods and services. For this year, TUPAD received a ₱26.5 billion (~US$513 million) allocation from the national budget. Aside from temporary employment opportunity, the government has also provided cash grants to individuals, including those in the informal sector through the program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

Under its Social Amelioration Program-Emergency Subsidy Program (SAP-ESP), roughly 18 million low-income families, including those with members who work in informal sector jobs, were given a direct cash-transfer of between ₱5,000-₱8,000 (~US$97-155) for two months, despite lockdowns going on for about eight months during Year 1 of COVID-19, and on and off thereafter.

Livelihood Assistance Grants (LAGs) were also given to existing beneficiaries of the Sustainable Livelihood Program (SLP) who have family members from the informal sector and were displaced by varying levels of community quarantine imposed by the government. However, the extent of coverage and amount of financial support given has proved inadequate, a consequence of the government’s controlled spending, irrational scrimping, and fixation on huge “legacy” infrastructure projects at a time of unprecedented crisis.

Many progressive economists have pointed out that the government has had misplaced priorities and missed opportunities in stimulating economic recovery through the provision of emergency cash aid, improved social welfare, and much needed lifeline for informal workers struggling to afford day-to-day necessities amidst the pandemic recession. In the 2022 national budget, the DSWD received a measly ₱205 billion (~US$3.98 billion), just a fourth of the budget allocated for the Department of Public Works and Highways (₱786.6 billion or ~US$15.33 billion) and lower than the Department of National Defense (₱220.9 billion or ~US$4.27 billion).

In addition, the implementation of both the temporary work and cash assistance programs have also been mired in controversies. There have been documented irregularities in the distribution of cash aid under the program, corruption through ghost beneficiaries, and political patronage for electoral support.

All of these measures, already inadequate, are also in large part gender-blind.

Elements of a gender-responsive recovery plan for the Philippines

In the face of the incompetent COVID-19 response and irrational economic recovery plans of the Philippine government, various peoples’ proposals and alternatives for the interest of the informal women workers have been put forward and put into practice by grassroots communities and movements.

Women’s and workers’ movements have persistently pointed out the urgency of bridging the gender pay gap and the necessity to guarantee equal pay for equal work. But this is not enough.

In the aggregate, a woman’s annual earnings would expectedly be much less than a man’s annual income during COVID-19, since it is the woman that societal pressures force to take more ‘no-pay’ work leaves, to forego earning opportunities so they can line up for relief goods and cash aid, to line up at pawnshops, and to take care of health emergencies at home, among others. Hence, the public must be engaged in popular education initiatives and campaigns that promote equitable distribution of care and domestic work—more so in light of shifting work arrangements during the pandemic.

This would allow women to decide, by their own self-determination, the kind of work they want to do and economic activities they opt to engage in. At the same time, specific support for social and economic enterprises led by women must be given, through the provision of stimulus funding and subsidies (as against onerous loans and the usual “low-interest” credit peddled by the government that in the end, are still loans that need to be paid back), prioritizing those who want to set up sustainable micro and small enterprises that will benefit the community and the environment.

Social and solidarity economy (SSE) units including mutual benefit societies—like the community pantries that have sprouted last year and provided immediate relief for many informal workers—are already included on the proposed bills on the registration and national database of informal workers. However, they must not only be formally recognized but also given concrete support to sustain their initiatives.

Alternatiba, for instance, has been able to sustain their BuyAnihan (portmanteau of “buy” and “anihan” (harvest) to form bayanihan or communal unity) rescue buying initiatives for distressed farmers and agricultural workers in Quezon Province, Southern Luzon and Ifugao, Northern Philippines and the setting up of local “bagsakan” markets in the metro. These may be scaled up through meaningful partnerships and cooperation, with autonomous and empowered LGUs providing common, publicly-owned, and preferably rent-free spaces for such markets to flourish and provide income support.

Equally important, a gender-responsive social protection system that reduces vulnerability and exclusion of women must be put in place. This should include not only limited social insurance coverage but also free sexual and reproductive health products and services, and affordable and quality childcare services, which may also be organized through collectively-managed communities of care that are publicly funded. The removal of obstacles and discrimination and of systematic undervaluing of the work done by women would allow the creation of an enabling environment supportive of informal women workers.

All of these must be done at a structural and societal level, including the legal sphere. There are already laws passed that aim to strengthen the protection of workers, especially those who are vulnerable to abuses—most recently the Safe Spaces Act of 2019. In 2021, the DOLE issued an order that provided the methods and interventions, including recourse and redress mechanisms to address violations of informal workers’ rights and cases of gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace. Their implementation must be carried out with the cooperation of all levels of government, the businesses, and the labour force.

Quo vadis?

Last year, on May 6, in his message at the Informal Sector Labour Day, ILO Country Office for the Philippines Director Khalid Hassan underscored, “Without inclusive and gender-responsive policy interventions, the recovery will continue to be uneven and subject to great uncertainties (…) all these points require cooperation and constant dialogue among stakeholders, especially with the workers in the informal economy themselves.”

One wonders whether in the optimistic aspirations of Duterte’s economic managers involving the country’s recovery in 2022 to pre-pandemic levels (and eventual achievement of upper-middle income country status), the informal women workers will become less visible, or their valuable contributions recognized even grudgingly.