Case Study

International, Interdisciplinary and Interinstitutional Research for Socio-Economic Justice

1) What is your research about?

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected every segment of society. Informal workers and their families have been among the hardest hit by the profound changes brought by the pandemic. The economic and social precarities endured by informal workers have been exacerbated by the pandemic around the globe. Our collaborative research explores challenges posed by the pandemic to informal workers, their families, and public policies in general. By highlighting the contributions made by the informal economy to the general economy and wellbeing of countries, and using Colombia as a case study, the project calls for attention to be paid to the precarities that accompany informal work and how these turn into “ultra-precarities” in moments of public health crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

We designed the project explicitly as an international, interdisciplinary and interinstitutional collaboration. The project combines our expertise in business and human rights, with the expertise of academics specialising in development, anthropology, labour law, labour economy and public health, as well as with filmmakers, graphic designers, statisticians and translators. The research confirms that informal workers are often not captured by formal social protection mechanisms which offer the much-needed financial support and healthcare in times of crisis.

The three policy briefings produced by the research team propose public policy and public health responses tailored to the needs of informal workers in times of major public health crises. Understanding informality as a fundamental part of national production structures, we make an urgent call to the authorities for a new set of social, economic, and health policies in relation to the informal economy in Colombia and similar countries in the Global South. A new social economy would support the localised economic processes which recognise value generation through non-formal economies as well as through social reproduction and care processes.

Among our various recommendations, an overarching one is the recognition of informal sector contributions to the economy. This should lead to the inclusion of informal workers in state support packages for the lower income population. Importantly, such state support packages should be linked to social and solidarity economy initiatives and promote local economies. Our policy briefings propose a detailed set of further measures which are necessary for states to meet their international human rights and labour law obligations. Beyond the Covid-19 impacts, the research has allowed us and the colleagues in Colombia to have a better understanding of labour informality in times of crisis, as well as the shortcomings of the established national and international legal frameworks through which we understand work and formality

2) What activities did your GCRF@Essex funding support?

We have been able to bring together under the ‘Informality in Times of Covid-19’ several UK and Colombia universities and allies. The GCRF@Essex funds allowed us to recruit an interdisciplinary team of 1 anthropologist senior researcher and 1 media producer senior researcher full time for an 8 week period, based in Bogotá, to interview a select group of informal workers, construct the life histories and a documentary on informal work and Covid-19. The life histories are representative in terms of gender, race, class, disability and nationality based on the data available on the Covid-19 related experiences of workers in precarious jobs.

The short documentary (which we have already released in Spanish and English) features interviews with the workers presented as part of the life histories. The funds also allowed us to contribute to the development of three policy briefings by the researchers in Colombia. These briefings focus on improving the effectiveness and human rights compatibility of the Covid-19 measures for informal workers. The life histories’ and the documentary’s contribution to the objectives of the project have been invaluable. These outputs present the everyday challenges faced by informal workers in an accessible manner for various audiences, including policy makers, media and the general public.

3) You have been studying the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workers in the informal economy in Colombia. How is your project benefitting Colombia and which Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being addressed?

In this project, we aim to contribute to Colombia’s progress on SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 8 (Decent Work), 10 (Reduced Inequalities) and 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) by focusing on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on informal workers. The project specifically aims to contribute to the realisation of these SDGs by alleviating the under-representation of informal workers from the public health and support measures taken by Colombian national and local authorities to combat the pandemic and its impacts on the community.

The project has unpacked the volume and characteristics of informal work in Colombia, thereby contributing to the creation of new knowledge on labour informality in the country. According to the methodology used by this research, 61.2% of workers in Colombia work in the informal economy. This research provides important insights for academics, NGOs and policymakers into the different categories of informal workers, so that policymaking in the context of Covid-19 can be tailored to their circumstances.

The outputs have been disseminated widely to public authorities, relevant ministries and local authorities in Colombia. Rosario hosted the virtual project launch on 6 November 2020, an event that was broadcasted live (via YouTube and Facebook). Professor Ítalo Cardona, the International Labour Organisation Representative in Colombia, participated as a panellist in the launch. With our project outputs we have been also able to intervene in key debates about the regulation of informal workers during the pandemic, and appear in this context on Colombia national news. The team at Rosario continues to follow policy developments in this area closely.

Street stalls on 7th Street, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2020)
Street stalls on 7th Street, Bogotá, Colombia, October 2020

4) You are closely collaborating with colleagues from universities in Colombia (Rosario and Icesi) as well as in the UK (Warwick and Kent). How did you find your collaborators?

Academics involved in the project from Essex, Kent, Rosario and Warwick are among the founding partners of an academic initiative called The International Economic Law Collective (The IEL Collective). Having previously collaborated on other academic initiatives, we had experience working with each other in the past and a common alternative vision for regulating economic activities within and across borders. As Covid-19 was spreading around the globe, our academic partners in Rosario started noticing the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on informal workers. This roughly coincided with calls from the internal GCRF funds of the three UK universities involved in the project. The academics involved in this project developed a research plan which had three main phases: (1) data collection and database development; (2) development of life histories, policy briefings and documentary; (3) dissemination (which includes the production of data clips, a dedicated website for the project and wide dissemination through social media channels). Phase 1 received GCRF funding from Kent, Phase 2 from Essex and Phase 3 from Warwick. Rosario has matched the funds for each phase. By pooling funds from these different sources, we were able to produce a large number of outputs, and have a stronger impact on the conversation within Colombia.

Besides pooling the resources, from the start, we established a team structure for the project, with clearly delineated roles for each member. We also created an umbrella for this and other related projects, Ruptures21: Towards New Economies, Societies and Legalities, which has a home in The IEL Collective – in order to organise our actions in this project and begin the process of seeking further funding. The team dedicated to the ‘Informality in Times of Covid-19’ project has been led by Dr Luis Eslava (Kent) in the UK and Dr Johanna Cortes (Rosario) in Colombia. By having a clear team structure, a dedicated leadership, we have been able to navigate through this complex project successfully.

5) Are there any challenges when pursuing this international and collaborative project?

Carrying out an international and collaborative project of this kind in the middle of a global pandemic poses enormous challenges in terms of fieldwork, communications, added mental health strain on participants and researchers, as well as increased caring responsibilities. Despite the pandemic, the team in Colombia were able to carry out fieldwork in a Covid-19 secure way following protocols designed by Rosario for this. Though the team in the UK were unable to travel to Colombia, we utilised video calls and online platforms to carry out project discussions and to be actively involved during the conduct of interviews and the shooting of the documentary. For this particular collaboration, WhatsApp groups have been a key communication tool due to its popularity as a medium for communication in Colombia, both among researchers and with project participants. Time zone differences posed another challenge that required early morning calls for the Colombia team and late night calls for the UK team.

In my view, a key contributor to the success of this collaboration was partnering with academics who have worked well together in the past and had a clear vision in terms of the need of new ways to study and solve global problems.

6) What tips would you give to other people applying for Global Challenge Research Funding?

I would recommend anyone interested in applying for a GCRF call to work in true partnership with their local partners from the start when developing their proposals. When embarking on this project, an important consideration for us was ensuring leadership of this project focused on Colombia was held by local experts based in Colombia and the UK. The Essex team has been involved in human rights and transitional justice research in Colombia prior to this project. As such, we were familiar with the existing, sharp inequalities in Colombia and had a clear understanding of the extent to which the proposed project would meet the ODA compliance criteria. On this backdrop, we worked closely with our colleagues in Rosario to identify the specific development challenges we aimed to address in this particular research, and to develop the methodology and planned outputs. This was not something developed by us and asked of them, but something we worked together on from the very inception of the project.

It is also really important to undertake collaborative projects with partners that can work well together. In this respect, it might be useful to utilise existing relationships with potential partners as a start. In the course of the project, our partnership grew organically to include a series of local allies who have been fundamental for the success of our research. These allies include the Observatorio para la Equidad de la Mujer (OEM), based at Universidad de Icesi, Colombia, and the Observatorio of Labour law (LaboUR) and the Research Centre on Public Health, both based at Universidad del Rosario. We also partnered with AlianzaEFI, one of the largest research projects on the informal economy currently running in Latin America. All of these allies brought with them new perspectives, including in terms of gender, race and political economy expertise to the project. We also partnered with Colectivo ArtoArte, a local art collective, to produce the visuals and the documentary for the project. Each of these additional partnerships have been established through the Rosario team’s impressive academic and non-academic network in Colombia.

Selecting partners carefully is also important to ensuring the smooth running of the administrative aspects of both the funding application and ethics approval process. These processes can be particularly challenging in international collaborations, due to diverse bureaucracies present in different countries. For this project, we needed to carry out a light touch due diligence and obtain ethics approval. Our colleagues in Rosario had extensive experience in international collaborations and research ethics, which made those processes run smoothly.

7) How do your GCRF@Essex funded projects support your wider research plans?

With this project, the Essex team’s research on business and human rights, international economic law, and international labour law has gained a new focus by investigating informal labour and the informal economy. Prior to this research, we have been largely focusing on formal labour structures with only subsidiary consideration of labour informality. We are now developing ideas to delve deeper into labour informality in the Global South by investigating different elements within the informal economy, which is far from homogenous. Our next objective is to investigate the gendered and racialised impacts of the pandemic experienced by informal workers, again in Colombia, by focusing on the experiences of racialised women in the Colombian Pacific. With our project partners, we also aim to apply for a larger research council grant to investigate labour informality through a multi-country interdisciplinary study.

Portrait of Dr Anil Yilmaz Vastardis
"Our collaborative research explores challenges posed by the pandemic to informal workers, their families, and public policies in general."
Dr. Anil Yilmaz Vastardis Principle Investigator
Portrait of Dr Tara Van Ho
"Our research supports an urgent call to the authorities for a new set of social, economic, and health policies in relation to the informal economy in Colombia and similar countries in the Global South."
Dr. Tara Van Ho Co-Investigator