San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Women in Informal Sector Face Challenges

Ena Arroyo begins work in her kitchen at 5 a.m. every day kneading, slicing and baking the cakes and pastries she sells to University of Costa Rica (UCR) cafeterias. Her small business operation has supported her family for 10 years. For Arroyo and other women in the informal labor market, work holds unique challenges, according to a study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) being carried out across Central America.

Informal jobs are characterized by rudimentary accounting practices, few employees and a lack of benefits such as retirement pensions, according to sociologist Marcela Umaña, who recently conducted a study of women working informally in the Central Valley metropolitan area as part of the five-year UNDP study. Funded by the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the study seeks to identify sociological factors that limit women’s economic development.

Because informal jobs often are not registered with or taxed by the government, it’s impossible to know exactly how many people hold them, said Olga Mora, a worker for the National Statistics and Census Institute (INEC) Household Survey, an annual poll of 12,000 homes (TT, Sept. 2, 2005). Many women working informally and/or raising families register as “inactive” in this poll.

While men working informally typically head to the streets to sell inexpensive items or work on construction projects, women often start businesses like beauty shops, nail salons, sodas and tailors in their homes or in inconspicuous locales nearby,Umaña explained.

These jobs don’t require a high level of education, are easy to start and allow them to take care of their children while working. “Many times there’s little division between work and home; women assume the combination of roles as a mother and a worker,” Umaña said.

Arroyo, 58, seems a case in point. She started planning to start her own business 20 years ago when her husband, an alcoholic, left her and their three children with no financial support. On the verge of losing her house in San Ramón de Tres Rios, east of San José, she went to work at a large bakery long enough to learn how to refine her baking hobby.

She then started her own small business selling cakes door-to-door. Ten years down the road, Arroyo’s connection to UCR eateries and a few nearby pulperias has allow her to save up for an industrial oven to supplement the one in her kitchen and a car her son William, 35, uses for deliveries. Still, advances like these are few and far between, and the business is far from lucrative – Arroyo says she and her two adult children who live and work with her are just making ends meet.

Depending on whether or not the university is in session, the three combined make anywhere from ¢300,000 to ¢1 million ($600-$2,000) per month, after expenses.

“Really we just live day by day; we don’t have anything left to put away in the bank for difficult times,”Arroyo told The Tico Times.

Arroyo is not alone – inconsistent income and little room for advancement are some of the disadvantages common to informal work, Umaña said. Additionally, not being registered in the Social Security System (Caja) means informal workers are ineligible for a pension upon retiring. This often forces them to continue working after their energy and health begin to diminish and leaves them to depend on adult children or family members once they stop working.

Against all these odds, why do women choose the informal sector?

The answer is largely cultural, said María Flórez, director of the UNDP project in Costa Rica.

“The economy is not gender-neutral,” Flórez said. “In addition to financial responsibilities, women also carry the weight of social reproduction,which is basically a free service.”

Assuming sole responsibility for families and homes limits women’s options for working in the formal sector, where they could enjoy better pay and benefits.

For women to gain equality, the balance between family and work must shift, Flórez said.

“Just because a woman has given birth to a child doesn’t mean she has to assume sole responsibility for bringing the child up,” she said. “Work in the home should not be done by women only – men have to take responsibility for the family too.”

Creating more day-care centers and finding a way to compensate family members (mostly grandmothers) who care for children while women work are among recommendations Flórez said the UNDP study will make to government institutions.

Trainings to help women develop marketable skills are already taking place. A resource center inaugurated on International Women’s Day (March 8) in Los Yoses, east of San José, and others around the country offer free vocational training for women.

Educating government officials about gender equality is another important step toward bridging the gender gap, Flórez said.As part of the UNDP study, she held courses for employees from various ministries to discuss gender equality in hopes that participants would implement what they learned in their workplaces.

“We have to create public policies – that translate into laws – that take gender into account, and these policies can then bring about cultural changes,” Flórez said.

Meanwhile, Arroyo said she plans to remain active in her bakery business, though at times she feels too tired to continue.

On those days she said, “I grab the hand of God. It’s a mother’s love that gives you the strength to be able to do all this.”


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