As lockdowns kill jobs, Africa's informal workers suffer

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

A member of security forces inspects a permit allowing a woman to leave her home, after a health state of emergency was declared and members of the public ordered to a home confinement, in Rabat, Morocco, Sunday, March 22, 2020. For some people the COVID-19 coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, but for some it can cause severe illness including pneumonia.(AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy)

RABAT – Earlier this month, Soukaina Rgragui, her 1-year-old daughter and diabetic mother lived modestly on the money brought back home by Soukaina’s husband, a vendor of used furniture in the streets of Morocco's capital Rabat.

Now that virus containment measures have shut down his informal business, Rgragui finds herself among many vulnerable Moroccans begging strangers on the internet for help.

Morocco was among the first African countries to start shutting down borders and economic activity in recent weeks to stem the spread of the virus, and other African governments are watching the fallout in Morocco as they adopt similar measures.

Rgragui’s husband is among some 2 billion people the International Labor Organization estimates work in the “informal economy,” without official contracts or worker protections. Such work is especially widespread in Africa, where informal workers make up as much as 85% of the labor force, according to the ILO.

These are already among society’s poorest and most vulnerable, and their troubles resonate widely. In Tunisia, a unregistered fruit vendor set himself on fire in 2010 out of desperation, unleashing the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew governments and changed the face of the region.

In Morocco, such workers aren’t eligible for government handouts to those who are now jobless because of restrictions on businesses and movement meant to stem the spread of the virus.

After Morocco started shutting down “non-essential” business activity, the little savings the Rgraguis had were depleted after buying a week’s worth of food, milk for the baby and medicine for the grandmother, Rgragui told The Associated Press.

“Please help with whatever you can," she pleaded on a coronavirus support group on Facebook. “We don’t have money to buy diapers for the baby.”