With between a half and two-thirds of the world's working women and men outside the formal economy, breaking out of informality is the single biggest challenge for labour market governance worldwide. According to the ILO Director-General's report to the Conference, reducing informality requires a comprehensive approach attuned to the particular characteristics of each country. ILO Online reports from Yemen, where cultural barriers create additional challenges for women who try to work and break out of poverty.
SANA'A (ILO Online) - A successful business woman in Yemen, Amina Al-Amrani, is in her 50s and an owner of a flourishing trade in fruit and vegetables. She has a chain of market stalls spread all across Sana'a employing 25 people.
With her remarkable sense of business, Amina earned the respect of all traders in the souqs calling her Melikat Al Burtikal, the Queen of Oranges. Amina is now working towards expanding her business and exporting fruit and vegetables to other countries in the region.
Until recently, this illiterate woman from the northern Yemen highlands had no written documentation regarding her business, but now her daughters have grown up to help her with the accounts - thus enabling her business to better mitigate the vulnerabilities associated with employment in the informal economy.
Amina has come a long way. Shortly after she was married, her husband left his village in order to work in Saudi Arabia. Lacking a regular secure income for her children and herself, Amina's only choice was to work and defy customs in a tribal society that considers a working woman as a shame. "Until today, my family refused to talk to me and never accepted the fact that I was working", she says.
"In my early days I traveled to the main souq in Sana'a to buy jewelry which I sold in my village", she continues. Following a series of small income-generating activities including the selling of clothes, Amina learnt all the tricks of trade in a vital and vibrant sector in Yemen almost exclusively run by men. She borrowed money from owners of small businesses and gradually started to expand.
A role model for Yemeni women?
A recent ILO report on Yemen (Note 2) shows that Amina is quite an exception, and not only because of the size of her business. Over 90 per cent of enterprises in Yemen are micro-enterprises employing one to four people. While small enterprises with five to nine workers provide another 4 per cent, businesses like Amina's with 10 to 40 employees represent only 2.4 per cent of total employment.
According to estimates in the report, the size of the informal economy ranges between 60 and 80 per cent. As in other developing countries, the informal economy in Yemen is a refuge for the unemployed and laid-off women and men in the labour force.
The report also shows that more than 60 per cent of women in Yemen do unpaid work, mostly in agriculture, and opportunities for women are limited due to a lack of skills, restricted labour mobility, discrimination at the workplace and social and cultural barriers.
Women are concentrated in sectors that are traditionally associated with their gender roles, including clerical work, customer service, teaching, nursing and domestic work, while men dominate the better-paid sector jobs in business and finance. Credit markets tend to exclude women who are less likely than men to own land and other resources serving as collateral.
What's more, women face cultural restrictions which reduce their chances to find employment. Few women are allowed to travel alone whether abroad or within Yemen, especially for training purposes. Some families require that the father must accompany his daughters, or a husband must join his wife. For many private sector companies, these are considerable additional costs they do not want to bear.
The challenge of women's employment in Yemen has been taken up by "Strengthening the National Machinery for Advancing Women's Employment", an ILO project funded by the Dutch Government, which aims to promote women's employment in Yemen by building the capacity of the Directorate General of Working Women (DGWW) in the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour.
"Despite improvements over the past few years in the participation of women in the Yemenite labour force reaching 21.8 per cent, they still represent 37.5 per cent of workers in the informal economy but only 9.2 per cent in the formal public sector", explains Maha Abdullah, Director-General of the DGWW in the Ministry.
Under the project, the first phase of a training program on decent work and gender equality, led by the Yemeni trade unions, has recently trained 100 trainers (and developed training materials through a participatory process involving the social partners. In its second phase, the training program will reach 40,000 female and male workers from around the country.
"Women have their dreams and ambitions, but there are numerous problems left in Yemen and other parts of the Arab world. Despite the double challenge they face, breaking out of informality and overcoming traditional gender roles, a number of women have managed to succeed", said Simel Esim, ILO gender specialist in the Regional Office for the Arab States in Beyrouth. "We need to build on these positive role models in promoting women workers' rights and changing negative perceptions on working women in the region. Reducing informality and promoting female employment requires a comprehensive approach across several policy dimensions."
Note 1 - Changing patterns in the world of work, Report of the Director-General, International Labour Conference, 95th Session, 2006. Report I (C). International Labour Office, Geneva, 2006. ISBN 92-2-116623-6.
Note 2 - Characteristics of Yemeni Workers in the Informal Economy, by Abdullah Haza'a Al-Khateeb, Sana'a, Yemen, February 2006.