COVID-19 and the World of Work

How a typical informal sector micro business is surviving

With informal employment accounting for more than half of all jobs in Fiji, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu, it became clear that the hitherto ‘invisible sector,’ was going to be the biggest key to driving economic recovery across the Pacific region.

News | 30 March 2021
In March 2020, long-time flight attendant Sophie experienced the devastating loss of her job, along with hundreds of other Fijians in the tourism industry. The painful trauma of suddenly losing her livelihood collided with the additional stressors of uncertainty over her family’s future, plus the fear of a fast-spreading and fatal disease. Life had changed overnight, and as the weeks went by it was becoming clear that things were not going back to normal soon…if ever. There was only one constant, and that was the bills, recalls Sophie.

“I had to begin thinking of a way to pay the bills, and to keep food on the table,” she explains. Electricity, water, gas, fuel, groceries, rent – the essentials of life now seemed like luxuries to thousands of families across Fiji and the Pacific.
Under pressure to survive, Sophie had to quickly find within herself a level of strength and determination that she had never had to call on before. Having never worked outside the flight industry, she was now required to develop an entrepreneurial mindset if she was going to begin generating an income. Thinking back on a time before the pandemic, when her family would praise her delicious home-made wantons, the first glimmers of an idea – and hope - began to appear.

An Entrepreneur is Born

In December of 2020, Sophie was part of the UN75 open day weekend at Prince Charles park in Nadi, Fiji. In the midst of hundreds of vendors, the ‘1ton Fiji’ stall – boasting homemade dumplings, wantons and fresh juices – stood out for its quality products and for the beaming face behind the counter. Sophie had done it! She now operated a fully-fledged small business and had been receiving catering orders from around the island for months.
Thanks to a financial and business literacy project led by the Women Entrepreneurs Business Council and supported by the International Labour Organisation [ILO], the budding businesswoman was armed with the foundational knowledge she needed to grow and promote her business in a COVID-affected world.

Sophie’s professional Facebook page proudly advertises ‘Delicious home-made frozen chicken OR pork wontons. Sold in packs of 20, perfect for family meals to share!’ And with more than two thousand followers, it is safe to say that this little business is fast becoming a big name.

However, as Fiji marked the grim anniversary of one year of COVID this March, significant challenges remain in the world of work. More than one hundred thousand people are unemployed; a dormant tourism industry continues to keep the country’s economy on its knees; and the inequality gap widens every day, pushing women, girls, youth and those working in the informal sector further behind.

In the Driver’s Seat – Navigating Economic Recovery through the Informal Economy

In mid-2020, the UN in the Pacific undertook a series of in-depth assessments analysing actual and potential losses for Fiji’s economy and vulnerable groups as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also analysed the magnitude and nature of impact on selected sectors and population groups which are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, and recommended the most effective policy interventions to address the impact of COVID-19.

With informal employment accounting for more than half of all jobs in Fiji, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu, it became clear that the hitherto ‘invisible sector,’ was going to be the biggest key to driving economic recovery across the Pacific region.

Backed by the UN Secretary General’s COVID-19 Recovery Fund, the ILO, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), joined forces to shape an innovative project targeted exclusively at informal workers within the agriculture and creative sectors. The goal?
Inclusive Economic Recovery through Sustainable Enterprises in the Informal Economies of Fiji, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu.

In February this year, the project convened a series of meetings that brought together Key Business Development Service Providers including the Fiji National Provident Fund, Vodafone, the Ministry of Commerce, Tourism, Trade and Transport, as well as informal sector farmers and creative artist associations like the Fiji Arts Council and Pacific Islands Farmers Network.

The aim was to begin working on making business development services as accessible as possible to micro enterprises. This is an important step in creating financial stability, amongst this fast-growing segment of society, if we want to fuel a swifter economic recovery.

Once again, Sophie was present. “My first Job was at Air Pacific [now Fiji Airways],” she reiterated. “For sixteen years, like most Fijians, a percentage of my salary went towards my pension fund through the Fiji National Provident Fund. When I suddenly lost my Job in 2020], I had to start over. I set-up my small food business but had no idea that I could still voluntarily contribute to FNPF, and carry on building my retirement fund. I would have never found out if not for this new enterprise sustainability project.”

“The lack of social protection is a significant source of vulnerability for informal workers. The lack of access to health care and at least a basic level of income security keeps many of them in a vicious cycle of vulnerability, poverty and social exclusion. This constitutes an enormous challenge not only to their individual welfare and enjoyment of human rights (in particular the right to social security) but also to their countries’ economic and social development (ILO 2017; OECD and ILO 2019; RNSF 2017).”

Reflecting on the week’s discussions, Sophie echoed the sentiments of many of the participants, “I am excited about FNPF’s plans to create more awareness across various platforms about their options for voluntary contributions for informal sector workers, and also that they are looking to work closely with Vodafone through Mpaisa for accessibility. This is so important for people living in rural communities so as to avoid the inconveniences of traveling and time whenever they want to transfer money to their FNPF accounts.”

Through the second quarter of 2021, three specific types of services will be tailored and delivered to COVID-19-affected micro enterprises across Fiji - including business training, business advisory services and business mentoring.

Sophie’s final words? “I have gained such great knowledge from these meetings, and from being able to network with other small business owners. I will definitely share my experience and encourage my friends who have small businesses to contribute to FNPF. I will definitely be sharing with them everything I learn!”

This initiative is implemented in the context of a joint project entitled “Inclusive Economic Recovery through Sustainable Enterprises in the Informal Economies of Fiji, Palau, Tonga and Vanuatu”, and funded by the UN Secretary General’s Multi Partner Trust Fund (MPTF) for COVID-19 recovery.

About the ILO: The only tripartite United Nations agency, since 1919 the ILO brings together governments, employers and workers of 187 member States , to set labour standards, develop policies and devise programmes promoting decent work for all women and men.

About UNESCO: UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture. UNESCO's programmes contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals defined in Agenda 2030, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015.

About UNDP: UNDP is the leading United Nations organization fighting to end the injustice of poverty, inequality, and climate change. Working with our broad network of experts and partners in 170 countries, we help nations to build integrated, lasting solutions for people and planet.

About IFAD
: The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is a specialized agency of the United Nations, dedicated to eradicating poverty and hunger in developing countries. It works in remote rural areas of the world to help countries achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Through low-interest loans and grants, IFAD develops and finances projects that enable rural poor people to overcome poverty themselves.