Social protection systems are designed to assist citizens from the effects of adverse situations related to life course, illness and disability, income loss, and work hazards. However, while some groups are able to access programmes, such as cash transfers, there are other groups who are left unprotected from shocks, work-related risks, and precarious life events. They also remain unassisted in old age, and other vulnerable stages over the timespan of their life. The reason for this lack of coverage is that some groups do not meet the conditionalities associated with state assistance and programmes. The social safety net that governments propose, for instance, cash transfers to be, does not catch the fall of all vulnerable groups and thus many slip through the conditional gaps.
Covid-19 has highlighted the susceptibility of groups to adverse events, particularly, the pandemic’s negative impact on vulnerable workers. Lockdown restrictions required individuals to work from home where possible, but for many vulnerable workers, especially informal workers whose jobs are typically casual arrangements and customer-facing or requires them to be out-of-home, income generation was not possible and they were therefore hit particularly hard by these restrictions. Pre-covid, informal workers were not eligible for social protection coverage. However, during the pandemic, governments around the world understood the critical nature of extending social protection coverage to this group in the form of cash transfers. This was also the case in The Bahamas, where temporary cash transfer programmes have been instrumental in allowing those informal workers who lost income to continue to support themselves and their families.
In The Bahamas, 6.9 percent of the workforce (Mera 2020) who are employed in the informal sector, contribute to 20 to 30 percent of the economy (Peters 2017). The threat Covid-19 posed to informal workers, who are twice as likely to belong to poor families, would be crippling. To address this, the Bahamian government extended unemployment benefits to some informal workers affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Unemployment Assistance Programme (UEA) adopted by the National Insurance Board (NIB) of the Bahamas on the 7th of April 2020 benefitted three groups of people; 1) self-employed persons who were registered with the government and had no employees, 2) jitney drivers without a business license who possessed a public service drivers badge, (Government of The Bahamas 2014) and 3) self-employed persons working in tourism without a business license who could provide proof of work (Mera 2020). They received a sum of BSD200  per week for 13 weeks to subsidize income lost during the lockdown restrictions. Payments were made to beneficiaries every two weeks via direct bank deposits, cheques and digital wallets over 13 weeks (Government of The Bahamas 2020).
With the ongoing effects of Covid-19 on tourism, the UEA was extended to cover loss of income for self-employed persons in the tourism sector who were not working at all due to reduced travel to the Bahamas of up to 59.7 percent (Mera 2020). On July 1, 2020 cash transfers continued to be received at a reduced amount of BSD150 per week. Those who were able to work part-time received payments, “with a deduction of BSD30 per working day” (IMF 2021). However, a significant fraction of informal workers were not covered including others who were indirectly linked to the tourism sector (IMF 2021).
The limitations of the UEA and its extension, is that both excluded a large portion of the self-employed and micro-businesses in the informal sector, such as street vendors and domestic workers. The conditions of both programs meant that only a select few in specific categories in informality were eligible for coverage. Secondly, both programs are temporary and leaves informal workers exposed to subsequent adversities when it ends.
As it stands, without social protection, informal workers in The Bahamas remain punished by a socio-economic system that requires them to rely on the informal economy for survival. Social protection has the potential to alleviate both inter- and intragenerational effects of poverty. However, in order to do so, social protection must be made more accessible and innovative solutions must be introduced to target and reach excluded groups. Lack of access to social protection would only further the inequalities and conditions of the informal worker, many of whom already live near the poverty line.
It is unclear why certain groups of informal workers were excluded from receiving cash transfers. However, reasons that threaten their inclusion are poor targeting and the lack of an accurate measurement of the informal sector in The Bahamas. Though, it appears that the groups who received cash transfers were intentionally selected. Either way, this presents as a problem with the way social protection is designed and administered. A problem, but also an opportunity for the social safety net, as it is commonly called, to catch all who fall. Maximizing this opportunity will take radical technical and cognitive shifts.
Opportunities for the future
The Covid-19 crisis has resulted in significant pressures for the Bahamian government and has highlighted the criticality of developing more comprehensive and responsive social protection coverage to unprotected workers. The Consultative Group to Assist the Poor (CGAP 2020) proposed questions that could guide the future development of social protection measures for informal workers:
- How can we identify vulnerable segments, especially in informality, on an ongoing basis so that we know who they are before another crisis occurs?
- How can we ensure that relief is appropriate for vulnerable people and delivery channels are in place to reach them?
How can we identify vulnerable segments on an ongoing basis so that we know who they are before another crisis occurs?
Workers in the informal sector are also referred to as being “invisible” in the labor force due to the lack of formal registration with the government, exclusion from social policy, and lack of documentation in this sector. These factors make identifying and targeting this group difficult when designing and implementing social protection. To effectively provide protection to this group, they must first be identified.
In Brazil, the Unified Registry for Social Programs has been an instrumental tool for identifying low-income families and developing policies and programmes to target this group. The national registration has also become a key part of the administration of the country’s social protection system and has been useful in allowing for the identification of informal workers (WWP n.d.)
Another way for governments to identify informal workers is to establish partnerships with workers groups and industry associations and cooperatives. Through this connection, informal workers can be reached, their needs can be met, and suitable modes of delivery for social protection can be implemented.
How can we ensure that relief is appropriate for vulnerable people and delivery channels are in place to reach them?
Current models of social protection are built with formal employment in mind and therefore are incapable of reaching those in the informal sector. In order to address this concern it is important to engage the voices of those who work in the informal economy. Allowing them to identify the factors that are important and the needs that are immediate to them can help to shape the design and delivery of social protection that meets their unique circumstances. If the intent is to design comprehensive social protection programmes for informal workers, it is necessary to understand how they identify social protection gaps, what they consider to be barriers to protection, and how they define their personal priorities and needs.
During the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Argentinian government established the Emergency Social Committee (ESC) which brought together stakeholders from workers organizations, both formal and informal, civil society organizations, churches, and government officials from various cities to discuss the issues arising from the pandemic with a focus on food security. Discourse took place at three levels - national, provincial, and local (WIEGO n.d.) and through this initiative they were able to meet community needs.
The questions posed by CGAP focus on the structural and technical facets of social protection for informal workers. Equally important is asking questions that address the cognitive factors that hinder the development and permanent implementation of social protection for this group; Questions around the perception of welfare, who is worthy of protection, and who is responsible for ensuring the well-being of vulnerable groups. Particularly when these groups find themselves in positions of survival that are not due to internal insufficiencies but due to lack of resources and access to opportunities that has been furthered by the pandemic but is by no means novel in developing societies.
It is easy to think of those who are on the receiving end of non-contributory cash transfers as not “earning their keep”. This is often seen as giving away benefits to those who do contribute to the country's economy through taxes. However, the informal economy contributes to economic growth and sustains many families. In this way, there is an exchange of material and immaterial resources between the state and the informal sector.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, communities were already susceptible to the damaging effects of poverty and inequality. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, inequalities have been exacerbated and vulnerable communities have been negatively impacted the most. Many countries, in an effort to assist vulnerable groups during the pandemic, developed and implemented initiatives to buffer the consequences of the pandemic on their well-being. However, as covid-19 restrictions ease, what is apparent is that there are communities who struggle to recover after the temporary assistance has ended. The question that remains is how can social protection move from being a buoy that allows groups to stay afloat while remaining in the clutches of vulnerability, to a system that encourages a life well lived for all?
Currently social protection excludes many vulnerable groups and isn’t an impetus for covered groups to move out of poverty in their lifetime. The current modus operandi of social protection in The Bahamas is limited in scope and reach and if it continues this way, will fail to meet the articulated needs of diverse communities in a rapidly changing society. As people begin to define their aspirations and desires and hold governments accountable to their social contract, we should consider how social protection fits into the narrative. We are presented with the chance to imagine systems that create opportunities for vulnerable groups, like informal workers, that protect them from precarious life events.
- Government of The Bahamas (2020). NIB will launch new online portal government-funded unemployment benefit extension (GovUEBex) programme on july 20, 2020. Access here
- Government of The Bahamas (2014). Private sector assessment in the bahamas. Access here
- IMF (2021). The bahamas 2020. Access here
- Mera, M. (2020). The bahamas country note: Impact of covid-19 and policy options. UNDP. Access here
- Peters. A. (2017). Estimating the size of the informal economy in caribbean states. Inter-America. Inter-American Development Bank. Access here
- WIEGO (n.d.). Social protection responses to Covid-19. Access here
- WWP (n.d). Unified Registry: The Unified Registry of the Brazilian government is a tool for identification and socioeconomic characterization of low-income families. Access here
 The equivalent to roughly USD 200,00 in September, 2021.