Relying on One Another: Saving Groups by Informal Workers, for Informal Workers

Female waste picker in Vientiane, Laos

Female waste picker in Vientiane, Laos

Healthcare can be a challenge for those living in Laos, particularly for the poor.  Public healthcare is only available to approximately 11 percent of the population and private alternatives charge prohibitively steep fees.  Added to that, many labourers are employed without insurance and therefore receive no assistance with medical costs.  Informal workers are even more vulnerable as without registration, they are not protected by labour law and hence do not receive social protection from the state. 

Ms. Thong, a 54-year-old waster picker based in Vientiane, is one of many informal workers who face such vulnerabilities.  Her line of work faces many challenges and requires a great deal of adaptability.  “I mostly collect from households, but I also pick up whatever I find on the road.  I’ve been collecting waste for the past 18 years. I do it every day. It’s quite heavy work and the smell can be nasty, but you get used to it”, she says. 

As annual revenue earned by waste pickers has been declining, the lack of social welfare these informal workers are provided with is becoming increasingly worrisome. According to Ms. Orlapin, a waste picker based in Vientiane, growing competition have caused her earnings to dwindle.  She explained, “We used to sell everything straight to recycling factories, but nowadays those are located abroad.  And we can’t export, so we need to sell to middlemen, who take a share for themselves. And there’s ever more people collecting garbage.  We still collect the same amount of garbage from waste pickers, but we only earn one fourth of what we earned before from selling it." 

In response to this growing concern, one of Oxfam’s partner organizations, the Environment Conservation and Community Development Association (ECCDA), has been taking steps to improve the welfare of these informal workers throughout the Lao capital.  By establishing a community savings group within the network of waste pickers, workers can now borrow from this fund to help cover the cost of medical fees that may arise. 

For Ms. Thong, the savings group amongst her peers has granted her a sense of security.  She said, “I’m a member of the savings group that ECCDA helped develop.  There’s no interest, so it doesn’t earn me money, but it’s a matter of solidarity - you help your friends.  I’ve contributed about 30.000 KIP myself each month for two years. And I’ve never had to borrow. Usually I don’t get sick.  I have a headache sometimes, but nothing really bad.  However, if I did have a serious medical condition, I would not be able to afford the fees at the hospital.  I’d hope that I could borrow money from the savings group”. 

With Oxfam’s assistance, the ECCDA, continues to expand its services in the hope of providing informal workers with the knowledge they need to ensure a better standard of welfare.