Rethinking the Informal Economy in the DTES
Priyanka Roy Chakrabarti is a Masters in Planning (MPLAN) student at the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning. For two semesters, Priyanka is working with The Binners’ Project, helping them to build the Binners’ Events and Individual Pick Ups pilot programs.
Since the very beginning of its discovery, the informal economy has been described as a marginal and peripheral phenomenon, not linked to the formal sector or to the capitalist-led economy of developed nations. Many economists have also consistently supported the notion that the informal economy in developing countries would disappear once these countries achieved sufficient levels of economic growth and modern industrial development. Fast forward a few decades and we find that the informal economy is alive and well— expanding in developing countries and thriving in developed countries.
The Informal Economy is here to stay
The informal economy will exist as long as there are barriers to entering the formal economy. It has existed across Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, as exemplified by the online presence of websites selling second hand goods. However, we become more aware of the vices and virtues of the informal economy in areas like the DTES, which has a high concentration of people dealing with economic, mental and physical limitations. Given its importance in providing basic livelihood to people who are otherwise dependent on the welfare system, it’s crucial to change the perspective with which we look at the informal economy. Rethinking the informal economy as a reaction or adaptation to the shortfalls of the welfare system highlights the need to improve policies to address the underlying issue of poverty, rather than penalizing those who must work within it to survive.
Making the informal economy visible
In my work through LEDlab, I’ve seen that the informal economy has considerable job and income generation potential. Therefore, appropriate policy frameworks and strategies aimed at the informal economy must be developed, without hindering its potential for job creation and economic growth. The main challenge is to develop innovative and supportive policies that recognize the contributions of the informal economy and its workforce. There are several excluded and marginalized individuals and groups in the DTES who have limited voice as well as influence, considered fundamental rights for all. The underlying goal of all interventions aimed at the informal economy should be to make these invisible groups visible so that they can claim their rights as well as contribute to the development of their city— socially and economically.
LEDlab has been working to raise awareness of such marginalized groups by collaborating with various projects, one of them being the Binners’ Project— A non-profit dedicated to improving the economic prospects of binners and destigmatizing their work. A binner is someone who collects redeemable containers and other objects of value from bins to sustain their livelihood and to divert waste from landfills; a dumpster diver. Comprising of a core group of binners, who actively participate in all aspects of the project, this innovative social enterprise is striving to give binners (regionally and nationally) recognition for their meaningful contribution to society and fair compensation for their hard work, e.g. cleaning up the street and preventing more recyclables from going into the landfill.
Through the Binners Hook pilot program, the project has now taken on the challenge of installing hooks in all neighborhoods across the city. Developed by binners in collaboration with Basic Design, these hooks will encourage the public to show their support for binners—by safely leaving their recyclables for a binner passing by on their daily walk. The hook also supports City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 objectives by encouraging recycling amongst the public and finding an alternative to the conventional recycling boxes that often become a target for pests.
The informal economy has immense potential to solve urban problems and it needs to find sanctuary from restrictive regulations to be able to function as a legitimate complement to the formal economic system. The Binners’ Project is one of many such initiatives trying to unlock the potential of the informal economy and needs to be supported by radical policies that help them thrive.