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Social safeguards will create more sustainable cities Marielle Rowan

In recent decades the world has witnessed a mass exodus from the countryside to the city. More than half of the world’s population now live in cities as people desert rural areas in the search of a job and a better life.

When poor people move to a city, they can end up living in the more precarious areas – by the side of major roads or railway lines, or on unstable hillsides or land prone to flooding.

They are squatters in the eyes of the law because they have no legal title to the land they live on, which makes them vulnerable. They may have lived on the same spot for years but the authorities can send in the bulldozers at any time to move them out.

Security and stability for people living in the informal sector has to be a priority for cities which are committed to improving social cohesion and equity, one of the key themes of the forthcoming Habitat III conference on housing and sustainable urban development.

One solution is urbanisation projects that rehouse marginalised communities but which give them title to their plots of land, or at least some form of security of tenure, and ensure they have access to basic health and social services and environmental protection.

If land is needed for new infrastructure projects, it is no longer acceptable to simply evict people, leaving them to set up home in another insecure location where they will be equally vulnerable to exploitation and further eviction.

Establishing new communities

When resettling groups of people, we need to consider the range of issues that will help establish a new community – for example, access to resources needed to maintain livelihoods – or integrate households and businesses into an existing community. And if a whole community has to be relocated, they understandably want to stay together to maintain familial ties.

With resettlement planning that observes international standards, the ideal outcome is to create a social and physical environment that supports personal well-being as well as communal human rights and essential living needs.

Improving the conditions of those working in the informal sector also has to be part of the social cohesion and equity agenda. People who live in precarious urban locations typically own and run businesses that can be described as ambulatory or temporary. They tend not to have access to credit and other ways to improve their business, but are easy victims of corruption.

If their contribution to the urban economy can be formalised, the money they make – instead of being consumed by bribes – can be turned into profit or investment that could create more jobs and tax revenues.

Upholding labour rights

This process of formalisation should extend to the employment sphere. Today there is wider acknowledgement of the responsibility of companies to maintain minimum standards on labour management, working conditions and rights in the workplace.

There is growing demand for labour monitoring and audits in the construction sector, in particular in countries where there is a recent history of labour rights infractions, or for projects with large workforces or a large proportion of migrant workers. It is becoming a routine and necessary social management measure in environmental and social impact assessments.

It is not uncommon to find subcontractor employees without a contract, meaning they have little recourse if they are not being paid correctly or on time. Workers should be paid at least a living wage, enough to meet basic needs and provide some discretionary income.

Ensuring equal pay for equal work by workers from different countries is one of the most challenging issues. Another is excessive overtime, a problem regularly identified through monitoring activities, which has negative consequences for workers, particularly increased health and safety risks.

Workers’ accommodation facilities, ranging from tents to individual apartments, to large custom-built or prefabricated dormitories, are inspected as part of the labour monitoring process. Migrant workers are again the most vulnerable and their accommodation is often not clean or pleasant.

Secure housing for all, labour rights and other social safeguards all contribute to economic prosperity and community cohesion, which in turn build resilience. If we want to live in safer, more sustainable cities, we know where to start.

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