What a Brazilian Soap Opera can Tell Cities about Street Vending

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By Sally Roever, WIEGO Street Vendor Sector Specialist

Street VendorsEvents on two continents these past few weeks have sparked a new discussion over what cities can do about streets getting too crowded and chaotic. In downtown Johannesburg, city officials unleashed a “clean sweep” operation in October in which thousands of traders’ stalls – both unlicensed and licensed – were demolished. Meanwhile in Brazil, street vendors from seven cities issued an open letter on International Street Vendors’ Day asserting their right to the city in the context of intensified exclusion – exclusion that city administrations justify in light of the approaching World Cup.

How can urban planners support lively public spaces, asks the Grid, an urban planning blog, while at the same time maintaining safety and order? The first-person accounts of traders in Johannesburg being threatened and beaten in the name of public order are a chilling reminder of the need to find a balance. What can cities do to avoid the spectre of destroying its own residents’ livelihoods while preventing the streets from being overrun with chaos?

Vendedores AmbulantesThe evidence base suggests that there is a continuum among street traders that runs from survivalists to entrepreneurs, where many or most are somewhere in the middle. At the survivalist end, vendors struggle to break even, using their activity more as a cash-and-food management system than an enterprise in the capitalist sense. At the entrepreneurial end, vendors sell more expensive goods, operate several stalls, develop savvy strategies to avoid taxes and regulations, and accumulate substantial profits.

A good place for cities to start, then, is to understand the day-to-day work process of different types of vendors. Brazilian urbanist Raquel Rolnick points to main character Márcia, of the soap opera Amor á Vida, as a representation of the complex daily lives of street vendors – especially undocumented ones in cities like São Paulo that issue licenses to only a tiny percentage of the street vending population. Between dodging the police, coping with household financial struggles, paying off abusive moneylenders, and labouring under an unsympathetic public image, the survivalists in the sector just won’t make it through formalization projects that require savings or high rent payments.

So what are the options? Here are four key questions that cities may want to ask before they put themselves in Johannesburg’s shoes (the city now gets to deal with lawsuits as a result of its “clean sweep”):

  • What is the day-to-day work process of vendors from different product categories? Preliminary results from the Informal Economy Monitoring Study (reports to be released shortly via Inclusive Cities) show that fruit and vegetable vendors in some cities lose money on average; their stock often gets confiscated or spoiled, and they have a hard time passing rising prices to consumers. Vendors who can’t save need access to public space in order to survive.
  • Who are the actors in the value chain and how to they extract profits? Evidence suggests that some vendors would be able to use savings for off-street stalls if those savings were not eaten up by informal moneylenders, owners of storage facilities, and wholesalers who collude on prices. A few regulatory protections for vendors might go a long way in creating a pool of mid-level entrepreneurs who could move to off-street facilities.
  • What access to basic social protections do vendors and their households have? Many vendors live in households that rely on income from vending, and very few have even a single formal sector wage earner in the household. This means that without health insurance, workers’ compensation, or a reliable wage among them, their families are constantly coping with household financial shocks due to illness, injury, and incapacitation. Cities could find ways to help bring those households under national social protection programs, and in return have more productive workers.
  • What does the organizational landscape look like in the sector? Vendors’ organizations can play a key role in mediating relations between cities and their members, and what most street vendors want – contrary to public perception – is the same as what formal businesses want: predictable rules and a safe physical environment. Where vendors are democratically represented in bargaining forums, more sustainable policy solutions are found.

Like Márcia, many vendors are not in a position to become business tycoons; they are only trying to bring home enough cash to get through the next day. Cities like Bhubaneswar, India that take a gradual, differentiated approach to the sector – and listen to the voices of street vendors themselves in the process – will find themselves in a better kind of spotlight than those that steamroll their residents’ livelihoods.