by Sally Roever
Street vendors have a way of fitting themselves into urban public space.
The trouble is, most cities don’t plan for that. And because they don’t plan for it, they have a hard time accommodating it. The result?
“We are not taken as people who also exist in this country.”
So lamented a street vendor in Durban, South Africa, in reference to the local government’s treatment of street vendors. The vendor is a participant in the Informal Economy Monitoring Study (IEMS), a 10-city study that uses quantitative and participatory methods to identify key drivers of working conditions in the informal economy.
The IEMS report on street vendors, released today, details the impact of government policy and practice on street vendors’ livelihoods. It shows that vendors’ struggles with police harassment, arbitrary confiscations, and ineffective permit and licensing systems are widespread.
It’s Hard to Work Without a Workplace
Without a legal claim on the right to work in public space, vendors operate in an uncertain environment. Focus groups in every city said they lose earnings when they have to run from police or have their merchandise confiscated. This was true even of vendors with permits or licenses: in Nakuru, for example, vendors said they have to pay bribes to keep the police away even if they hold licenses and have paid municipal taxes.
One vendor even said a policeman came to him one day and tried to sell him stock he had confiscated from another trader. “In such cases, how do you report municipal police in a municipal court?” Fair question, when vendors don’t have explicit legal rights to work in public space and legal protections as workers. Only in India have these rights been codified in national law.
Relocations and evictions were also a common theme. “We can’t buy stock in quantity, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” said a vendor working in a district of Lima where rumors of evictions were swirling. And because they lack institutionalized bargaining forums with city governments, they don’t have a say in how relocations take place.
The result is that vendors lack leverage with cities, even though they perform an important function in urban economies. “We are powerless,” said a Nakuru vendor starkly.
The Small-Scale Economy is “The Backbone” of Urban Life
Nearly a decade ago, Ela Bhatt argued that the issue for cities is not a matter of territorial wars between vendors and vehicles, but rather the issue of how to meet the needs of the small-scale economy in a market environment that is designed to meet the needs of the large-scale industrial economy. This small-scale economy is “the backbone” of Indian life, she contends.
Street vendors in the IEMS study also recognize the essential role they play in cities. “Big retailers and other suppliers are boosted by the street traders. This increases the city’s economy,” noted a trader from Durban. In fact, 51 per cent of vendors in the survey sample source their goods mainly from formal suppliers. And 84 per cent pay for the services of other workers—including porters, security guards, transport operators, storage providers, repairmen and delivery services, among others. “We provide employment to head loaders, tea sellers, and rickshaw drivers,” added a vendor from Ahmedabad.
Remarkably, nearly two-thirds of all study participants pay for licenses, permits, or access to public space through fees. Several noted that they pay value added tax on purchases of stock, further contributing to government coffers. And many added that they are the only ones who sell goods at prices that are accessible to the poor.
What Street Vendors Recommend
The study also asked how street vendors perceive institutions, and how those institutions could provide vendors with a more supportive environment. Focus group participants had wide-ranging ideas for improving working conditions, strengthening linkages between formal and informal enterprises, and making urban infrastructure more supportive of productivity. But one of the most common policy prescriptions offered by street vendors to governments was also one of the most simple: “Listen to us.”