Justice for street vendors

November 17, 2023 10:42
Photo: Reuters

A wave of evictions recently hit in Dakar’s bustling Liberté 6 market, a roughly mile-long commercial hub that has served its community for more than 20 years. Hundreds of street vendors’ stalls were bulldozed to make way for a new bus system. Authorities gave prior notice and an indemnity to help with the loss of business, but did not address the real problem: the lack of trading space.

Street vending is a legitimate economic activity that provides livelihoods for millions and accounts for a large share of urban employment in many cities across the Global South. Nearly 59,000 street vendors work in Dakar, accounting for 13.8% of total employment, while metropolitan Lima has roughly 450,000, comprising 8.8% of total employment. And these numbers are likely growing as the informal economy absorbs many of those left unemployed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is a livelihood that requires one resource above all: access to busy, pedestrian-friendly, well-connected, and affordable public space. But government authorities focus instead on “cleaning up” cities, which means clearing the streets of vendors. In their view, informal traders are a nuisance: they litter and clutter streets, obstruct urban mobility, and occupy precious space that could be used for modernization or beautification projects, or sold to deep-pocketed developers and transformed into oases of leisure for urban elites.

The failure to provide street vendors with the space they need is short-sighted, at best (eviction campaigns never solve the “problem” – workers often have no choice but to set up shop again). In 2015, the International Labor Organization recommended that subsistence workers be permitted to use public space as member states move from informal to formal economies. Yet time and again, governments have implemented narrow policies and legal frameworks that curtail access.

In fact, this pattern has become embedded in policymakers’ strategies to formalize the informal economy. These strategies, focused mainly on getting informal workers to register and pay taxes, can provide important opportunities, including access to social protection, financing, and professional training. But they almost never recognize public space as a workplace, perpetuating the status quo. Instead, they build complex structures on shaky foundations – namely, punitive legal and policy frameworks that criminalize informal trading and deny the most vulnerable access to economic activities.

Proposals to relocate street vendors to enclosed markets are often empty promises – or implemented with little or no consultation with the affected individuals, resulting in poorly planned markets far from the city’s commercial hubs and difficult to reach. Vendors either shun or quickly abandon them, returning instead to the streets from which they were removed.

Acutely aware of their precarity, street vendors usually have one goal: to trade without fear of harassment or eviction. “I know we are not allowed to work here, but I have a family to feed,” said an informal worker selling mobile phones from a small kiosk in Guédiawaye, a municipality on the outskirts of Dakar, in an interview in 2022 conducted by my organization, WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing). “All I want is to be able to work and make a living,” added the man, who asked not to be named. Pointing to an empty patch of land across the street, he said, “With other vendors, we asked the municipality to authorize us to sell there, but we got no response.”

The United Nations’ New Urban Agenda, adopted in 2016, recognizes that public space can function as a workplace reality and supports measures that allow for the “best possible commercial use of street-level floors, fostering both formal and informal local markets and commerce.” A legal framework that guarantees informal vendors access to this space must underpin any formalization strategy. In fact, it is a logical prerequisite for all other aspects of formalization, like registration and taxation.

Of course, as a scarce resource, urban public space is highly sought after, and there are many competing interests. But its effective management requires input from workers in informal employment, as various initiatives have demonstrated. In India, for example, the 2014 Street Vendors Act established “town vending committees,” consisting of government officials, sellers, and others, to make decisions about trading locations and monitor evictions and relocations. In the 1990s, the Lima municipality involved street vendors from the outset in its relocation planning process to ensure that they had proper access to infrastructure and customers. Between 2009 and 2011, the Dakar municipality started an effective dialogue with informal traders about relocation.

These examples are far from perfect. The inclusive planning process was discontinued in Lima (though it did result in successful relocations), as were the dialogues in Dakar, while India’s Street Vendors Act is only partly implemented. But they show that the inclusive management of public space is possible.

Fair distribution of public space is crucial to recognizing street vendors, legalizing their access to a workplace, and protecting their livelihoods. That will not happen unless informal traders participate in – and meaningfully influence – the policies and regulations that affect them.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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The writer is adjunct professor at American University.