Collective Struggle: the foundation of StreetNet International

Collective Struggle is a new article series by StreetNet International which aims to share and highlight the numerous ways street vendors, hawkers, cross-border traders and other informal economy workers have come together to enact change and fight for their rights.

In anticipation of the International Day of Street Vendors November 14, we chatted with StreetNet’s Senior Advisor Pat Horn about how the organization was created and why is it important for street vendors and other informal traders to self-organize and promote international solidarity.  You can listen to a podcast version of this article here.

StreetNet International was officially launched on November 14, 2002. The story of how the organization was founded and what it has accomplished since then is a testament to what informal economy workers can achieve when they are organized and speaking with a united voice.

Pioneering self-organization of informal economy workers

The organization that would revolutionize organizing of informal economy workers was the Self-Employed Women’s Associations (SEWA), created in India in 1972. It started to organize women workers in the informal economy, starting with home-based workers, and it was established as a trade union, a unique innovation that contradicted traditional thinking that workers could only be recognized as such if there was a formal employer. Initially, SEWA was barred from registering as a trade union in India, but SEWA argued that “a Union was not necessarily against an employer, but was for the unity of the workers”. As such, it was finally registered as a trade union in April 1972.

Ela Bhatt, SEWA’s Founder

“SEWA was an organization whose founder – Ela Bhatt – had a great vision about international work and solidarity”, says Pat Horn, founding International Coordinator of StreetNet. Pat was already an experienced trade unionist when she started to become aware of labor rights issues in the informal economy. After a two-week study visit to India in 1993, spent with SEWA’s organizing department, Pat took notice of SEWA’s commitment to worker control and a bottom-up way of structuring unions.

The experience inspired her and other women to create the Self-Employed Women’s Union (SEWU) in South Africa in 1994. SEWA then invited them to join a group of organizations fighting for an international convention for the rights of homeworkers, which would eventually become ILO Home Work Convention (C177), passed in 1996.

Although SEWA’s international strategy was initially focused on home-based workers, they had also started to think about international strategies for other sectors of the informal economy. An international meeting was organized in Bellagio, Italy, in 1995, with representatives from 11 countries who were organizing street vendors – including SEWU. That is where the idea to set up StreetNet first originated. As Pat explains, “it was directly influenced by SEWA”.

There was a glaring need for international solidarity between informal economy workers because they were still not recognized by formal trade unions. Trade unions at the time were organized internationally through the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and also the World Conference of Labor (WLC) – these latter two merged later on to form the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which exists today.

As Pat explains, “None of those really included informal workers, except in some cases where trade unions were starting to broaden their scope, but that wasn’t happening in a widespread way by the time we started this work in the 1990s”.

However, there were some forward thinkers in the trade unions as well. In Africa, the Ghana Trades Union Congress started to organize informal economy workers from the agricultural sector as early as 1979. When General-Secretary Kwasi Adu-Amankwah realized that the workforce in Ghana was largely in the informal economy, he started to influence the Ghana TradeS Union Congress to organize informal economy workers in other sectors.

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which worked with SEWA and to which the Ghana Trades Union Congress was affiliated as well, was the entry point of informal economy workers organizations into the formal trade union movement.

StreetNet emerged from all of these intersections of formal and informal trade union movements and largely because there were people willing to think about labor rights in a new way.

As Pat explains, “The vision came from many different people who had an interest in the workers in the informal economy. Certainly, the women leadership of SEWA was extremely important in that. But so was the interaction with people like Kwasi Adu-Amankwah from Ghana Trades Union Congress.”

The vision and creation of StreetNet was a collaborative effort from different people, many of whom had experience in the formal trade union movement such as Pat and Ela Bhatt. They had a joint commitment to set up an international space in which workers from different sectors of the informal economy could experience international solidarity with each other.

At that early meeting in Bellagio in 1995, participants from 11 countries identified the main issues affecting street vendors and other informal traders: harassment, eviction from selling spaces, lack of recognition by authorities. There were also secondary issues, such as a lack of access to credit. But the primary issues were related to a lack of work security.

Inspired by SEWA, it was decided StreetNet would also have a bottom-up structure focused on worker control. As Pat explains, “We realized we shouldn’t try to extend a formal trade union structure, but really start from the needs of workers”.

Setting up StreetNet

Pat Horn

In 2000, a three-year preparatory period began to set up StreetNet as an organization. Three regional workshops were conducted in Lima, Peru (2001); in Patna, India (2002), and Accra, Ghana (2002). These workshops were focused on debates about whether there was a need for an international federation for street vendors, and if yes, then what was it supposed to do.

The discussions were oriented by four main questions:

  • How to make sure we can maintain women’s leadership, considering vending is an informal economy sector, predominantly female, and traditional trade unions are plagued by male domination?
  • What should be the relation between the organization and political parties, to make sure it cannot be bought off?
  • How can the organization be financially self-sustainable, avoiding the model of NGOs that often do the bidding for funders?
  • What should be the relationship of the organization with NGOs, considering such organizations are usually service providers and not representative of members?

The issue of women’s leadership was a decisive one and it was built into the very organization of the workshops. Pat remembers “We made absolutely sure those meetings were not male dominated. We said, you can send two people, at least one of whom must be a woman. Or if its only one person, we sometimes specified to please send a woman representative.  To make sure the meetings were dominated by women in the sector.”

In all three workshops, it was decided there should be a 50% quota for women, which still exists in StreetNet’s Constitution. The constitution and election procedures were drafted to make sure the quota would be practiced effectively and not as a form of tokenism.

Regarding the relation between StreetNet and political parties, it was also a concerning subject, as Pat explains, “We noticed that just about everywhere street vendors were treated as cannon fodder by politicians. They would come and make all sorts of promises before elections, get the people’s votes or even try to control street traders’ organizations.  After the elections all the promises would be forgotten”. In the end, it was decided StreetNet would not be aligned with any political parties, but affiliates would be free to have their own autonomous policies on this regard.

Regarding finances, it was resolved to strive to achieve financial self-sufficiency in order to avoid the organization being donor-driven.

Finally, on the issue of NGOs, it was clear these sorts of organization should not be affiliated to StreetNet, nor have the right to stand for election to leadership positions. Only membership-based organizations that organize street vendors and informal traders could be affiliated, to ensure it would remain truly representative of workers.

In November 2002, StreetNet was launched with three founding regions: Africa, Asia and Latin America. Although the goal was for the organization to extend to the rest of the world – as it eventually did – creating it from the Global South was a conscious political decision.

From the Global South to the rest of the world – disrupting Northern dominance

Street protest

Since the 1990s, when representatives of informal economy workers started to attend discussions in the ILO due to the proposed Home-Based Workers Convention, it was clear that their presence was controversial. Pat remembers: “It wasn’t always a pleasant experience because we weren’t quite accepted in those days.”

Organizations such as SEWA and SEWU lobbied in the workers’ group for the Convention, but although the majority was sympathetic, there was still a noticeable hostility from some trade unions. And this lack of recognition was mostly from the North.

“There was this dominance from the North.” Pat says “We would lobby the francophone African trade unions and we’d get into the discussion and somebody from France would talk and then francophone African countries were following France, instead of what has been agreed with us in the caucus. First, we thought it was misunderstanding, but then we saw there was a real northern dominance. We would have attempts by unions from the Global South to break out of that, but this influence was very hard to shake. It just like permeated everything. And we realized it was because of the way trade unions started, whose values emerged from the industrial culture of the Global North.”

The participants from the Global North, including many of the trade unions, could not understand informal economy issues and the demands of informal economy workers from the Global South. Furthermore, the male-dominated trade unions of the Global North undermined traditional cultures of some places in the Global South, such as parts of West Africa, in which a matriarchal culture of market management still existed in the informal economy and resulted in strong women’s traditional leadership. In the StreetNet International launch in Durban in November 2002, some of the male participants were objecting to the 50% quota for participation of women in all structures and activities in the organization.  They were promoting a 30% quota.  But after women from West Africa made a counter-proposal of an 80% quota in line with the demographic on the ground in their countries, those proposing 30% quickly abandoned this proposal and got on board with the 50% quota, which was adopted.

According to Pat, these influences “provided a basis to develop a strong women-controlled organization, but only if our origins came from the Global South. That is why it was a deliberate political decision – let us start this movement in the opposite way to the way the formal trade union movement started – let’s start it from the South, we will spread to everywhere in the world, but we don’t want people from the South to find people from the North have already set the agenda. We want it to be the other way around. When people from the North join us, they will find people from South have already set the agenda.”

Another difference between the Global North and Global South when it came to these issues was the level of acceptance of the informal economy as an integral part of their respective societies. While in Europe and North America the migration issue overtakes many discussions regarding informal economy workers, in the Global South, migrants are not usually the majority of the informal economy.

However, informal economy workers, migrants and otherwise, do exist in the Global North and some of them are turning to the Global South for answers. Emerging trade unions of such workers started to appear in Europe and North America. One notable example Pat highlights is the “excluded workers movement” in the United States, which started with the organization of migrants in “atypical work” and developed cooperation with the main trade union federation in the country, AFL-CIO.

Recognition of StreetNet in the international labor movement


StreetNet delegation to attend the 108t Session of the ILO Conference (2019), along with other delegations of informal economy workers’ organizations.

When organizations of informal economy workers started to participate in the International Labour Conferences of the ILO, one issue that came up was that informal economy workers were largely self-employed and, as such, they did not belong in the workers group, but as entrepreneurs with the employers.

Pat’s answer to the employers was clear: “In your dreams. We are a workers’ organization”.

The class position issue, when it comes to street vendors and other informal economy workers, is crucial, and StreetNet has always stressed that street vendors and informal traders are, indeed, workers even though they are self-employed.   In 2002 the ILO officially defined them as “own-account workers”.

Many people who belong to informal economy workers organizations originated from the trade unions.  Gradually these organizations were accepted by the labor movement.

SEWA was accepted to be part of the ILO structures, as a trade union. Then, StreetNet followed suit as the first global federation specific to an informal economy sector. StreetNet was first accredited by the ILO in 2004 to go to International Labor Conferences, participating in equal footing as international trade unions, but other international informal economy organizations were eventually accredited as well, including WIEGO and the International Domestic Workers Federation.

In 2003, an International Coordinating Committee (ICC) for Organizing Workers in the Informal Economy was set up at an international conference on organizing workers in the informal economy in Ahmedabad, India – consisting of StreetNet, SEWA, Ghana Trades Union Congress, Nigerian Labor Congress and the Trade Union Confederation of Workers of the Americas.

According to Pat, “We created this loose structure to work on the international organizational environment to break down some of these resistances to our organizations, which were in various places, and to bring the trade union movement into a more positive frame of mind about working with membership-based organizations of workers in informal economy.”

Eventually, organizations of workers in the informal economy became more accepted by the international labor movement, started going regularly to international labor conferences and the steering committee was disbanded.

The formal trade union movement is much more open, accepting, and supportive of informal economy workers today. For Pat, that is definitely one of the great achievements of StreetNet so far: “To set up an organization able to function in ILO and use international platforms like that, which has been able to expand the vision of the trade union movement about organizing informal workers”.

Uniting street vendors across nations

StreetNet Regional Workshop in Dakar, Senegal

StreetNet was groundbreaking for informal traders at the local and national level because it allowed them to become stronger and create democratic structures. As Pat explains:

“Setting up something like StreetNet and getting accepted by the international trade union movement was a stimulus for organizing in the sector along the lines of democratic trade unions. Many of the street vendors’ organizations that existed before were very vulnerable to mafia-type leadership. To get them out the grips of the mafia-type leadership, and more democratically organized under worker control, the processes involved in setting up StreetNet helped with that – organization building, which led to more democratic organizations which are more compatible with the trade union movement. The trade unions used to be terrified of the mafia leaders. But now that is not the main character of the movement anymore.”

Not only that, but StreetNet and other sector-specific global alliances have also contributed to unite informal economy workers at the national level in many countries. “It certainly encouraged organizations to become more united than what we found on the ground in the 1990s, which was a lot of competing associations who could never talk with one voice, and were therefore never taken seriously by the authorities,” says Pat.

Although StreetNet does not directly organize street vendors by itself, one of its goals was to persuade associations to merge into national organizations and federations, so they could speak with one united voice and have greater influence.

StreetNet also contributed to more organizations by demonstrating the importance of street vendors and other informal economy workers to the trade union movement, which led trade unions from countries such as Bangladesh and Nepal to initiate the creation of new informal economy workers unions.

As StreetNet grew, however, an important need became apparent. “We realized that organizations exist all over and people are more accepting of the need for these organizations, but how to influence the lives of street vendors? We realized we needed to equip organizations with collective negotiation skills”; Pat summarizes.

Starting in 2012, StreetNet conducted research on the kinds of negotiations already taking place spontaneously and started to provide negotiation skills courses to affiliates, but also to StreetNet’s team itself. Some leaders in StreetNet affiliates are experts at negotiations and have managed to lobby for important laws and gain access to key social dialogue spaces. But others are still learning about it. Even in countries where informal economy workers are affiliated with national trade unions, it is still a challenge to adapt formal negotiation structures between workers and employers, to the negotiations that take place between informal workers’ representatives and authorities.

“The ability of organizations to influence planning about street trade regulation has happened in some countries, it is very uneven” Pat points out “Of course, it’s not StreetNet who goes there and negotiates, but the StreetNet affiliate having the backing of StreetNet International and the training it has provided to leaders on negotiation skills, and being able to quote examples from other countries – which really intimidates municipalities, because they realize they are dealing with people who understand what’s going on internationally, that also helps”.

The fact that StreetNet organizers and affiliates work together to collect information is also important, because it gives a more detailed view of what exactly in happening on the ground. Having a direct impact on the lives of street vendors and other informal traders remains the priority.

“The stronger the organization is, there more it is able to have an impact on the ground. If it grows to be a big organization and achieves nothing, people leave. Those organizations that are big and remain big, they managed to achieve certain things and people remain with them because something has changed in their lives,” explains Pat. “I would regard that as the biggest success for StreetNet, that it is having an impact on the ground in many countries”.

International Day of Street Vendors

StreetNet has led successful campaigns since it first started, the most influential of which are probably the World Class Cities for All campaigns which followed FIFA’s World Cup Series in South Africa (2010) and Brazil (2014). As mega-events tend to be an excuse for municipalities to “clean up” the streets and evict vendors, StreetNet strategically fought back and mobilized its constituency and other social movement and civil society groups to defend the rights of informal traders and other organized marginal social constituencies they united with.

There was also another campaign aimed at creating a New Manifesto for street vendors and other informal traders, which resulted in several workshops in different countries – but this campaign was not as effective, and the New Manifesto was never completed.

What became the most thoroughly implemented-from-below campaign by affiliate organizations, however, is the International Day of Street Vendors on November 14 every year.

It was adopted in 2012 and it marks StreetNet’s launch on 14 November 2002. Every year, organizations of street vendors and other informal traders from across the globe celebrate this day in their countries and cities. They organize events, share information and materials on social media, and inspire international solidarity.

This year will mark StreetNet’s 18th birthday, and its existence has never been more important. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the urgent need for recognition of informal economy workers and StreetNet has been working hard to ensure no one is left behind.

After 18 years, street vendors and other informal traders are today better organized, more united and have carved up a space for their issues in the global agenda. We will continue to honor StreetNet’s legacy and make our motto come true: Nothing for us without us!

Stay tuned to know more about this years’ celebrations and how to support street vendors and other informal traders!