Sierra Leone Traders Union [SLeTU]: Using organizational structures to organize, inform and educate informal traders to respond to the coronavirus crisis

 A conversation  with Aaron A. Boima, National Secretary-General

By: Vanessa Pillay (WIEGO)

Relying on organizational structures to inform and educate members about  COVID-19 protocols

As the COVID-19 pandemic struck, SLeTU relied on  its organizsational structures of market, branch and city-level committees to communicate with members in every corner of the country. Chairpersons of the different structures used the existing WhatsApp communication platforms to:

  • Inform members of precautionary measures – sanitize, keep safe distances and wear masks. 
  • Help prevent the spread of the virus among market vendors and their customers.  

The union provided water buckets and hand sanitizers for members’ use in their trading spaces. 

Negotiating for safe public spaces and monitoring its implementation

The union negotiated with mayors and city councils to provide water and sanitizers for use in public trading spaces; implementation is monitored by the union’s market structures.

SLeTU has 32 marshals engaged in active monitoring across 16 districts in Freetown. The marshals work with the city police to monitor adherence to the COVID-19 health protocols. 

The union’s  executive council members are using public platforms such as national radio stations to keep members informed of the severity of the pandemic and the attention required to save lives and livelihoods. The union’s vice-president serves on the government’s  inter-ministerial council that was set up to manage the pandemic. Union organizers are out on the streets keeping street traders informed.  This is how the union has managed the COVID-19 crisis from local council to national level.

Struggling and adapting to maintain their livelihoods

Hawkers and traders who usually trade at night could not work so many lost their income. Fast food vendors were completely out of  business at the height of the lockdown until June 2020 when lockdown measures were eased. Traders adapted to using digital means like GSM money transfers to continue trading. When the country was locked down and people’s movement was restricted the union engaged the GSM agents to enable  market traders  and cross-border traders to use the system so that they could continue trading. Adapting to the use of the technology was a challenge for most traders but they learned how to use it. Continued border closures impacts on the cost of access to scarce goods creating further financial hardship.Traders who are dependent on cross-border trade between Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone remain affected. The scarcity of fresh produce affects the local hawkers’ trade and their daily means of earning a living. Access to finance remains a challenge as members have to fall back on their meagre savings as the economy remains under strain.

Managing the spread of the pandemic

The spread of the virus appeared to be under control for some time until early December when the borders were opened up again. Just before Christmas 2020,142 citizens were in quarantine nationally and 98 of them were traders. 

The union has embarked on a national leadership education programme to ensure that leaders can provide leadership under the current pandemic situation. Leaders are taught to protect and direct membership across the country. The union is in touch with every local council chairperson in the country to know what is happening in every locality and in turn keeping members informed through the different structures from districts to national level.