Human Impact Stories, IDEA Cambodia

IDEA, Cambodia

Recently, StreetNet spoke with its members—street vendors who are in their turn affiliated members of Cambodia’s Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA)—in order to understand how StreetNet and IDEA’s joint efforts concretely impact their lives.

The human impact stories below show just how much StreetNet’s and IDEA’S work helps the vendors and their families. Through this work, vendors access education, improve their economic conditions, experience less workplace harassment, and contribute in meaningful leadership roles within their organization.

Nub Souen

Right at the edge of the road, just outside the hot, humid, and busy Phsar Douem Kor Market in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Nub Souen, her children, and grandchildren sit in the shade under a patchwork of tarps. Here, Souen, a street vendor, spends each day, from six thirty in the morning until nine at night, selling potatoes and small juicing oranges. Her children, ranging in age from 3 to 14, also spend many hours here. The older children are out of school for the summer, and, in Cambodia, younger children don’t begin school until age 6. 

As Souen says, it can be very difficult to work and look after the children at the same time, but she doesn’t have a choice. If she doesn’t work, she doesn’t have money to feed the family. This is particularly a problem when the children are sick, and she must stay with them at home. When that happens, the family has to borrow money to buy food. 

This is the same vicious cycle mothers and grandmothers who work as street vendors throughout the world face: they may, at times, make enough money for survival, but rarely do they make enough for childcare.

And as workers in the informal economy, they do not have access to social protections and programmes that would help their families gain more security. Yet, like Souen, street vendors persist, working hard every day in the hopes of supporting their families and educating their children in order to break the cycle of poverty. 

 Before, we didn’t know our rights, but now we know we are citizens. We can solve our problems.

At 50, Souen has been working as a street vendor for 14 years, and she has dark circles under her eyes from the long days and from the worry—one of her children spent the previous day in the hospital for a fever and intestinal illness, an added cost to the family. Still unwell, he hovers nearby, wet cloth to his forehead as the younger children play on a parked tuk-tuk. 

While the children may be bored or sick, Souen is grateful that at least they are safe. When she began street vending, the family faced harassment that verged on violence. As Souen recounts, her children were then very small, and police would sometimes haul them on to the back of the police truck and threaten to throw them in the garbage. 

This was just one of the difficulties the family faced on a daily basis—security guards also harassed them, and local authorities demanded bribes against evictions. As Souen says, police would often simply take their goods. On those days, when, as now, every penny counted, the family would earn no income.

But when an IDEA organizer visited the market in 2013, these threats to Souen’s income began to change. IDEA, or The Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, is a unique and strong leader in Cambodia’s labour landscape.

Unlike many Cambodian unions, IDEA is not associated with any political party and remains committed to independently improving the economic and social conditions of informal workers like street vendors, domestic workers, tuk-tuk and moto-taxi drivers, and waste pickers. 

It’s no surprise, then, that when Souen told the IDEA organizer about the police harassment, particularly with the children, IDEA took the problem to authorities and to the media, even drawing the attention of the Prime Minister. The case became a major story, and the police were forced to stop taking these actions.

Now, the police no longer threaten to throw children away, and authorities, as Souen says, “know better than to ask IDEA members for bribes.” Many vendors, especially those who are not members of IDEA, are still evicted or asked to move regularly, but when Souen is asked to move her stall, usually it is just a little further back from the roadway.

For Souen, life at the market has improved in other ways since she joined IDEA. Because of the trainings she has taken through IDEA, she knows her rights and has learned how to advocate for herself and for other vendors.

She has become a local leader. When other vendors experience problems, Souen accompanies them to meet with the market manager. Now, the market manager listens, and security guards respect her. If the problem still isn’t solved, Souen says, “We have hope because we know IDEA will come. There is support. This makes me feel confident.” Read  more about how IDEA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Pheng Rathana

Pheng Rathana began vending ten years ago because she had difficulty finding another job and needed to contribute to her family’s income. Running a cold drinks and coffee cart seemed like a creative way to use her previous restaurant industry experience, and Rathana is a person who thrives in creativity and colour. She wears a vivid print dress, and the outside of her home is painted a bright blue, a vibrant contrast to the orange drinks cart parked on the home’s threshold. Rathana’s 3-year-old daughter is equally lively, playing with colourful plastic trucks on the floor and bringing a doll over and over again to her mother to reattach its arm. Between fixing the doll’s arm and preparing a naptime bottle, Rathana slices limes, scoops ice, and pours syrup for a few customers’ drinks. 

When she began vending, her cart was ideally situated. Her many neighbours were regular customers, and the business was successful. But Rathana also had to pay US $100 a month in rent to station the cart on the pavement in front of a house. Soon after she began vending, Rathana says, the house owner saw how well the cart was doing and began an almost decade-long campaign to evict Rathana because she herself wanted to sell there. 

Rathana didn’t know who to turn to. “This was our income,” she says, “We couldn’t just leave.” Then, a tuk-tuk driver suggested that she may be able to find support through IDEA. Three other vendors in her community were having similar problems, so Rathana rallied them, and they visited IDEA together. Rathana became an IDEA member soon after and, with IDEA’s help, began a decade-long battle against eviction.

People have a right to sell, have a right to be secure, and have a right to survive

By participating in IDEA trainings in negotiation skills, non-violent tactics, and in helping her understand her rights as a citizen and vendor, Rathana learned that the house-owner did not own the pavement. In fact, the pavement was public space and belonged to city citizens who, like her, pay service fees. And, as Rathana says, the right to the pavement is particularly important for street vendors because, “Here, all the poor sell on every street. People have a right to sell, have a right to be secure, and have a right to survive—poor people don’t have enough money to open up a big shop.”  

With IDEA behind her, Rathana was able to ward off three formal eviction notices, and the local authority finally called a meeting and offered her compensation to move. The offer, however, was too low for Rathana to accept. To break the stalemate, IDEA called for a meeting with the next level of government, which demanded the local authority negotiate fair compensation. 

Rathana still did not want to leave her place of business, but because her family is so poor, she could not keep fighting. The agreed-on compensation was enough to pay back a loan the family had to take out to cover the protracted battle, but the family had to find a home that could double as a vending site. For the past three months, the family has lived in the Sangkat Chbar Ambovll district. “There is less income here,” she says, “but we didn’t have a choice.”

Now, Rathana worries the family will not have enough money to keep sending their children to school. But, as her heartbreaking battle attests, she is also both tenacious and optimistic. She says that she and her husband learned many skills through this experience. “Now we are happy because we are able to help other people with what we’ve learned.” Read  more about how IDEA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Dy Thona

Street vendor Dy Thona also looks to the future, always thinking of ways to bring more security to her livelihood. Thona operates a cart on a busy street just outside the gates of a hospital, doing a brisk trade in hot noodle soup, coffee and tea, cigarettes, and cold drinks. Customers, including hospital visitors, patients and staff, and passing tuk-tuk drivers, often stop to eat at the table and chairs she’s set up nearby. Behind them, roosters crow through the hospital grounds while on the street, cars, tuk-tuks, and motorcycles speed by.

Thona looks tired from years and years of vending, but her passion in improving her conditions holds firm. She herself laughs when she comments on her singularity of focus, saying “Even when I am at home or at IDEA meetings, I am thinking about what I can do with my stall.” 

Thona is 37 and has been vending for close to 20 years. As she says, with a grade eight education, “I didn’t know how else to survive. I didn’t have skills.” 

When she began vending, she was harassed by local authorities daily though the why, when, and where they wanted her to move fluctuated daily.

We learned about rights, how to talk with local authorities, how to solve problems, and when to get further help.

“Everything seemed dark,” she says. “I couldn’t understand the reasoning or policies. I didn’t know how to speak. I had a fear of selling here. I didn’t know what to do, or what I could depend on.” 

But in 2007, during one particularly long campaign to remove vendors from outside the hospital gates, a tuk-tuk driver spoke with Thona about the benefits of joining IDEA. She began participating in trainings from negotiation to advocacy. These trainings, says Thona, “educated us, helped us learned. We learned about rights, how to talk with local authorities, how to solve problems, and when to get further help.” 

Today, Thona is not afraid to speak up. When authorities ask her to move, she is able to ask why and to refuse to move. As a result, her income and space have greater security. More, the authorities now listen to her, and because of this, she is able to help solve problems for other vendors.

In fact, over the 11 years of her membership, Thona has not only become a leader in her community, but also a leader within IDEA as a whole—she was the elected representative for street vendors on IDEA’s General Counsel for two terms.

Her work there took her to India for an Exposure Dialogue visit with members of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), a national union of self-employed, poor women workers, including street vendors. 

Like IDEA, SEWA is also a part of StreetNet International. Membership in StreetNet regularly brings about this kind of global collaboration, which increases an organization’s (and its members’) awareness of options for organizing within the informal economy.

Thona smiles broadly when she’s asked of this visit. “The food was very difficult to eat,” she admits. But then, with seriousness, she speaks of what she learned from SEWA, like its focus on women, on literacy, and on empowerment through the individual and family.

She was especially impressed by SEWA’s non-violent approach to problem solving and how it can bring about profound change in fighting evictions. She also learned about other services SEWA offers, like the credit and savings banks and low-interest loans it provides for its members. 

Thona believes similar access to low-interest loans through IDEA would help her achieve more income security. With such a loan, she dreams she could open a small shop in her home—a hope many vendors share but cannot achieve because of prohibitive start-up costs. Not only would a shop in her home lessen harassment from authorities and the worrying threat of eviction from road redevelopment, but it would provide Thona with more stable income as she would no longer have to worry about closing the stall due to storms, heavy rain, or traffic accidents.

A shop in her home would also help her mitigate against age—currently, Thona has to move her cart and goods from storage to the vending site and back every day, a job that is heavy and difficult. Finally, a shop would protect her from the potential violence that many women vendors throughout the world face. Read  more about how IDEA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Sem Samol

Sem Samol is part of the future IDEA members strive to improve for the next generations of street vendors. In this 25-year-old woman, so much of IDEA’s collective effort is bearing fruit. Samol operates a drinks cart on a busy road in Segankat Tuekthla, just a half-block down from a major television station. She also helps her sister with a meal stall, serving soup and sizzling barbequed meat. This morning, hair tucked back under a pink Hello Kitty hat, Samol is running both stalls on her own, and she is busy ladling soup into bowls, wrangling noodles, and serving drinks. She is quick, efficient, and confident in each movement. It’s hard to believe that just three years ago, when she joined IDEA, Samol was timid.

Samol had previously worked in a tumultuous household as a domestic worker, so when her sister asked her to help with the food stall, she readily agreed. Her life became the stall and home, home and the stall—she did not feel brave enough to venture further. 

Securing their site to vend also became difficult for the sisters as the TV station’s security guard kept asking them to move further and further away from the gates. They didn’t know how to move and keep serving the station’s employees, with whom the sisters had a good relationship. They didn’t know how other street vendors coped. Help soon arrived, however, when an IDEA organizer visited the neighbourhood and explained the benefits of joining. 

I want to keep organizing, to help people be fiercer and braver

Samol in particular has dived into the rights and negotiation-based trainings. As she says, “they have helped me to be confident and brave. Now, the TV station’s security guard is constantly telling me to move, but I don’t. The traffic police have also told me I have to move, but I say, I’ve been here three years already. What’s changed now?” 

Being young, single, and without children to support, Samol says she’s been able to take a wide swath of training, including Citizen Journalism, where she learned to discern news stories from propaganda. Through an IDEA partnership with a youth organization, one that reflects both IDEA’s and StreetNet’s commitment to improving the lives and livelihoods of future generations of street vendors, she’s also learned computer skills, which have allowed her to volunteer in IDEA’s offices as an administrative assistant.

Through volunteering, she’s learned business skills, like how to do a report and how to communicate effectively with IDEA’s diverse membership. The latter is a skill she can take with her into the field when she organizes new members, which itself requires persistence. “Some vendors welcome us, and some don’t. It takes a long time to build trust.”

Samol also serves as a mentor to current members. She leads trainings, teaching mentees how to develop relationships with other street vendors and authorities. She helps identify potential new leaders, which is particularly important in a culture that trusts the community leader structure. In fact, other street vendors trust Samol so much she’s been elected as the street vendor representative to IDEA’s General Counsel. 

As for herself, she hopes through more training—currently she is participating in IDEA’s intensive Women’s Leadership Training—and her volunteer work, she will gain enough skills to move into a different job. “But,” she says, “I want to keep organizing, too, to help people be fiercer and braver.” Read  more about how IDEA creates change by downloading the PDF.

Read more stories on how our work impacts vendors in India, Liberia, and Rwanda.