Inspiring Workers: Annie Diouf

By StreetNet International
February 17, 2021
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Annie Diouf is currently a member of StreetNet’s Executive Committee. She holds the position of Treasurer, which should not be surprising considering that Annie is an experienced accountant who turned to the informal economy to support her family. She then flourished as an accomplished leader of women street vendors in Senegal.

From trade unionist to street vendor

The only girl in a family of six brothers, Annie was raised by her parents in the Kaolack region of Senegal. She lost her mother when she was fifteen. Her father was a factory worker and, after finishing her high school education, Annie had to continue her studies in a vocational school, so she left alone for Dakar. Her ambition was to find work and a career so she could support her ageing father and her family. After two years, she managed to find work and decided to enroll in university and attend night classes so she could graduate in accounting.

After getting her diploma, Annie managed to secure a better position in the company where she worked. In the 1970s, Senegal was plagued by an economic crisis and underwent a rigorous restricting  program. After ten years, that led to dozens of companies closing in Senegal for not being able to support costs. 

The first company where Annie had ever worked, and where she had worked for over ten years, was then shut down in 1989. She started working at another company as an accountant, but four years after, the economic situation still had not improved. Once again, Annie found herself jobless. 

During her whole career so far, Annie had always been a member of the Syndicat National des Travailleurs des Industries Alimentaires (National Union of Food Industry Workers) the largest trade union affiliated to the Confederation of Trade Unions of Senegal (CNTS), because both companies she had worked for were in the fishing sector: the Société Nationale de Chalutage (SONACHAL) and the Poissonnerie de la Petite Côte (POPEC).

After fourteen years as an accountant, Annie was then unemployed for a long period of time. She asked herself “What should I do? I must find work”. It was a difficult period. “I searched, and I searched, sometimes I provided some accounting services for small businesses…but when I lived through this situation, I saw that this was not a solution and could not solve my problems”.

That is when Annie decided she needed to create her own job, “something I could do for myself so I could earn a living”. In 2001, she transitioned from the formal to the informal economy and became a street vendor in one of Dakar’s largest avenues, establishing herself with a small 70-centimer table of goods for sale in the Lamine Gueye Avenue, in the heart of Dakar.

Taking action in the face of injustice

Women street vendors in Dakar, Senegal, 2017

By selling products in that busy avenue, Annie learned a lot about the lives of informal economy workers. She noticed how women that were working in a miserable situation were constantly harassed by local authorities, with police routinely confiscating their goods. “Often, we also had to pay fines”, Annie adds.

She spent a couple of years selling side-by-side with these women, bearing witness to the incredible injustice being done to them. In 2004, she told herself “We need to see what we can do to protect us from such harassment by police. They do not allow us to stay in the streets, they take our goods, they lock us up, they make us pay fines and we cannot leave the streets, because we need to make a living”.

Annie had an idea. She decided along with other comrades to organize the women street vendors and create an association. When she started implementing her plan a while after selling in the streets, the women did not believe her. “I said the only thing that could help us would be for us to organize, to regroup somewhere and have a common force”. The women kept asking her what good it would do to create such an association, but Annie was adamant – they had to try. It was the only way for the women street vendors to have a united voice to face authorities.

Some women accepted to join, others did not. Still, Annie managed to create the first association of street vendors in Dakar, the Organisation nationale des femmes commerçantes et marchandes tabliers (National Organization of Women Street Traders and Hawkers) also known as ONFECOMAT. The real issue was whether the Ministry of Interior would officially recognize them as an association.

Therefore, Annie went to see the Secretary-General of CNTS. When she had a formal job, Annie had been a member of unions. Now, in her view, she was still a worker, even though she worked in the informal economy. Although street vendors were not recognized in Senegal, the Secretary-General of CNTS encouraged Annie to create the association and keep trying to have it formalized. Thankfully, Annie’s perseverance paid off and the application was accepted by the Ministry of Interior.

However, in 2004 there were riots of vendors of one of Dakar’s markets against the municipal authorities. The riots caused serious damaged to the city and the events echoed around the world. “That is when the President at the time, Abdoulaye Wade, summoned all those who were representatives of street vendors in Dakar to the Palace of the Republic” remembers Annie “When we were there, he told us street commerce was not recognized in Dakar and would not be recognized in Senegal. Vendors should join the assigned markets and stop being in public spaces”.

Annie explained to him that women had managed to organize themselves and there were at least 700 hundred women in the streets who belonged to the association. The President asked for proof of the existence of the association. Annie was happy to provide him with the evidence. “That is how we started to have a good relationship with the State of Senegal, which often supported us”, even though she acknowledges that police harassment did not stop. “But we continued the struggle”.

In 2009, the Khalifa Ababacar Sall was elected as mayor of Dakar. Once again, the association was summoned to meet with authorities. The mayor asked “Why is it women who carry the fight, and not men?”. As Annie explained the story of the association, she was told the sole reason she managed to mobilize the women was because she had previously worked in the formal economy and had more knowledge. “I said no, work is work. I am an unionist. I know the trade union cannot support the interest of informal economy workers, but because we are organized, I believe we have a right – even if we are not allowed to work in the streets, we must be supported to find places to work”.

Eventually, in 2010, the city of Dakar assigned Annie as a member of the Consultative Council of Dakar for managing the informal sector and street commerce in the capital. It was a long and difficult struggle, but Annie felt like she had to act in the face of such injustice. “I had to intervene in a situation that was not at all tolerable” she explains “These good women, most of street vendors in Dakar are women, and the way they were treated…I could not tolerate it, I could not bear it. But at the same time, I could not be opposed against the authorities and the police. I had to find a strategy. The strategy was to organize the women. And try to popularize this method in other regions of Senegal”.

From invisibility to recognition

However, the status of association was not the most adequate to voice demands to authorities. Annie was also aware that most of the members did not have much knowledge about the role and activities of trade unions. That is when Annie had the idea of creating a trade union, with the support of CNTS, an innovative idea which had never happened in Senegal.

In 2011, the Syndicat National des Travailleurs de l’Economie Informelle (National Union of Informal Economy Workers), also known as SYNATREIN, was created. But when they formalized their existence, the government did not accept it. Annie was summoned to several governmental sectors – “I was summoned more than twenty times!” she remembers – always asking what was the need of such a trade union, when informal economy workers were not recognized as workers.

“But I persisted, and I persisted, and I persisted” says Annie. She tried to explain that yes, although trade unions were thought to belong to the informal sector only, informal economy workers were still citizens with rights. “We participate in the economy, we contribute to the development of this country, and still we are taken to prison and made to suffer when all we want is to work. We want to be organized so we can speak with the State, with the government, and defend our rights”.

At the last meeting with the Public Prosecutor of the Republic, whose permission was required to formalize the trade union, he said – “Madame, you have really convinced me. Everything you have lived through these past few years, you have not been discouraged, therefore I am obliged to allow for the first time a union of informal economy workers in Senegal”. And the Union was officially formalized in 2014.

The National Union of Informal Economy Workers joined CNTS and ever since, it has contributed not only to promote the rights of informal economy workers, but also widen memberships, raising awareness among the masses of workers of Senegal, and it has also supported the implementation of new structures.

In 2018, a Department for the Informal Economy was created within CNTS for the first time, headed by Annie and four other members – two women and two men – who have created their own unions of informal economy workers.

A national alliance of market delegates and traders has also been created – Association Sénégalaise  des Commerçants et Délégués de Marché (ASCODEM) – and, along with CNTS, they have established a dialogue with the State of Senegal. Now, all State decisions regarding organization of commerce and markets are done taking into account the point of view of ASCODEM and there are several projects being developed in partnership with ASCODEM, CNTS and the Senegalese State. Annie is proud to say that “today, in Senegal, representatives of informal economy workers have the attention of the High Council of Social Dialogue, the Ministry of Commerce and of CNTS”.

Joining StreetNet International

Annie Diouf participating in StreetNet’s Negotiations training in Senegal, 2017

In 2004, CNTS joined StreetNet International as an affiliate organization. The Secretary-General of CNTS at the time, Mody Guiro, called Annie and explained they would be sending a representative to a StreetNet meeting in Benin, which would assess whether the National Organization of Women Street Traders and Hawkers could join CNTS, taking into consideration the international landscape. Annie did not go, but upon the return of the representative, the Secretary-General explained that the only association of street vendors who could continue this work with StreetNet was the one Annie had founded with other women street vendors from the Sandaga market.

The Secretary-General was aware that most informal economy workers were women. So, when a National Committee of Women Workers of CNTS was created, a section of this Committee was devoted to women informal economy workers with Annie as the responsible member. During those years, it was mostly Annie who communicated with StreetNet – she participated in the meetings, sent reports, attended international congresses, and she supported the President of the Committee, who was the one officially assigned as CNTS representative in StreetNet.

In 2016, at the International Congress in New Delhi, Annie became the official representative of CNTS in StreetNet and presented her application to become a member of StreetNet’s International Council. For the next three years, her role allowed her to gather a lot of knowledge about the informal economy, which she seized upon to develop the activities of CNTS for informal economy workers.

In 2019, Annie applied to become a member of StreetNet’s Executive Committee. She was elected as Treasurer and is proud to hold this position. StreetNet trainings and knowledge have been very important for Annie. “All I know and understand about the informal economy and street vendors is thanks to StreetNet International” she says “Thanks to all the programs implemented by StreetNet. I have been both a formal and informal economy worker. And I have come to understand that the informal economy is something that all governments and states should integrate, and they should protect these workers”.

The power of perseverance

Annie continues to manage her boutique and sewing workshop along with her son, employing other workers, so she can continue to make a living while devoting most of her time to her unpaid unionist activities. Despite all the struggles Annie has had to face in her life, her perseverance has allowed her to prevail.

As a woman leader of informal economy workers, she adds that perseverance is also the key to foster women’s leadership in Senegal. “Women must believe in themselves” she says “Women have to dare to confront the decision-makers to earn their place at the table. They must accept and establish a real dialogue with hierarchical superiors”.

As for her advice for young people, Annie urges them to join the struggle, seize upon the experience of older people for guidance and to transition to the formal economy whenever possible. “I tell young people not to stay in the informal economy” she says “but to consider the informal economy as an elevator, something that can take them to better places”. In her view, young form should eventually “quit the streets and go to more buoyant sectors. Yes, perhaps it is easier to make a living in the informal economy now, but always think about transitioning to the formal economy in the future”. For Annie, even if informal economy workers become more organized, the transition to formality should always be the end goal.

According to Annie, the current fight is to impose yourself, to defend your ideas and have good arguments to be able to carve out a space in society. “Since our first meeting with Pat Horn (StreetNet’s founding International Coordinator and current Senior Advisor) in 2005, I learned to say Nothing for Us Without Us. And I have never forgotten it to this day. Everything that should be done for the members of my organization, for the members of my union, nothing will be done without us.” She adds “It is true, there is still much to be done. But I advise my sisters to be daring – you must dare and defend your ideas”.