Street vendors are workers who make their living trading goods in the streets, squares and markets of cities. In large urban centers, especially in countries with the highest unemployment rates in the formal labor market, we see men and women working in public spaces from dawn to dusk selling food, beverages, utilities, and a variety of merchandise.
According to the third edition of the ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work (ILO, 2020), published in April 2020, almost 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy, accounting for 76% of informal employment in all the world, were significantly impacted by the lockdown measures and/or by work in the sectors most affected by the pandemic, which includes the street vendors sector. It is important to note that most of the people who act as informal traders are women, heads of households, working to earn their income.
Vendors in public spaces are usually part of a whole chain of activities: they buy their goods, keep them in warehouses next to their stores and stalls, hire assemblers, sell their goods exposed to the weather and other adversities, buy meals that are prepared by other merchants and, when the time comes, they dismantle everything to start over the next day. They are an important part of the informal economy of cities.
In addition, they address the problem of regularization of the use of public space on a day-to-day basis, working with the sale of small goods, mostly basic necessities, on sidewalks, squares and other spaces in the city. The conflict over the right to work and the occupation of public spaces, which is necessary for the development of their subsistence economic activities. This fact has unfortunately led to serious violations of the human and labor rights of these workers in many urban centers. It is for this reason, to strengthen, articulate and advance in the defense of the right to work and the right to the city of street vendors and markets (Teixeira, 2020) that StreetNet International exists.
Faced with the decision of the local authorities to prohibit the activity of informal economy workers in public spaces, what we see are frequent evictions, brutal harassment and police violence against these people who seek to earn a legitimate and honest living. The issue of street vending in large cities is seen from the field of public security by the authorities and not as a matter of generating employment and income for one of the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
The truculence with which the public power removes informal merchants from public spaces that they consider as “without a people”, which is often treated as an obstacle, is the same with which it eliminates urban housing occupations. The violence of a dispute where the use of urban territories is decided by a few and private interests. And human dignity, the legitimate and inalienable right to have a home, to have a professional occupation to generate family income, is criminalized in the face of an exclusive city project that exists at the service of profitability: the city as a commodity and profit on the village.
The agenda of social movements for social justice and for the right to the city – at the moment in which it defends the right of the inhabitants to use, occupy and produce in cities and that they be fair, inclusive, safe and democratic, understood as a common good in the production of a dignified life – it claims the right to use urban land to generate livelihoods.
Especially the issue of inclusive and participatory citizen management touches a lot on the dispute over licenses and regularization of street commerce. Who could conceive and decide on a city that had public spaces for a planned and regular occupation of areas with high traffic for street vending? We know that this would not be the priority of speculative finance capital.
When this logic is demonstrated by witnessing urban hygienic policies, gentrification and the prohibition of street vending in large cities in most countries, as well as the destruction of popular markets, we understand that political rights are denied to a large part of the population, including those in the informal economy. Decisions about cities are an expression of private interest and exclude this part of the population.
The New Urban Agenda (UN, 2016), an important tool for the struggle of street vendors and vendors in markets, establishes:
“We share the ideal of a city for all, referring to equality in the use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements and seeking to promote inclusiveness and guarantee that all inhabitants, both present and future generations, without discrimination of in any way, can create and inhabit fair, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements to promote prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this ideal, known as “the right to the city,” in their laws, political statements and charters. ” (UN, 2016: 5)
Later, it proposes cities and human settlements that:
“They face the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities of inclusive and sustainable economic growth, present and future, taking the best fruits of urbanization for the sake of structural transformation, high productivity, activities with added value and efficiency in the use of resources, leveraging local economies and taking note of the contribution of the informal economy, while supporting the sustainable transition to a structured economy.” (UN, 2016: 6)
Given the high levels of inequality in cities, thinking about inclusive development in urban centers presents urban planning with the challenge of building alternatives that include the modes of production and reproduction of life that occur in the formal and informal economy. It is a mistake for economies around the world to think about economic growth without thinking about the contribution of the informal economy.
The COVID-19 crisis made even more evident the inevitability of understanding that the work of the informal economy, which depends on the public space, are constitutive parts of cities. Faced with the challenge of global economic recovery, we see that street vendors have the ability to re-establish their own businesses after a recession with very low economic investment, thus contributing rapidly and dynamically to national economies. This can be one reason for countries to include street vendors in their economic recovery plans. However, what our affiliates are facing, unfortunately, is the continuation of policies intended to eliminate and repress informal commerce in a brutal way, through evictions, harassment and violence.
These repressive actions from authorities in the face of the pandemic, together with economic recession which has led to high levels of unemployment, against citizens without working income, can be understood as a crime of State and a flagrant violation of fundamental human rights.
It is interesting to think that by being included in the negotiating tables with the authorities, and participating in the construction of urban public policies, street vendors do not oppose the payment of municipal fees, as long as they are in line with what would be fair given their income and vulnerability. Also, there is no opposition to spatial planning and organization of workplaces. We also defend investment in adequate urban infrastructure to guarantee decent work for street vendors such as: provision of bathrooms, running water, adequate places for meals, electricity, cleaning and waste collection in public spaces.
These are examples of adequately designed and affordable local tax systems, good urban planning and the provision of basic services and infrastructure, considered premises for sustainable cities, as determined by the New Urban Agenda.
1. Examples of the collective struggle of street vendors
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, StreetNet International affiliates have mobilized around the world to address the economic and social crisis. Lockdown policies have had a brutal impact on the lives and incomes of street vendors and their families in cities. Since these workers are not recognized in most countries of the world, most informal traders were not entitled to any state support provided through social security schemes and eventually harsh police harassment became more intense and violent towards their activities.
If, on the one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed the lives of street vendors, on the other hand it was also an opportunity to show how their work should be recognized and how essential the role they play in the lives of cities, especially for the urban poor.
Thus, street vendor organizations acted on two fronts: through solidarity and awareness actions, supporting their members, and trying to negotiate realistic and practical solutions with public authorities that would guarantee the Right to the City and, in some regions, managed to put the rights of street vendors on the political agenda at the national and local levels.
Throughout this period, StreetNet International has compiled the best practices from its affiliates regarding the response to COVID-19. From India to Senegal, and from El Salvador to New York City, street vendor organizations have played a critical role, opening windows of opportunity at a critical time.
Take, for example, the case of the Federation of Independent Workers Vendors Trade Union of El Salvador – FESTIVES. During the lockdown in El Salvador, they financially supported members and non-members and distributed prevention kits against COVID-19. Through partnerships with government and municipal authorities, they were also able to provide medical care, food baskets, and talks on how to wash hands properly. Perhaps the greatest success was the creation of mobile markets in conjunction with municipal authorities, which has allowed many informal traders to return to work in accordance with public health regulations.
In the Republic of Sierra Leone, in Africa, the Sierra Leone Traders Union – SleTU, also managed to negotiate with municipal authorities to guarantee conditions that allow markets to remain open even during imposed lockdowns. SLeTU currently has thirty-two agents responsible for monitoring markets in sixteen districts of Freetown, ensuring that public health standards are met. SLeTU has also developed a large awareness campaigns for sellers to know how to avoid the spread of COVID-19 and educate their customers on basic hygiene measures.
These examples show how wrong it is to view street vendors as sources of contagion rather than potential public health agents (or public health ambassadors), who are in a privileged position to ensure that public spaces are safe for both residents and public health workers.
In addition to demonstrating the importance of street vendors for public health, the pandemic was also an unexpected opportunity to promote the recognition of these workers in some cities and countries.
In Brazil, the União Nacional das Trabalhadoras e Trabalhadores Ambulantes, Camelôs e Feirantes do Brasil – UNICAB, was among the national organizations that advocated a basic emergency income accessible to workers in the informal economy. Although the value of the basic income defended by UNICAB was higher than the approved R$600.00 (around USD$120.00), this policy was important to guarantee the survival of several street vendors who were unable to work. This is a very important legacy for the organization and for the informal economy workers’ rights agenda – for the first time, informal economy workers were recognized and had access to financial support at the federal level in Brazil.
The Street Vendors Project organization in New York, USA, mobilized its members and, through political alliances, managed to put the rights of vendors on the political agenda. They also supported their members through fundraising or crowdfunding campaigns. In January 2021, they succeeded in passing Intro 1116, a local law to expand the availability of street vendor licenses to 4,000 licenses in New York. They also created a street vendor inspection agency and a municipal advisory committee with the participation of street vendors.
StreetNet International, as a global alliance of street vendor organizations, managed to capture all these good practices worldwide and create adequate spaces to share experiences and strategies. Affiliate organizations learn from each other, adapt negotiation techniques, and prioritize according to their local or national contexts.
StreetNet also works to bring information and knowledge about grassroots organizations internationally, bringing the concerns of street vendors to global forums and multilateral agencies working on human rights, the Right to Decent Work and the Right to the City.
In this way, the good practices identified at the local level are disseminated globally and become important tools to defend the rights of street vendors and offer concrete alternatives to punitive policies, in order to secure their Right to the City.
2. The way forward: what does the Right to the City look like for street vendors?
StreetNet International is committed to continuing its work in promoting the right to cities for all, especially through the advancement of international instruments such as the New Urban Agenda and its implementation in different countries where StreetNet is currently present.
It is important to build trust and awareness with street vendors about existing international tools and agreements, which can be used in their advocacy and social work, especially with local governments, to build an adequate dialogue that is inclusive and takes into account the needs and concerns of workers in a public space management that sees it as a workspace for millions of people.
Since COVID-19 hit our cities, we are seeing changes in governments across the world towards greater recognition of informal economy workers and their needs. We are seeing the use of language like “lives before profit” and “leaving no one behind.” We are seeing recognition of the need for basic income security in struggling economies and greater recognition of the need to share resources (such as access to vaccines in rich and poor countries). The World Development Report 2020 by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) warns governments that now is not the time for budgets of austerity, and that governments must provide adequate stimulus packages for their economies.
We need to take advantage of this momentum, there will be no people-centered economic transformation without the informal economy and new forms of work playing a proactive and leading role. It is extremely important in the current circumstances to incorporate street and market vendors into economic recovery plans that must be fair and inclusive to ensure that no one is left behind. StreetNet and its affiliates say: “Nothing For Us Without Us, there can be no economic recovery without us.”
Originally published in Spanish in El derecho a la ciudad frente a los desafíos actuales
* StreetNet Organizer for the Americas
** StreetNet Media Officer
*** StreetNet International Coordinator
**** Global Advocacy and Urban Specialist WIEGO – Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing
ILO (2020). COVID-19 and the world of work. 3rd Edition. From: https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—dcomm/documents/briefingnote/wcms_743146.pdf
UN (2016). New Urban Agenda. From: https://uploads.habitat3.org/hb3/NUA-Spanish.pdf
Teixeira, Margarida (2020). What has COVID-19 taught us about street vendors’ Right to the City? From: http://streetnet.org.za/es/2020/10/12/que-nos-ha-ensenado-el-covid-19-sobre-el-derecho-a-la-ciudad-de-los-vendedores-ambulantes/
WIEGO (2016). Implementing the New Urban Agenda. How can local and national governments support the informal urban economy. From: https://www.wiego.org/sites/default/files/resources/files/Habitat%203%20MBO%20Demands%20Spanish.pdf
 For more information: https://streetnet.org.za/covid-19/best-practices-and-guidelines/