Street vendors and other informal economy workers have proven to be essential workers – so where are our workers’ rights?

By StreetNet Media
November 14, 2021
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Street vendors are not often considered to be part of the labor movement. We are, after all, the workers excluded by formal employment who must resort to the informal economy to survive. But we are still workers and we are not giving up on having the same access to rights and social protection. It is urgent and necessary for countries to create ways that workers’ rights and human dignity are guaranteed for all workers, regardless of their status of employment.

November 14, the International Day of Street Vendors, is a very special day for street vendors all over the world and marks when our international alliance of street vendor organizations – StreetNet International – was officially created in 2002. It is a day of celebration and joy for all our thousands of members from four different continents, but it is also a day of struggle, reflection and persistence. 

We, street vendors, are part of the growing numbers of informal economy workers (up to 2 billion workers worldwide or 61% of the global workforce, according to ILO statistics). Despite our contribution to the national economies of our respective countries, we are still treated as second-class citizens and denied our rights. We survive hand to mouth, without social protection and always at risk of harassment and violence. We are often considered outcasts, criminals who evade taxation and do not have the skills to keep a steady job, even though we are honest hard workers, educated, skilled and, as all other citizens, pay our taxes, often without being able to enjoy any rights or benefits in return. 

Why do people turn to the informal economy when it leads to so much hardship? Because there are no viable alternatives. I left my job as a schoolteacher and became an informal trader in Zimbabwe because it was the best option for me and my family. My story is not unique, many of our members from Cambodia to Brazil share similar experiences. And in the midst of a global crisis caused by the pandemic, such stories are becoming increasingly familiar. The informal economy is the lifeboat for those of us who are denied formal employment, usually due to systemic social inequalities, poverty and lack of opportunities. 

Informal economy workers have been organizing in trade unions, associations and cooperatives, growing a labor movement led by the Global South. We are demanding a seat at the table at local, national and international levels, given the importance of our work and our contribution to the development of our communities. The COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrated how informal economy workers and street vendors, in particular, are essential workers who can rise to the occasion and fill the gap of social protection, food, supply of basic needs and support that governments neglect, especially for the poorest. 

During the pandemic, we were active agents of public health, we mobilized to support our most vulnerable members, we negotiated tirelessly with local and national governments for better working conditions, access to food and sanitation kits, contributed with proposals for economic recovery programs, and we raised awareness of the plight of street vendors who were suddenly left with the impossible choice of going to work risking arrest and infection, or staying at home and risking hunger. The last two years have shown us how important street vendors and other informal economy workers are for their communities and how we must seize this momentum to advocate for our labor rights and our right to work, which remains threatened by misguided policies. 

From November 25th to December 11th, we will share our perspective and present our demands at the 109th International Labor Conference, which will be focused on inequalities and the world of work. Along with other organizations of informal economy workers, such as HomeNet International, the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers, the International Domestic Workers Federation and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, we will once again remind governments to promote the transition from the informal to the formal economy, to combat violence and harassment in the world of work, and to provide inclusive social protection and access to health care for all workers – including access to vaccination.

This November 14, we urge you to join us and our 56 affiliate organizations from over 50 different countries in celebration of the international struggle of street vendors. Help us amplify our demands and support the street vendors in your community by reading and sharing their stories, respecting their dignity and recognizing them once and for all as workers who deserve and are entitled to workers’ rights. 

Lorraine Sibanda

President of StreetNet International

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