A few weeks ago, we had a chat with Repon Chowdhury, chairperson of LIE (Labour of Informal Economy), StreetNet’s affiliate from Bangladesh, who told us about the history, achievements and the current struggles of its organisation. LIE representatives have been involved with StreetNet since our foundation in 2002. Since then, street vendors from Bangladesh have overcome a great deal of challenges and engaged in transformative actions for their right to decent working conditions. Their collective struggle has intertwined with global issues such as urbanisation and climate change.
The struggle for legal recognition
LIE is a national organisation, founded on December 1st, 2000, representing over 9800 members in Bangladesh, a country where the informal economy is rapidly expanding. The formal economy is shrinking and the people are turning to the informal economy for jobs and subsistence. “The street vendors are, among the informal economy workers, the most numerous in the country,” said Repon. “Within the LIE leadership, there are four people coming from the street trade.” There are over one million street vendors in Bangladesh, with a population of 56 million inhabitants. Many of them are internal migrants, moving from the countryside to the urban areas looking for job opportunities or escaping dire conditions due to natural catastrophe or climate change.
“The main demand that we have been fighting for in recent years is the one for legal licensing and identification,” explained Repon. “With the growth of the informal economy workforce and especially street vendors, we are demanding a system of identity cards and transparent licensing, thus protecting the traders from abuse and harassment. City authorities are often hostile to street vendors, claiming that they are a disturbance to the public.”
A similar provision is already in place in India: the Street Vendors Act entered into force in 2014. According to this law, all the street vendors above the age of 14 are granted a certificate of registration and a license to sell and cannot be evicted without a clear legal breach of the vending conditions.
LIE is also at the frontline for demanding social protection for workers and street vendors who have suffered from income loss during the pandemic, in combating gender-based violence, pushing for the ratification of Convention 190 of the ILO and for access to finance and capital for street vendors. Another area of concern is the workers’ reskilling process. “Many workers turn to informal economy jobs because of lack of qualification in other professions: we are working with other organizations and trade unions to help them gain skills to spend in the formal job market, to improve their conditions.”
The alliance with trade unions
The creation of LIE as a platform for informal economy workers to organise was heavily encouraged by the formal trade unions active in the country. “I myself am from the formal trade union movement” explained Repon. “With the growth of informal employment, it was fundamental to include informal economy workers and street vendors in the labor movement.”
LIE advocates for the formalisation of informal economy activities, and for the recognition and inclusion of all the workers into social protection schemes. The organisation has been involved in negotiations with the government, channeling its demands through the Trade Union Congress, following the tripartite negotiation mechanism – a scheme recommended by the International Labour Organization involving labour representatives, government and employers’ associations.
The consequences of climate change
In recent years, climate change has become a prominent political struggle for LIE. Bangladesh has been heavily impacted by climate change and natural disasters, being one of the most climate vulnerable countries in the world. This is true despite being responsible for only 0.56% of the global emissions. From 2000 to 2019, Bangladesh suffered economic losses for $3.72 billion and was hit by 185 extreme weather events. This is cause for massive displacement of people, generally migrating from rural areas – more subject to sea level rising and flooding – into urban clusters.
How is climate change affecting the lives and work of street vendors?
“Rising temperatures make it more difficult for people to work in the street: extreme heat is a health concern.” illustrated Repon. The outskirts of cities in Bangladesh, like the capital Dhaka, host several climate refugees, but the living conditions are precarious and suboptimal. The urban slums are overpopulated, the housing conditions are poor and the economic opportunities are scarce: for many workers, climate change is another factor of vulnerability.
Joining StreetNet International
LIE representatives have been involved in the creation of StreetNet, and participated in the first congress held in Durban over 20 years ago. The relationship between the two organizations has been really long and fruitful. They communicated with the then International coordinator (now senior advisor) of SNI, Pat Horn, who invited the then President of LIE, Ms Farida Akter (who lead the organisation from 2000 to 2008) at the first meeting. Pat proceeded, in the next year, to visit Bangladesh. “It has been a great opportunity for LIE to show our international partners the struggles and the issues that our members face on the ground.” tells us Repon. “Pat Horn was able to pick up some issue presented by street vendors in Bangladesh at the global level. Our relationship with SNI has always been based on solidarity and mutual support.”
The importance of organizing
“LIE has always been able to maintain a relationship with the grassroot part of the movement” tells us Repon. “We have managed to build a dynamic and organised network across the country and we keep raising awareness on the workers’ fundamental rights.”
Organising is a continuous process, especially when the workforce is mobile: it means the unions and the workers’ associations have to be present in different parts of the country and maintain a strong bond with their affiliates. LIE has been able to empower women and young leaders through capacity building work, creating new strengths for its future development.
“The advice that I would give to young leaders” concluded Repon. “Is to never stop making your voice heard. Make noise in the street. Make the government and the state listen to you: they should be always held accountable for their actions in front of the citizens.”.