In February 2023, members of the StreetNet team visited our affiliate organization in France, Association Amélior, and discovered how they are organizing vendors in Paris and Marseille.
Protecting a profession at risk
Founded in 2012, Amélior represents the recyclers, waste pickers and second hand street sellers in the Paris Metropolitan area and in Marseille, the second largest city in France, located in the south of the country. Its founders have been militants for the rights of biffins since 2008.
One of the permanent markets operated by the association is located in Bobigny, in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris. The market where we have been greeted by the Amélior leadership was modest, around 30 vendors were operating on the day of our visit. But Amélior also manages a larger market space, located in the suburb of Montreuil. By organizing these markets and charging a reasonable fee for vendors to set up their stalls, Amélior is able to ensure some financial sustainability. The vendors making up the constituency of Amélior are known in French as “biffins” – we talked a bit about this profession in this article. At the moment, Améior has around 1000 members, half of which are women.
The “biffins” are a key figure in the popular economy of Paris. “Nevertheless, due to the privatizations of spaces and the increased police violence”, explains to us Samuel Le Coeur, president and founder of Amélior. “It is increasingly hard for people who have been working in “biffins” families, and maybe inherited this profession from their parents, to be able to sustain their activities. In a handful of years, the popular economy made of informal trades in Paris might disappear”. The privatization of markets, of course, means that the lower-class traders are unable to afford selling spaces. Amélior is able to offer them some space for a reasonable price – this is one of the core activities of the organization. “At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 8 large flea markets around Paris” Samuel continues. “Now, there are 3, and even those are under threat” . On top of this the relationship with city authorities is always complicated, due to the lack of recognition and the general hostility of the public force. For women, the situation can be particularly dire – they tend to sell less in public spaces, fearing for their physical safety.
The market managed by Amélior in Bobigny
A growing association
In its 10 years of existence, Amélior managed to organize and bring forward the struggles of an increasing number of vendors and recyclers in the Paris area. Each member of Amélior has a special membership card which includes rules they must respect at Amélior’s markets, such as respect for other vendors. Recently, Amélior has opened a branch in Marseille, too, where it has around 400 members. After the visit in Paris, where we met with Samuel and the co-founders of Amélior, Margarida Teixeira and Kateryna Yarmolyuk-Kroeck headed to the south of France to meet with the Marseille-based team.
The team of salaried workers managing the association is also growing. “Many workers have been hired in the staff,” Samuel tells us. “They are members of Amélior that used to work as biffins, and now they are officially part of the Amélior team, through a contract. There is the possibility to get some tax relief while employing people coming from precarious conditions, and this has helped a lot with the expansion of the team”.
The market managed by Amélior in Bobigny
Local and migrant workers united in class struggle
In Marseille, Stéphanie Fernandez Recatala, the coordinator of the street vendors explains: “Most of the vendors in the city constituency come from North Africa. We also have migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, Albanians and Roma people. The language barriers can make it difficult for vendors to have a sense of community, though they’ll often interact”.
The question of solidarity is a core one for an association like Amélior, who organizes mainly migrant workforce and people with different cultural and geographical backgrounds. Samuel illustrated also that there is a question of self-identification: workers are not always used to identify as such, recognising themselves more as small traders. They are not used to collective bargaining and demand, not being a traditionally unionized constituency. Informality is less common in Europe than in other parts of the world, therefore the class consciousness is harder to build. Nonetheless, Amélior maintains that solidarity, workers’ recognition and economic rights of members are a central pillar of their advocacy strategy and political identity. Amélior, for example, has taken part in the latest protest held in France against the increase of the retirement age for workers. But pensions are not the central concern of the vendors of Paris, as Alix Lafosse, an employee of Amélior, pointed out in an interview with the EUObserver. The core struggle is to be recognised as workers, to access the most basic rights.
A street vendor in Marseille
Another challenge of the Amélior constituency is the significant presence of undocumented migrants. Around 20% of the members are sans-papier. This means that they tend to be less involved in activities, feeling more exposed to the threat of deportation. “Some vendors live in informal housing or squatting, they have no papers, they have to pay hundreds of euros a month for a roof over their heads” Stephanie concludes. “This shows the kind of pressure they live under”.
Amélior’s experiences demonstrate the difficulties in organizing street vendors in Europe, where they remain as vulnerable as informal economy workers in other parts of the world. But it also shows us that it is possible and provides a roadmap for how vendors in other countries can take action to defend their collective rights.