Why hawkers in Bangladesh are showing the red card to authorities

By StreetNet Media
May 10, 2024
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Hawkers in Bangladesh are engaged in a nation-wide campaign led by the workers’ organization Labour at Informal Economy (LIE) to have a national policy focused on street vending and demand a stop of violence and extortion.

The situation in Bangladesh

With a population of 171.1 million people, Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Around 20% of the population live below the national poverty line and the average monthly income corresponds roughly to $245 USD. The vast majority are informal economy workers, with the latest data (from 2010) pointing to 87% of the labor force being in the informal economy.

Everywhere you go in Bangladesh, you will see hawkers. Hawkers in Bangladesh are mostly men, trading vegetables, foods, clothing and other everyday items, mostly to low and middle income customers. Nowadays, there is an increasing number of women selling as well, but it is not well regarded by society. 

“Street vendors are very marginalized people, often coming from the village to the city to better their lives, staying in slums and investing in self-employment” explains Repon Chowdhury, Chair of LIE. “Many also take loans. Much of this migration to the cities is motivated by climate change – drought, flood and cyclones. Most street vendors are climate victims, forced to leave their rural living places. Many were farmers before.”

Hawker Asma Begum in Dhaka flower market

The threat of violence and harassment 

Although hawkers in Bangladesh are integral to the urban landscape, they still face stigmatization and work in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. They are often by the side of the road, risking accidents and exposed to pollution. They work all year around, even during seasons of intense heat or rain, which damages their health. Water and sanitation are also usually not available. 

But what negatively impacts the work of hawkers the most is probably the violence and harassment at the hands of local authorities and leaders, and also private actors such as neighborhood associations. Since there is no policy governing their work, hawkers are forced to pay bribes to secure a vending space, even if they are working on the sidewalk in a dangerous situation. If they don’t comply, they risk being violently evicted by law enforcement and having their goods confiscated or damaged. Researchers have estimated that up to around 1.75 USD being collected every day from each hawker, generating a huge profit that benefits policemen and politicians alike. This constant extortion makes working extremely stressful, as hawkers in Bangladesh do not have any rights and their concerns often go ignored. As far as policy is concerned, it is as if hawkers in Bangladesh did not exist, but the profits made at their expense are very real. 

StreetNet and LIE delegation with council woman Anjuman Ara

There are some local politicians who support hawkers, such as council woman Anjuman Ara in Chittagong. “Since hawkers are poor people, and they have to work and feed themselves, there is now a specific place for them, a holiday market,” she explains. 

But supportive local politicians, although they can play a very important role, are not enough to secure the livelihoods of hawkers in the long-term.

Showing the red card: what are hawkers fighting for

Street vendors showing the red card during a protest. Picture by Labour at Informal Economy.

Hawkers in Bangladesh are showing the red card to authorities, a literal red poster which reads “We are demanding a national policy and law for street vendors”. This demand is inspired by the Street Vendor Act in India, a pioneering piece of legislation passed in 2014 that goes beyond providing a legal framework and also focuses on improving livelihoods and protecting vendors from violence and harassment. Although the Street Vendor Act still has its limitations and gaps, it would be a giant leap forward for hawkers in Bangladesh who have no protection under the law. 

Hawkers today are sometimes able to negotiate for selling spaces and other rights, but it is always a precarious situation. For example, the hawkers who compose the Nayaranganj Market Authority, in a city near Dhaka, were able to secure a selling space after years of struggle for 432 members, but the high rental costs, small stalls with narrow alleys, and the competition from hawkers who continue selling in the surrounding streets makes it an unsuitable solution. 

In Chittagong, the Chondgawl Hawkers’ Committee thought they had managed to find a privately-owned place to sell every Friday, but were then  evicted by the neighborhood association and forced to become mobile vendors.  Other hawkers, who used to pay rent for selling spaces in the New Market with permission from the previous Mayor according to a 5-year agreement, were swiftly asked to leave when elections came around a new Mayor was elected.

Meeting of hawkers in Chittagong

Without a proper policy in place, the protection of hawkers in Bangladesh as workers becomes arbitrary. In Dhaka, the vendors in the flower market in Shahbag feel safe and are generally not asked to pay bribes, in part because they have a good relationship with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Since the flower market was already established back when she was a student at Dhaka University, there is an emotional connection with the market and its vendors.

“I have been working as a hawker since the 1980s, fighting and taking my demands to every councilman, every mayor,” said Kamal Siddiki, Vice-Chair of Lie, during a recent negotiation skills workshop organized by StreetNet. “Our demands are not met because there are no specific laws for us. Only a national policy can solve this problem.”

A way forward: sustainable selling spaces and investment in livelihoods

In Bangladesh, there are good examples of markets who are good places for vendors to work at. In Chittagong, the Zahur Hawker’s Market was created after decades of struggle, and it is an exemplary workspace for hawkers in Bangladesh. It is clean, with wide alleys and spacious stalls. This is the kind of work space other hawkers across the country are fighting for.

Zahur Hawker’s Market

But Kamal Siddiki understood long ago that hawkers in Bangladesh needed more than just a selling space to thrive. That is why he and Repon Chowdhury initiated a housing project in the outskirts of Nayaranganj. It covers 28 acres and accommodates 80 families, around 350 people in total. Each family is assigned 3 plots, two for housing and one for farming. The housing project allows vendors to pay what they can on a monthly basis and whatever they pay, results in them eventually owning the land, so there is no threat of eviction. The project has facilitated stronger community ties and better commitment among vendor leaders to work for the common good.

These examples demonstrate that there are effective worker-led solutions to solve issues faced by hawkers in Bangladesh. We must stand united and support their Red Card campaign, so that hawkers will finally have laws and policies that ensure their right to work in public spaces, in an organized and democratic way. 

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