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Street vendors are essential workers. Where are our rights? | View

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By Lorraine Sibanda
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the authors.

Street vendors are not often considered part of the labour movement. We are, after all, the workers 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's urgent and necessary for governments to create ways for workers’ rights and human dignity to be guaranteed for all, regardless of employment status.

That is the mission of the global alliance of street vendor organisations I am proud to lead as president - StreetNet International - which was created in Durban, South Africa in 2002.

From November 25 to December 11, we are sharing our perspective and presenting our demands at the virtual 109th International Labour Conference, which will be focused on inequalities.

With other organisations like 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 at work, and to provide inclusive social protection and access to health care for all workers – including vaccines.

Vadim Ghirda/AP
A man covers up a newsstand with a plastic sheet in Vienna, AustriaVadim Ghirda/AP

What's at stake for street vendors?

Street vendors are part of the growing number of informal workers (up to 2 billion people worldwide, or 61 per cent 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 are always at risk. We are often considered outcasts, criminals who avoid taxation and don't have the skills to keep a steady job, even though we are honest, hard workers, educated, skilled and, like all other citizens, pay our taxes, often without being able to enjoy any rights or benefits in return.

Yorgos Karahalis/AP
People buy fruit from a street vendor in Athens, GreeceYorgos Karahalis/AP

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. And in the midst of a global crisis caused by the pandemic, such stories are becoming increasingly familiar.

The informal economy is a lifeboat for those of us who are denied formal employment, usually due to systemic social inequalities, poverty and a lack of opportunities.

It's not a coincidence that in many regions, informal workers are disproportionately women. It's also not a coincidence that the informal economy is more predominant in the Global South.

In the European Union, at least 16.8 per cent of workers are engaged in informal employment, according to ILO statistics. Many informal economy workers are migrants and were severely affected by the pandemic.

How European street vendors mobilised during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has again recently seen record-high case numbers in parts of Europe, demonstrated how informal economy workers and street vendors, in particular, are also essential workers who can rise to the occasion and fill the gap for social protection, food, and the supply of basic needs and support that governments neglect - especially for the poorest.

In Europe, we've seen great examples of resilience by organised informal economy workers. Migrant street vendors in Barcelona, popularly known as manteros, have created the cooperative Top Manta to produce and sell their own products, helping other street vendors to secure legal residency in Spain.

In Paris, another cooperative - AMELIOR (Association des Marchés Economiques Locaux Individuels et Organisés de la Récupération) - has been organising waste pickers and market vendors, who are often excluded and marginalised.

Luca Bruno/AP
A street vendor walks along a canal in the Naviglio district in Milan, ItalyLuca Bruno/AP

During the pandemic, we were active agents of public health. We mobilised to support our most vulnerable members.

We negotiated tirelessly with local and national governments for better working conditions and access to food and sanitation.

We contributed with proposals for economic recovery programmes and raised awareness of the plight of those 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.

We must seize this momentum to advocate for our rights, which remain threatened by misguided policies. As an example, our affiliate the Free Trade Union of Entrepreneurs of Ukraine (FTUEU) is currently fighting against the demolition of the Demiivsky market in Kyiv, which could cost the livelihoods of some 1,500 small traders.

Francisco Seco/AP
A woman shows dresses to would-be buyers in the Alfama neighbourhood of Lisbon, PortugalFrancisco Seco/AP

Join the cause of informal traders

At the 109th International Labour Conference, we are demanding our fundamental workers’ rights be respected. Opportunities for income security and livelihoods must be the starting point for legal or regulatory measures.

We also demand direct representation and inclusion in bargaining forums at local, national and tripartite consultation levels, and within decision-making mechanisms.

Finally, we want to highlight the role that cooperatives and other social and solidarity economic units can have in facilitating a new model of work and production which is equitable and redistributive.

We urge you to join us in the collective struggle for the rights of street vendors and other informal traders, help us share our stories, and support our rallying cry: Nothing for Us Without Us!

Lorraine Sibanda is president of Streetnet International, a global alliance of street vendors' organisations, and president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA).