For world’s street vendors, life may never be the same after COVID-19

Pilar Balbuena and Caroline Skinner

Street vendors provide essential services in cities across the globe, particularly in Africa, Asia and South America, where residents rely on them for basic needs. They are part of a vast informal food system that keeps much of the world from going hungry. But the pandemic has devastated the livelihoods of street vendors, disrupting their ability to do their jobs and leaving many in a fight for survival. Lockdowns being enforced across the globe have thrown the world’s two-billion informal workers into turmoil – and street vendors, whose livelihoods rely on being in public spaces – have been particularly hard hit. Some cities and countries have allowed trading to go on, but vendors have had to make serious adjustments to their work and home life. In Uganda, vendors resorted to sleeping in markets so they could continue to earn a living while avoiding contact with their families. Even in cities where they are allowed to vend, street vendors reported a 90-percent drop in their income due to reduced foot traffic in places such as México City, Accra, Los Angeles, and New York City. Other countries have implemented bans on vending altogether, making the situation dire. With cities deserted or closed, street vendors say that if they are not able to work, their families will simply die of hunger. From Latin America to South Africa to Nigeria to India, the ban on street vending has left street vendors out of work or unable to trade. Many street vendors expressed fears over their inability to feed their families during the lockdown, which could leave many fighting starvation next. Street vendors themselves will not be alone in the fight for food. Low-income households that rely on street vendors for food supply now have to pay more to access food. That could have widespread impacts. A UN report warns that this pandemic could double the number of people suffering acute hunger, create a global recession that could disrupt food supply chains, and add to the struggles and particular concerns of people working in the informal economy. Unfortunately, some media coverage accuses informal food vendors of being vectors of infections, which only adds to the burdens of an already vulnerable group of workers who are putting themselves at risk to earn a living. These kinds of reports overlook the role of city governments in ensuring they manage and reduce these workers’ occupational health and safety risk as they keep food supply chains running. The economic crisis brought on by the pandemic has exposed the extreme vulnerabilities of urban migrants. In India, lockdown measures were put in place without accounting for the country’s vast informal economy – 90% of workers, with many being migrant workers who found themselves without work or shelter in the matter of hours. Migrant workers in the United States were also left vulnerable. The economic support measures put in place left out migrant workers, many of whom are street vendors working in major cities. Some US cities are pushing for the creation of an excluded workers fund to get relief to undocumented workers. In Colombia, more than 1,000 street vendors demanded help from Bogota’s government, with a large majority of them Venezuelans facing evictions amid the quarantine measures. Bogota’s mayor, whose liberal policies have supported migrants during the migration crisis, released a statement on migrants (informal workers) that was seen as discriminatory during the COVID-19 crisis, adding new challenges for these workers. Even where vendors are allowed to sell on the streets, the situation is extremely challenging. Municipalities in Peru, Honduras, and the U.S. have resorted to punitive measures against street vendors during the lockdowns, such as relocations, evictions, vending bans, and police fines.  In India, the first day of the shutdown witnessed blind police brutality against street vendors, while in Oman authorities cracked down on street vendors. In Uganda, where police have hit vendors who refused to clear the streets, human rights advocates pointed out that basic human rights should be at the centre of any government response to the pandemic. The clearing of streets, violence and harassment could carry on past the lockdown, fears Melody Ndawana from the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Association (ZCIEA). She said, “We thought after the lockdown we could return to our workplaces, but now local authorities are destroying them.”  With many street vendors facing near total loss of customers, they expressed the only way to survive was to get economic help from their municipalities. This need has led to street vendors protests in México, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Colombia, as they demand financial support from their governments or safety protection in their workplace. Street vendors are among those who may slip through the cracks of other labour protection measures. Because of this, Pope Francis said it might be “time to consider a universal basic wage” in his Easter letter. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) has accounted for more than 200 economic measures throughout the region to protect informal workers, including street vendors. In addition, South Africa, Pakistan, Brazil, Perú, Ecuador, El Salvador, and India have all given out cash grants or financial support. Street vendors and informal workers have been raising their voices for their immediate needs and have achieved a few wins. A significant victory for the sector was recorded in South Africa, where informal food traders got the green light to trade during lockdown measures. This led to work with public health experts to develop safety guidelines for informal traders to minimize the risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19. Stories of solidarity and innovation have also emerged. In Spain, street vendors worked to help to deliver food and medical supplies. And in Barcelona, street vendors joined forces with a local clothing company to sew masks and aprons for health workers. In Malaysia, street vendors came up with ways to work during lockdown with a drive-through, pack and pick, and e-hailing service. In Washington D.C., in the U.S., street vendors worked with the city by becoming public health ambassadors to help with the work of curbing the spread of coronavirus. In Piura, Perú, street vendors and the municipality came up with a creative idea to demarcate vending spaces to allow them to trade while keeping physical distance. Even when governments begin to lift the lockdowns, the economic impacts will have lasting consequences for many. With the UNDP warning of economic devastation for developing countries, African leaders issued a warning that if the virus spreads across Africa and the lockdown restrictions stretch to weeks or even months, an economic collapse may be inevitable.  Economic impacts on the informal sector will be felt strongly, pointing to examples like Uganda, where the informal sector contributes to 50% of the country’s GDP. The ILO chief said that the COVID-19 impact could cause the equivalent of 195 million job losses and that informal workers, such as waste recyclers, street vendors, and domestic workers, “not only carry a high risk of virus infection but are also directly impacted by lockdown measures”. The crisis has amplified existing inequalities but is also an opportunity to “reset”. As António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said during the launch of the Report on Socio-Economic Impacts of Covid-19, “The recovery from the COVID-19 crisis must lead to a different economy.” At the city level there is an opportunity to address long-called for infrastructural disparities – in housing, water and sanitation – and to provide vendors shelters, water points, and storage.  For informal workers in general there is an opportunity to address the long-needed incorporation into social  security systems. Informal workers are fleet footed and have many solutions of their own, so it is critical to work alongside them in building people-centred alternatives for a new economic vision. Reposted with permission from

Article by: Pilar Balbuena, Caroline Skinner (WIEGO)

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