Brazil Street Vendors Seek a Future of Decent Work, Respect

Brazil Street Vendors Seek a Future of Decent Work, Respect

Millions of street vendors worldwide lost their livelihoods nearly overnight during the pandemic, unable to sell in open markets during lockdowns or unwilling to risk their health to do so.

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Maria do Carmo, founder of United Camelôs Movement street vendor association in Sao Paulo, spoke at the Essential Worker Summit.

But street vendors in Brazil, through the National Union of Street Vendors Workers (UNICAB), achieved basic emergency income to ensure they could survive. UNICAB went on to collect sufficient signatures from members of the Brazil National Congress to create a Parliamentary Front to defend informal traders’ rights, marking the first time they will be represented at the national level.

“We had many successes this year during the pandemic,” says Maria do Carmo, a street vendor and leader of the United Camelôs Movement (MUCA) in Rio de Janeiro. MUCA, organized by do Carmo in 2003, has further built its collective strength by joining UNICAB, a countrywide association formed in 2014.

Do Carmo says she is most proud of MUCA’s victory in convincing city officials to not charge customary fees during the pandemic because vendors sold so little. “We did it with a lot of protest—going to the town hall and participating in public debate.

“A good success is a collective one.”

Building Success Through Collective Action

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Marli Almeida is among many street vendors in Brazil seeking basic rights on the job. Credit: UNICAB

In September, informal economy workers joined in a first-of-its-kind worldwide gathering to outline a vision for a just economic recovery that ensures protections for workers and advances worker rights. Over three days, the Essential For Recovery summit brought together well-known actors, global union leaders and policymakers who talked with street vendors, domestic workers, farm workers and others who shared their experiences and demanded a response that urgently and effectively protects the most marginalized.

Many Essential For Recovery participants pointed to workers joining together in unions and associations as one of the most effective means for achieving rights. In Rio, do Carmo and other street vendors further showed the power of collective action during the pandemic when they successfully lobbied the municipal government to stop police from confiscating vendors’ merchandise as means of harassment.

“After MUCA joined UNICAB, we saw we had more presence, we are more respected in the state [of Rio] because of strength of UNICAB,” she says. Through the organization, street vendors connect with each other across the country, learn about available resources and join together to advocate for their rights at the local and national levels. (Check out UNICAB’s podcast with street vendors, in Portuguese).

Street Vendors Part of Growing Informal Economy
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Edivaldo, a member of the Sintraci Informal traders trade union of Recife Pernambuco, protests violence against street vendors. Credit: UNICAB

Street vendors are part of the global economy’s vast and growing informal workforce—61 percent of all workers are in the informal economy, where they rarely have paid sick leave, safe jobs or access to affordable health care. Street violence—especially from police and other local officials—is the biggest problem they face in Brazil and worldwide, says Maira Villas-Bôas Vannuchi, organizer of StreetNet International for the Americas. Street vendors, the majority of whom are women in many countries, are especially vulnerable, exposed to extreme heat or cold, often with no access to toilets or clean water.

“Many women, single mothers, had to go work in the streets because that was the option they had,” says do Carmo.

Two weeks after giving birth, Maria do Carmo returned to the streets of downtown Rio, where she sells women’s clothes. The police, who street vendors there say regularly abuse them verbally and physically, assaulted do Carmo.

“They beat me up pretty hard,” she says. “I was injured and had to take leave from work.”

It took do Carmo a month before she was healed sufficiently to return to her job, but when she did, she was determined to fight for the rights of street vendors to make a living. Do Carmo went on to organize street vendors across the city in MUCA.

“Street vendors are workers without rights,” says Vannuchi. “They work every day, they contribute to the economy of the country, but they are not recognized as workers.”

Respect, Recognition

Connecting with and organizing street vendors who work on different days and at varied hours spread across cities and along roads was challenging—and involved many arrests as local officials sought to disrupt their efforts to gain political and social rights, with police targeting leaders like do Carmo. MUCA and UNICAB are now part of StreetNet International, a global alliance of street vendors launched in South Africa in 2002.

Do Carmo ran for office in Rio and although she did not win the election, she says the visibility of her campaign and the efforts of other vendors to win office brings their issues to the attention of the public and lawmakers. “Today we have respect from City Hall,” she says.

A single mother, do Carmo has supported four children with her work and plans to remain a street vendor, despite her organizational involvement and efforts to seek elective office. She emphasizes that street vending is a job many want and need to do—but in decent conditions and with respect.

“A good future will be a future when street vendors—all of them—have confidence in the value of their work, when society considers what we do is work and when our work is appreciated by society, and we are not marginalized as we are now.”

Zimbabwe Vendor Ban Targets Vulnerable Workers

Zimbabwe Vendor Ban Targets Vulnerable Workers

The government in Zimbabwe is moving to ban market vendors in Harare at a time when more than 90 percent of the workforce labors in the informal economy and 85 percent or more Zimbabweans are seeking decent work.

Zimbabweans are struggling for their fundamental right to earn a living. Credit: Thando Khoza

“People who are into street vending are not into it for their liking, but are being forced due to the collapsed economy,” the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) says in a statement.

“Instead of harassing vendors, the government must first of all restore economic growth and create the promised 2.2 million jobs. By doing so, all vendors will vanish overnight,” says ZCTU.

The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), which represents some 200,000 members, has been seeking to address challenges identified by government and business in negotiations with the Harare central business district since January, and urges that “Operation Restore Order” ordered by the Harare City Council acting town clerk not be implemented.

“The laws and regulations which govern the informal economy are very much outdated and informal economy traders are always criminalized or termed illegal,” ZCIEA says in a statement. ZCIEA says the government’s designated vending sites are not accessible to customers because of their distance, and urges continued discussion among vendors and central business district representatives.

Since 2011, more than 6,000 companies have closed, leaving hundreds of thousands without employment. Even those with formal economy jobs are not paid on time, according to the Solidarity Center report, “Working Without Pay: Wage Theft in Zimbabwe.”

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Zimbabwe street vendors also were targeted with eviction in 2016 and protested the move in Harare. Credit: Solidarity Center

Many people have turned to street vending after losing their jobs, and the 2.2 million market vendors now generate an average $3.96 billion in annual revenue. The number of market vendors also has increased because people are struggling to get by following a recent sharp hike in prices for basic goods.

The government waged a similar crackdown on market vendors in 2015, tearing down market stands and forcing vendors to pay high fees to set up stalls at government-approved sites.

Eviction of Street Vendors Begins Today in Zimbabwe

Eviction of Street Vendors Begins Today in Zimbabwe

Street vendors deliver petition against eviction in Harare. Credit: Patience Maria, Musaringo

Street vendors in Harare delivering their petition.          Credit: Patience Maria, Musaringo

Street vendors in several Zimbabwean towns were evicted today, following a June 26 deadline to remove their stalls in the city centers and set up in government-approved areas. Government officials warned that force could be used if they refuse.

Although Harare street vendors have so far resisted eviction, the future is uncertain, says Wisborn Malaya, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA).

“So, it is not good news,” he said.

Local authorities evicted street vendors in the towns of Chivhu, Chinhoyi, Gwanda and Marondera, after vendors refused to relocate because there are not enough places for all of them, Malaya says.

Vendors are joining together to oppose the evictions and build strength to achieve fundamental labor rights through the association, whose membership has risen from 177,000 to more than 190,000 since the eviction campaign began.

Hundreds of street vendors took to the streets of Harare earlier this week to deliver a petition to Parliament against eviction orders. Street vendors in Harare today spilled out across the sidewalks and streets in defiance of the order.

“We hope the government will concede not to be brutal to the people so there is not punishment of the people who are trying to earn an honest living,” says Malaya. “(But) vendors are vowing to stay on the streets and take what must come.”

Vendors also face other challenges, he said. “Some of these places, especially in the major cities have been taken over by ‘barons’ who occupy the space and charge the vendors rent. They want to make money out of the people.”

ZCIEA represents informal traders, including street vendors, cross-border traders, tailors, home welders and carpenters in 30 territories across Zimbabwe.

With few formal sector jobs available in Zimbabwe—as in much of the world—the vast majority of the country’s nearly 15 million people are employed in the informal economy, and the number of street vendors is increasing exponentially.


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