Aren’t We Workers, Too?

Our work as street vendors seems invisible. We move countries’ economies with our sweat, we earn our bread for our families. We are the pillar of the popular economy—yet we do not have protections. It’s time we take a stand for our rights.

Durban beachfront African Street Market, South Africa. (Bobby Marie)

They say waking up every day and working hard to earn a living is what defines a worker. But the worker, as we know, has rights conquered thanks to many years of struggle. I don’t have such rights. What am I, then?

In Rio de Janeiro, my day to day as a street vendor is waking up at 5 a.m. and setting up my clothes and belts stall at Miguel Couto Street downtown at 7 a.m—not so different from my comrade in New York who sets up her hot dog stand at an intersection.

In Delhi, a fellow worker sells water and chai to thirsty people who come and go. Women in the large fruit and vegetable markets on the outskirts of Maputo provide food for many low-income families.

Our work as street vendors seems invisible. Whether in the rain or scorching heat, we sell affordable products to workers bustling to and from their jobs in urban centers, because we cannot afford not to work.

Up to 2 billion workers worldwide are not recognized as workers and do not have labor rights. We are the workers of the informal economy: the street and market vendors, the hawkers, the mobile traders and the domestic- and home-based workers, many of whom are women sustaining households by themselves.

We make up 61 percent of the world’s workforce, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) statistics. We move countries’ economies with our own sweat, and we earn our bread for ourselves and for our families. We are the pillar of the popular economy—yet we do not have protections. It’s time we take a stand for our rights.

Sometimes, I don’t even have basic human rights. However, I am a gear that moves my country forward. Our ‘informal hands’ sustain the world’s economy.

Informal trader at the Tukolondjeni market in Windhoek, Namibia, in June 2022. (Courtesy of Streenet press room via Flickr)

I wake up at dawn. I buy merchandise with the little money I have. I set up my tent in the rain or in the sun and I sell it to the people circulating around the city, working long hours if I must until I can make an earning. I interact and engage clients. I source my products, prepare them, sell them, and store them, always at risk of harassment and violence. I am a fundamental part of city life. I do this to earn a living, so that my family and I can survive.

Am I or am I not a worker?

It seems there is no place for me and others like me. The licenses to sell in the streets are scarce compared to the number of people working in informal trade. Social protection schemes do not protect us and multilateral frameworks or negotiations with the governments do not include us. Often, trade unions representing formal workers are not in solidarity with us and with our representatives. It is a hard, solitary struggle, and informal economy workers have to pave the collective path of strengthening and mobilizing themselves to stand up.

The state gets to us in another way: through repression. Fines, evictions and frequent assaults on street vendors to “clean” the city attempt to get us out of the way, as if we aren’t people but dirt to get rid of. A woman mother of four working honestly to sustain her family is treated like a criminal. Who does the law really work for, I ask? Not for us, the workers at the bottom, who are the backbone of many economies in the Global South.

Workers have rights to decent work, to health without hunger, to negotiate with decision makers, and to not be harassed. I don’t enjoy such rights. Sometimes, I don’t even have basic human rights. However, I am a gear that moves my country forward. Our “informal hands” sustain the world’s economy.

A street vendor in Gaborone, Botswana, in June 2022. (Courtesy of Streenet press room via Flickr)

In the world and especially in the Global South, not enough formal jobs exist for everyone. Labor reforms and austerity policies have been taking place in several countries, deregulating labor law and increasingly drying up the minimum standards and workers’ rights. Work has become increasingly unstable, poorly paid, intermittent and precarious. Work in the informal economy absorbs this number of people, lowering access to minimum rights.

We cry out to the world, “Are we going to hold our governments accountable for disregarding the rights of informal economy workers?” In this game of loss of rights and dehumanization of poverty, we, the workers, either understand that the struggle is about all of the working class or we will end up isolated and powerless to resist.

We street vendors are not alone in this situation: app drivers and delivery workers, domestic workers, home-based workers who sew, cook for a living, recyclers and so many other workers in the informal economy are deprived of workers’ rights. We are all coming together to demand to governments that no one is left behind. Together, we are committed to making decent work a reality for every worker. We will not give up, and we ask you to stand beside us in our global struggle.

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Maria do Carmo de Lourdes is a member of the association UNICAB, the Brazilian affiliate of StreetNet International. She also heads the Movimento Unido dos Camelôs (MUCA, the United Street Vendors Movement). She has been a street vendor for over 20 years.