Street Vending Amid Covid-19
Wed, April 21, 2021

Street Vending Amid Covid-19


Street vending is a growing share of the informal workforce, thus a part of the informal economy. / Photo by Jon Chica via Shutterstock


Street vending is a growing share of the informal workforce, thus a part of the informal economy. It provides easy access to a wide range of goods and services in public places and vendors sell everything from fresh to prepared foods, from auto repairs to consumer electronics, and from crafts and garments to building materials. Most street vendors' work provides them with their main source of income for the household, paying their children’s tuition and bringing food to their families, but the coronavirus lockdown has forced street vendors from around the world to close shop.


Coronavirus lockdown overwhelms street vendors

As governments around the world imposed necessary measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, those in the informal economy are among the people most affected. Other workers who lost their jobs have unemployment benefits but street vendors, motorcycle-taxi drivers, and house cleaners are people who live off of what they earn for the day. This means they have no social safety net to rely on in days that they don’t have work because of the strict social distancing rules.

Abdul Rahim is a street vendor in Kochi, India. He used to sell hosieries (legwear or garments for legs and feet) until the implementation of lockdown in their country. It has already been two weeks since he could not sell a single piece because roads are also deserted. From ₹500 a day, now down to zero.

Siddhakka, 70, has been food vending in Bengaluru, India for 14 years but the lockdown made her and her family more vulnerable. Their household has no other diversification when it comes to alternative livelihoods as food vending is usually a household activity and all members are involved in the production. National Association of Street Vendors of India (NASVI) estimates that street vendors in the Urban area constitute 0.89% of the population and 0.27% in the rural area.

Philippine street vendors also agonized over the lockdown. Fruit vendor Jaqueline Petalcorin, 55, was forced to shutter her stall. “How will we eat?” she asked.



Defying lockdown

In the Malakand district in Pakistan, daily-wage workers and street vendors are defying the lockdown that was enforced by their administration. This is according to Pakistan news provider Dawn. The vendors said that as the government has not yet provided them with relief goods, they have no option but to go out and sell vegetables, fruits, and other items on the streets. The lockdown had made life “miserable” for them. Some said they try their best to evade law-enforcement personnel if they see them on the street.

Membership-based project Street Vendor Project’s director Mohamed Attia said more than 2,000 vendors the group works with continue to take their stalls out in the US despite dismal sales and health risks. “The business is very, very low” but they have no other resources.

The Seattle Department of Transportation reported that vending is still allowed as long as it is a “take-out” food and at permitted times, days, and locations. The authorities only ask that people follow the social distancing guidelines.

In a survey of street vendors in the largest cities in the US conducted by New Jersey polling company TechnoMetrica, it shows that vendors worked in a diversity of occupations before vending. These include sales, accounting, information technology, business management, engineering, banking, and human resources (29%), social welfare (28%), manual jobs (14%), government (8%), social welfare (5%), and general (16%). Moreover, some vendors work part-time while others seasonally.

A diversity of food is sold by US vendors, such as sweets (16%), produce (11%), specialty (8%), ethnic (18%), mixed (20%), non-ethnic, non-specialty (24%), and beverages (3%). A majority (83%) of the vendors have mobile vending units, like temporary stands, carts, or trucks. 



Locations vendors operate/work most

Location is important for the success of the business just like with other retail businesses. The majority of vendors with mobile units work or operate in the business district (43%). Others serve customers in or near sporting or event venues (8%), restaurant and bar districts (2%), street fairs and events (22%), subway entrances (1%), and other (24%). This dataset also appeared in a study authored by Dick M. Carpenter II from the Institute for Justice and the University of Colorado.


An emergency fund for street vendors

Ahmed Shaker is a street vendor in New York City. Just a few weeks ago, their cart used to earn $600 a day and $1,000 on a “good day” by selling shish kebab, pretzels, and hot dogs in the Times Square. Recently, he was not even able to reach $20 on a 12-hour shift. “There is nothing. Nobody is out,” Shaker told NY news site Patch.

The Street Vendor Project has already launched fundraising to bring enough cash to give as relief payments to more than 2,000 vendors. The project believes that the funds will help low-wage immigrant workers, who comprise 90% of their members. Since these vendors are not eligible for government support, such as unemployment insurance, paid sick leave, and most loans in the country, the fund will be a big help in the time of the pandemic. “We take care of each other,” the organization said.


Philippine street vendors also agonized over the lockdown. / Photo by ARTYOORAN via Shutterstock


The informal economy

Street vendors are a part of the local economic development, providing income, bringing affordable goods to consumers, and playing a role in economic activity.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the factors that contributed to the expansion of informal work included high profit, low investment, rural-urban and cross-border migration, poverty in rural areas, unemployment, and no procedural steps required to start or exit the business.

The International Labour Organization estimates that there are about 2.5 billion people in the world who work in the informal economy. The non-agricultural informal economy comprises 82% of the total employment in South Asia, 66% in Sub-Saharan Africa, 65% in East and South-East Asia (excluding China), 51% in Latin America and the Caribbean, 45% in the Middle-East and North Africa, 33% in China, and 10% in Eastern Europe and Central Africa.

Most of these street vendors are now financially strapped. The lack of protection that is offered to those working in formal industries makes them more vulnerable.