City vendors

It is for the best that the Agri Investment Forum & Expo was held at the Conference Centre and at the Cultural Centre: they were spared the anarchy into which the city is plunged daily with the vendors on the sidewalks. The latest clearance of vendors from the Stabroek Market area once again brings to the fore the need for a National Policy on Urban Street Vending. As in the past, the evicted vendors will soon be returning to the locale, ignoring the rules that have been crafted following previous evictions but which are quickly jettisoned. Based on our history, therefore, we are convinced that the situation will quickly revert to the status quo ante unless it is treated in a comprehensive and holistic manner.
Vending, dubbed “huckstering”, ballooned in Georgetown directly after the abolition of slavery as the ex-slaves flocked to the capital and soon overran its employment capabilities. The colonial authorities saw them as illegal interlopers that disrupted the flow of traffic and encroached on established tax-paying businesses. Relations were always tendentious. The vendors, however, were providing a very valuable service to their poor compatriots who were more than happy to secure necessities at a more affordable price. The dynamics have not altered appreciably in the present.
Street vending is a worldwide urban phenomenon. In the developed countries, they are seen as a welcome addition to the landscape while in the Third World, they are considered a bane. The difference lies in the recognition of the activity as a legitimate economic endeavour and the concomitant need to regulate and protect it through comprehensive regulations. Women form the overwhelming majority of vendors, and it is a significant source of employment for this often-neglected group. As mentioned above, vendors provide affordable services and goods to urban dwellers and visitors. A National Policy on Urban Street Vending has to address these positives against the just-as-legitimate need to provide security to citizens, absence of congestion, maintenance of public hygiene, and unfair competition to tax-paying fixed businesses.
Our challenge is that we have taken an ad-hoc approach to urban vending and whenever the problem gets out of hand – due mainly to collusion of those appointed to enforce the rules – draconian measures, which trample on the rights of the vendors, are resorted to. One particularly flagrant recurring instance is the rescinding of the rules during the busy Christmas period with the unrealistic expectation that the vendors will later depart voluntarily. Another was when the Government, after great effort and expense to secure a vending site on a prime Water Street location, saw its initiative torpedoed by City authorities allowing new vendors to reoccupy the cleared locations.
Representatives of vendors should be involved in the drafting of and enforcement of the National Policy on Urban Street Vending. Its broad elements would have to include the demarcation of vending zones – which should be city/town specific. ·It should take into account the natural propensity of the street vendors to locate in certain places at certain times in response to patterns of demand for their goods/services. Mobile urban vending could be permitted in all areas even outside the designated vendors’ markets unless designated as ‘no-vending zones’ through a participatory process. The ‘no-vending zones’ should be notified both in terms of location and time.
While recognising the economic importance of street vendors, they will have to acknowledge the need for the crafted policy to be enforced. This is another area where the policymakers will have to be au fait of the reality that the “enforcers” often carry out their tasks quite literally: they become shakedown artists who hustle the hucksters. Representatives of the latter group on the oversight body should temper the excesses.
Street vendors cannot have it both ways. Areas become commercially attractive through the confluence of a host of factors and established fixed businesses pay exorbitant rates to secure such locations. They will have to accept the parameters of the new Policy or face the consequences.