Street vendors and the right to the city
When the street vendors in various parts of Manila were driven away in Mayor Isko Moreno’s campaign, media reports and public reactions alike were mostly glowing with praise. “Devotees of the Black Nazarene can now properly see its image … without vendors blocking their view,” read one report. “At last, the law is being implemented!” read one comment on “before” and “after” images of once-crowded streets.
Of course, there are merits to cleaning up the city — just as there seems to be some promise in the nascent mayoralty of Isko Moreno. I lived in a boarding house in Orosa Street for four years, and having had to walk through Malate every day, I can understand the desire for order and cleanliness particularly in our capital city. In light of the disillusionment brought about by President Duterte, I can also understand the desire for someone like the good yorme.
I worry, however, about the impact of policies like Moreno’s on the people most affected by them. While I use Manila as a starting point, evictions of street vendors actually happen around the world. Just last year, Thai authorities embarked on a similar campaign in Bangkok.
Moreover, I worry about the idea that the poor themselves need to be “cleaned up.” The mostly laudatory articles, for instance, rarely ask what will become of the vendors, and if the government has a plan for and with them. Informing this indifference is the problematization of the urban poor as a liability.
A fuller appreciation of people’s lifeworlds and informal economies, however, should challenge this view.
In the first place, as the development practitioner Martha Chen points out, street vendors actually contribute to the urban economy — for instance, by buying supplies from wholesalers and selling low-cost goods (e.g. cheap food) in accessible locations. Even if many of them are below the taxable income bracket and are financially precarious, vendors give various payments, both formal (e.g. permits) and informal (e.g. bribes to syndicates and even barangay officials). They are also indirectly taxed through VAT.
To blame the street vendors for the chaos of the city, moreover, is to detract attention from the failed and inequitable policies that have led to urban poverty and exclusion, not least of which is the privatization of our public spaces (see Lefebvre 1968). The “mallification” of Metro Manila and its lack of public parks have meant that the streets are the only space left as a venue for buying and selling cheap goods; in most cases, these streets were built with cars — not people — in mind.
All of these points refute the argument that the eviction of street vendors is a mere matter of implementing the law. Laws and ordinances have a political economy; they come from and perpetuate particular — mostly elite — sensibilities and interests. As with the dilemma surrounding informal settlers (see Harvey 2008), we cannot take them out of their political and socioeconomic context.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that we should let chaos reign on the streets, or ignore vital imperatives like security or food safety. All I’m arguing for is the need to place the interests of the working poor on the same table as those of the rest of the public. As one Bangkok vendor put it: “They can clean up the streets but please don’t get rid of us entirely.”
This is not an impossible compromise. Tangible steps forward have succeeded in other cities, such as giving vendors access to public utilities and resources (including food safety courses); creating fair, efficient and transparent processes to get permits; providing venues for trade (e.g. Singapore’s hawker centers); eliminating syndicates and corrupt officials; and empowering street vendors to organize themselves.
To his credit, Moreno claims that he has plans along these lines. I can only hope that beyond the spectacle of a “cleanup,” he will indeed follow through and work with urban planners, as well as the vendors themselves, to make Manila a model of inclusive development. Evicting street vendors may hold some political expediency, but mayors who truly care for their constituencies will recognize and uphold their right to the city.
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